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Valentine Warner: recipes and a frank interview

by Natalie Hammond
Valentine Warner - top UK celebrity TV chef- celebrity chef recipes - Food and UK recipes -

Recipes from What to Eat Next by Valentine Warner
Tomato and basil tart
Fresh fattoush salad
BBQ squid with chermoula

Fresh from a weekend spent fishing in Hungerford, Valentine Warner is remarkably chirpy for a Monday morning. ‘I just threw off my shoes and fished barefoot,’ he says happily. Forgoing footwear to squelch about on a river bank is exactly the kind of intrepid behaviour we expect from Warner, who braved Arctic temperatures to cook reindeer in Scandinavia and had a human toe (nail and bone unfortunately still appended) touch his lips in Canada.

Finding ingredients at their source – whether a catching a trout from its stream or a cobnut from the countryside – is what Warner’s style of cooking is all about. And although the cook cut his teeth in London restaurants before opening his own catering company, he confesses to much prefering provincial cooking to cheffy plates of Michelin-starred food.   

With his new book ‘What to Eat Next’ now out, we caught up with the fisherman (and family man) to talk childhood eating habits, why he’s not obsessed with food and exactly what irks him about the phrase ‘pan-fried’.   

Q: Was your childhood focused around food?
Valentine Warner: Almost too much – you could say there was something unhealthy about the amount we thought about it. I remember a lot of good times sat around tables, eating, drinking and talking. My parents took me everywhere with them so we ate in restaurants at a very young age, from tiny Italian trattorias to swanky restaurants.

Q: Did you start foraging when you were a child?
Valentine Warner: No that came later, although my dad would always pick field mushrooms or make rosehip cough syrup. I don’t expect people to go foraging after a long day’s work but isn’t it better to know when you walk past a horseradish, for example, so you can recognise it and pull it up?

Q: You say in the introduction to ‘What to Eat Next’ that you always bit everything as a child. Did that ever turn out badly for you?
Valentine Warner: I ate oil paint, table legs and plenty of copper coins. I think boys understand how the world’s put together by breaking it so if there was a knife near a bicycle, I’d cut the tyres. I was quite a destructive little boy.

Q: Are some of those things among the strangest things you’ve ever eaten?
Valentine Warner: Last year, I had a dead human toe touch my lip. It’s called the Sourtoe Cocktail Club and it’s traditional in Canadian saloons. This withered toe comes out on a pile of salt and they pop it into a glass of whisky. Really revolting but I was too tired to care, I’d been travelling for ages so I just drank it. It was gnarly – one of the least pleasant things that’s ever touched my mouth.

Q: Are you keen for your children to fish and forage?
Valentine Warner: Like my dad, I’m always trying to do those things but my sensible wife says, ‘Oy, you don’t need to take them up the Amazon, they’re only three and one!’

Q: Will you teach them when they’re older?
Valentine Warner: Very much so, especially how to cook. They might not want to learn how to fish, but I’ll certainly take them. One thing I won’t do is ram things down my kids’ throats, but I do want them to understand nature and understand food before they decide there are things they don’t want to eat.

Q: So do you do most of the cooking at home?
Valentine Warner: Yes it’s my domain. And also if I go home with an idea and there’s something on my mind then I have to act on it before it goes away to see if it works or not.

Q: Would you say you have food constantly on the brain?
Valentine Warner: I don’t and am suspicious of anyone who says they do! I think I would be a pretty sad individual if food was the only thing I ever thought about. When people say, ‘Oh food, I’m obsessed, it’s the only thing I think about’, part of me is like, ‘God get outside'.

Q: Any other pet peeves?
Valentine Warner: ‘Pan-fried.’ So annoying – what else would it be fried on, a tennis racket? ‘Hand-cut chips’ – I couldn’t care less, I mean unless they were cut by the hands of chimpanzee. ‘Cracked black pepper.’ What’s that all about? It’s kind of cheffy speak…moronic.

Q: So those are the things you’d like to ban?
Valentine Warner: I don’t want to ban them, but they make me grit my teeth and flare my nostrils. Especially ‘pan-fried’.

Q: Do you like cheffy food?
Valentine Warner: I love it sometimes, but I’m very much of the school of good, provincial cooking rather than high-end, Michelin-starred stuff. I think a lot of modern cuisine is too complicated and I often question why certain things have been put together on a plate when quite a lot of the dish seems surplus to requirement. Why cook something three ways when you can cook it one way brilliantly?

