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ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SHARING FOOD
Kolkata, India. Six siblings, gathered around their family table, have just finished dinner. There are fourteen members of their family but the table seats twelve, so the adults have been waiting their turn. Before they sit to eat, they bring out dessert for the children. It’s usually seasonal fruit; watermelon, or if the children are lucky, mango. The oldest sibling, Harneet, watches the mango closely as it’s set down on the table. He knows that there will be three slices, two fast cuts on either side of the stone. No sooner does the knife slide through the flesh the mango disappears in a flurry of tiny arms. Harneet has the seed, which he’s pleased about. It has the least amount of flesh on it, but it’s fun to play with after.
Harneet Baweja reflects on how these memories from his upbringing shape the experience he wants to create at Gunpowder. ‘As a culture in India we have large families and gatherings that lend themselves to sharing food,’ he says. His barbecue menu takes inspiration from the diverse regions of the country, with smoky Kerala beef from the south, thick vindaloo sausages from the west, buttery Hispi cabbage from the mountains in the north east and wild garlic hariyali chicken from the heart of India. The richly spiced barbecued meats are offset by fresh salads and slaws, cool raita and fiery chilli chutney. With the communal meals of his childhood as his inspiration, the menu is best shared by everyone at the table but, he adds, with a glint in his eye, ‘making sure you steal the best bits before anyone else gets them’.
Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram, chef-owners of the Marksman, speak with a similar fondness about their memories of family meals. ‘It’s what brought us together as chefs,’ says Tom. When Tom and Jon first met at St.JOHN, it was common for Fergus Henderson to bring ideas from his childhood into the kitchen that would spark conversation amongst the chefs. ‘[Tom and I] were talking the other day,’ says Jon, ‘such a simple thing, but fried skate and mashed potato, that was something we both loved growing up. Salt beef. Ham hock. There are so many memories, and they were all family dinners, weren’t they?’. Tom agrees that ‘whether it’s a plate of cold cuts and fried potatoes on Boxing Day or ham, egg and chips at your Nan’s on a Friday’, certain foods hold a specific nostalgia. Tom Trubshaw, head chef at Andrew Edmunds, testifies to this, describing himself as lucky to have grown up with ‘nice, homely meals’ at least once a week. ‘Every chef is trying to reach some kind of past,’ he says, ‘there’s an element of that in all my cooking’.
It’s these experiences that often inform the dishes that chefs enjoy creating—or recreating—the most. This is certainly true for Jon and Tom (Harris)’s fish pie. Not the classic mash-topped pie that springs to mind, theirs is made with cod cheek and handpicked English brown shrimps, together with plenty of leeks, saffron, fennel and a blush of tomato under a flaky lid of pastry. The stock is lighter than the creamy white fish sauce of a traditional fish pie, and rich from the shrimp shells and crab bones. ‘We’ve added our touch to them, but we grew up on the flavours of potted shrimp, smoked fish and fish pie. Everything we do is rooted in family food’ explains Tom.
There is, of course, something in particular about pie. It demands sharing. Most of us know how much goes into making one. It’s not a dish that gets thrown together in a rush but rather one for which each component is a labour of gentle nurturing and love. The finished thing, all that golden loveliness, is a gift. ‘It’s not something you eat on your own,’ says Tom, ‘it sits in the middle of the table, it’s a shared endeavour.’
For Farokh Talati, head chef at St.JOHN Bread and Wine, conversations whilst eating with family inspire his cooking. He recalls a time when he brought food home from St.JOHN to his Parsi family. He left the pig trotters—’I knew they’d be fussy’—so was surprised when talk turned to how his Gran and Mum grew up eating them. ‘My Mum said they were gelatinous and that she wouldn't go near them now,’ he says. The conversation prompted Farokh to search for the classic trotters-and-beans recipe they spoke of in an old Parsi cookbook and recreate it himself. His was a version ‘born out of conversation over and about food’.
Most of Farokh’s family in Bombay live close to one another and he explains that almost every evening they congregate to eat. His aunts, uncles and cousins from across and down the road cook dinner in their own homes and bring it to one person’s house. He remembers from his visits how all the food would be shared on one table; ‘you’d eat a bit of everyone else’s, and you’d talk about how everyone’s day went’. On one such trip, Farokh paid a visit to the well-established Parsi restaurant Britannia in Mumbai with his family. ‘They’ve been serving up chicken berry pulaos for years,’ he says, ‘and I was just bowled over by that dish’. The owner, the late Boman Kohinoor, often told the story of how his wife Bacha first came to create the recipe, adapting the traditional Parsi berry pulao for the Indian palate.
On his return to London, Farokh was inspired to create his loving interpretation of the dish. He brines the chicken for 24-hours to make it extra juicy and flavourful, combining it with a sweet-and-sour Parsi tomato sauce and saffron rice. Topped with barberries, crispy onions and cashew nuts fried golden in ghee, the magnificent dish is crying out to be shared. ‘I want people to put it in the oven and for their kitchens to fill up with the aromas of saffron and spices and caramelised onions. I want them to be bowled over the same way I was.’
For each of these chefs, some of their very earliest and most primal motives behind cooking were to continue the traditions of shared eating. ‘I got into being a chef because I enjoy cooking food to share,’ says Jon, ‘I never cook alone. I cook for people’. Jon is often told how hard it is to cook for chefs but maintains otherwise: ‘all we want to do is sit there and enjoy that food with you. Food brings that one moment where you all go, ‘yeah, that’s great’ and relax’.
What makes the culture of sharing yet more magic is that it isn’t confined by place. ‘In many Asian cultures it’s the same,’ says Harneet, ‘Even if you don’t have bigger families, you share with friends’. He describes how, despite travelling across many continents throughout his life, he’s never been able to eat alone; ‘I found it difficult to go to Mahmoun’s in New York and get a falafel in the night if I wasn’t with someone. That’s why my menus are made in such a way.’ som saa co-owner Andy Oliver adds that sharing is central to the way Thais eat, with every meal created to embody balance—between rich, spicy and fresh or crunchy, soft and sharp—and not just in one dish but across the table. It’s in the blueprint of these meals, therefore, that they are shared. ‘It’s rare to eat alone in Thailand,’ says Andy, ‘we want our customers to experience that culture’.
The feasting menus created by each of these chefs, then, are not about mystified cooking techniques, and not even really just about food. They’re about the communal moments that they’ll create around people’s tables. For Tom Harris, food is the magnet that draws everyone together: ‘that’s what it’s all about. It’s about getting together around a table’.