The Plagiarist in the Kitchen – Jonathan Meades

I first came across Jonathan Meades through his highly idiosyncratic TV documentaries where he was always dressed as shown on the cover of this volume, all in black with black sunglasses. He would talk direct to the camera whilst totally ignoring something going on behind him or alternatively somebody else would be talking to the camera and he would appear in the background apparently having little connection to what was being said. The films looked spontaneous precisely because they weren’t, everything was tightly scripted and performed with an artifice unique to Meades. The person on screen was not Meades as he really was it was Meades acting a character of himself and presenting the sort of intelligent TV that rarely gets made today. I later found out that The Times newspaper had employed him as a restaurant critic for fifteen years so seeing that in 2017 he had written a cookbook made searching that out imperative. How would the Jonathan Meades I knew and loved from his many programmes approach cooking. The answer, it turned out, was uniquely and also filled with his dry wit, in short exactly as I hoped.

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Meades explains the title by stating that all recipes are theft, they all come from somebody, even if you add to or alter them in some way, there is really only so many ways to cook something and they have all been done. This is more than a cookbook it is a cookery philosophy and also assumes that the reader has an understanding of cooking in that a lot of the recipes don’t actually have quantities to the ingredients. The only times that quantities are given is when it is essential to get the balance right such as avoiding a sloppy batter, or getting the right balance of flavours such as with gayettes (French style faggots). Other than that there may be hints, such as don’t use too much celery or carrot in a mirepoix because both can dominate. Some of the recipes can barely be called such.

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Simplicity is everything. But when he needs a more complex approach it can also be found here, cassoulet for instance takes four pages, most of which is actually involved with cooking the dish.  What you definitely do get is a healthy dose of advice, such as his instructions for making risotto.

What you do with the rice is more important than where it comes from
What you do is keep patient
What you do is stay put whilst it’s cooking
What you don’t do is slip outside for a gasper with the other snoutcasts
What you don’t do is include wine. It adds nothing

Do not get carried away stirring, cooking is not therapy

One of the joys of the book are Meades epigrams, which can be pearls of wisdom or just plain funny. Just a few from the section on oils will give a flavour of what to expect

  • Extra-virgin might be a desirable quality in nuns … but applied to olive oil it is close to meaningless
  • Various degrees of chastity have spread to other oils
  • Duck fat – Much cheaper than goose fat and virtually indistinguishable.
  • Toasted sesame – Asian dishes are for consuming, not for preparing. It is futile to steal what you can’t understand
  • Beef dripping – Delicious on toast … Good for chips and Yorkshire pudding and anything else that comes from north of the Trent

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The recipes are definitely practical and I will certainly be cooking a few with the exception of the fig and ham tart which ends

Leave to cool
Taste
Chuck in bin

This was Meades attempt a creating a dish and as he says the reasoning behind it appeared sound at the start but…

Only the doltishly insentient, the immemoriously recidivist, the sociopathic and the smug regret nothing. I no doubt belong, in this instance, to one of those unhappy categories by not regretting having invented this dish. I do not regret it because it was a warning. Never create when you can steal. Never enter a restaurant that advertises its ‘cuisine d’auteur’ or ‘creative cooking’.

But definitely do read this book.

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