Q: Something you do seem keen on is toast, what’s your ultimate topping?
Valentine Warner: I think it depends on the mood. It could be many things but what I cook a lot in winter is mussels and leeks on toast.

Q: You also called chipotle a ‘magic ingredient’, what are some of your others?
Valentine Warner: Vinegar, especially in stews or marinades. It’s an amazing thing but all we seem to see is cheap balsamic chucked over absolutely everything. I use lots of different oils, like walnut and olive.

Q: Before your first book came out you were relatively under the radar and now you’re a famous TV chef. Which level of fame do you prefer?
Valentine Warner: To be honest, I don’t think my life has changed that much. I’m certainly not a Jamie or Nigella so I think you could still say I’m relatively under the radar.

Q: Would you shy away from that level of fame?
Valentine Warner: No but I’ve always been good at being private. I don’t only live to work, although it’s a very important part of my life and I love it.

Q: You’re a bit of a dab hand on Twitter, do you enjoy it?
Valentine Warner: There are moments when my finger hovers over the cancel button, you know? I’m a cook so I like to show people food and if something funny happens every now then I hope it cheers people up. It can be a dangerous thing to get too into; I think there are a lot of people who's whole lives go on Twitter and it’s like, ‘Why are you doing that?'.

Q: What do you think of cookery competitions like ‘The Taste’ and ‘Masterchef’?
Valentine Warner: I think it’s a spectator sport, like going to a public hanging. You always want to see someone burn something or drop it on the floor. If I turn on a cooking programme, I’d rather watch Rick Stein tell me something about Spain. It’s why I used to love Keith Floyd and why the 'Two Fat Ladies' was great because they were telling you stuff. Occasionally I do watch ‘Masterchef’ and you find yourself very quickly rooting for someone because you think, ‘Wow that was a great idea, I really hope you win’. It’s just those weird, endless silences when it’s like, ‘Oh god, just tell us who’s out’.

Q: So in 2008 you made your first TV series. Did you take naturally to being on screen?
Valentine Warner: Although I’d never been in a play at school, I’d always been jealous that I didn’t get involved with any of those things. What nobody knows is that we had a dry run at my flat and it was a disaster. I was very nervous, flipping terrified actually. Within a week before any more money was spent they said, ‘Look Val’s not in his element’. So they got me outdoors and running around the country and then suddenly it clicked.

Q: Your last series was filmed in Lapland. Are those the most extreme conditions you’ve ever cooked in?
Valentine Warner: When it’s -35°C outside, it’s brutal weather to cook in. I’d never been to such a cold place but I loved it – logs, jumpers and scarves are my favourite things! But it’s not about style in Lapland – it’s about survival. But the people are happy and just get on with it. We ate a lot of very simple but delicious meals there. Like reindeer.

Q: What did you learn from the people you met there?
Valentine Warner: Where you have remote populations, people treat food in a very different way – you do not waste anything. We live in a country where billions of pounds worth of food is wasted a year. It’s a very sobering message – only take want you want.

Q: Do you think it’s true that you have to be rich to eat well?
Valentine Warner: It’s nonsense. If you’re rich, you can eat in a lot more restaurants and buy more prime cuts of meat. I think we’ve just forgotten about our ingredients and we don’t know what our options are. I mean a cauliflower cheese you can make in 15 minutes flat. Boil some cauliflower, make a cheese sauce while it’s cooking, stick it under the grill and bingo.

Q: But you say in your book’s introduction that you don’t eat on the quick?
Valentine Warner: I meant I don’t think about in that way, but I guess I do to a degree. If I’ve got five minutes, I’ll cook an omelette or make a salad. The distinction with me is that I make time to eat because it’s an important part of our lives. I like to have three meals a day when I stop – I don’t want to speak to someone on the phone when I’m eating or write an email while I’m cooking. My parents, as much as I hated it sometimes, made me sit down for three meals a day. It was like that until we left home and I love them for it.

Q: What advice would you give to people who are seriously time-poor?
Valentine Warner: There are millions of things you can cook that take no time, but people don’t think that way anymore. We’ve forgotten what our options are rather than being so busy that we haven’t got the time to cook.

Valentine Warner is an ambassador for the new Lurpak Cooking Liquid, part of the Lurpak Cooks Range.

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