From Bake Off winner to cookbook author, John shares his journey that all started with a love of food
Can you tell us about your new book ‘Comfort’?
In recent years there has been an emphasis on ‘clean eating’ and, on the whole, I think it’s a good thing that people are becoming more aware of what they’re eating and its nutritional value. But the movement seems to be a very pressurising, proselytising one – as though people are body shamed and forced to subscribe to an idealism, that is only perpetuated by photoshop. My view is this: yes, we need to be careful of what we eat, but there are times in everyone’s lives when they need to put down the carrot sticks and pick up the goddamn cake slice.
So what’s your all-time favourite comfort food?
Crispy pancakes (yes, there’s a recipe in the book) as well as shepherd’s pie. Crispy pancakes remind me of growing up and our little kitchen. I remember watching 90s sitcoms and cartoons on a Saturday morning before playing outside with friends, then begging mum to make us crispy pancakes for lunch. Those times were so fleeting and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, so special.
What dish is always guaranteed to lift your mood?
Fried chicken. My Korean fried popcorn chicken is so good – the crunchiest morsels of deep-fried chicken with the most savoury barbecue sauce imaginable. That’s a recipe I’m immensely proud of.
How did your mother influence you with regard to food?
Completely. Most of my memories of my mother when I was a child revolve around food. Food is love, and even if you can’t afford to buy your children the best toys or the latest plastic fad that doesn’t matter, because as long as you can put food in their tummies they’ll be okay.
What are your memories of her cooking as a child?
Butterfly cakes. I remember the electric handheld beater which would thrash about on the bottom of the bowl as she creamed the butter and sugar together. She’d then hand me a beater and let me lick it clean (she’d still wash it after, of course). I loved the way she hulled the tops off the cupcakes, filling the cakes with jam and cream, then returning the tops which had been split in half to resemble butterfly wings – abstractly, of course.
What is your favourite kitchen appliance?
My KitchenAid. It mixes, minces and rolls pasta dough. For pastry and patisserie, it’s an essential. When I was at pastry school, we had to make Genoese sponges by hand, whisking eggs and sugar over hot water for 15 minutes or more, until they tripled in volume. I use it for pretty much anything.
And tips for hosting a great dinner party?
Take a chill pill, to coin a 70s cliché. Just relax. Make food that can be made a few days before, so ragu, rendang, curries, stews. Plonk the knives and forks in an edgy vase or pot, pile of napkins on the side, and let people dig in. Nobody likes the stiff, awkward kind of party anymore.
Who do you refer to when you are not using your own recipes?
I very rarely cook other people’s food. A book I’ve used so much though is my friend John Gregory-Smith’s ‘Turkish Delights’. There are so many delicious recipes in there that I just adore.
How is your cookery school going?
It’s going so well. People love their time there and leave with such a great feeling of pride as to what they’ve achieved. That makes me feel so fulfilled.
Photos by: Nassima Rothacker
Article by: Susan Springate