Chef Valentine Warner on food as lived experience
The acclaimed chef behind The Consolation Of Food: Stories About Life And Death, Seasoned With Recipes reflects on the relationship between mood and the dishes we turn to
As told to Mark Hooper . Above image: Valentine Warner (Flynn Maxwell Warren). Below images: Ellis Parrinder Monday 10 August, 2020 Short read
Coming to terms with a recent divorce and the death of his father, TV chef and author Valentine Warner decided to write a very different kind of cookbook – one that explained the basis of his emphasis on seasonally sourced ingredients and explored how food has been a comfort to him throughout his life, in good times and in bad. Here, Warner discusses the experience of writing the book, and why when it comes to food, it’s always personal.
‘Looking back over my enjoyment of writing in the past, it’s always been about stories more than the list of ingredients. I liked talking about the Greek widow I was with, or the wild boar hunters, or the strange place I was in. It was really a storybook with recipes, and hopefully not too grandiose, but a sort of memoir.
‘In the erratic, acrobatic mental dance in my head, I’ve gone everywhere from childhood, to my thoughts about nature and my contempt for the whole divorce law situation I found myself in, to the catering disasters of my life. There are also the more peaceful things that have happened. Writing the book turned out to be a brain dump to create space and share.
'[During lockdown] I was acutely aware of the countryside: the flowers unfolding in this kind of relay race over those three months. It was like cooking during wartime; I literally wasted nothing.'
‘Food is so much to do with mood. I have very specific hankerings to have, say, boiled ham with gherkin in a certain type of black bread. Other times, the only way to satisfy me is with a quiche and salad. So, I am very particular in my eating, because it is a direct reflection of my mood. Then there’s the medication of food – if I’ve been eating a lot then I’ll suddenly want broth. This is why I didn’t want the book to have a theme with the food. It wasn’t about 15-minute cooking or healthy plates of quinoa; instead, it’s erratic in the way that our eating is erratic.
‘Most of my lockdown was spent in Dorset. Then, I came back to London and the human Snakes and Ladders of trying to negotiate the supermarket with other people. But when I was in Dorset, there was a calmness. As a seasonal cook, I understand the hedgerows and enjoy wild food. I was acutely aware of the countryside: the flowers unfolding in this kind of relay race over those three months; the campion arriving, and then the foxgloves; wandering around every day and picking sea kale or alexanders, or jack-by-the-hedge. It was like cooking during wartime; I literally wasted nothing. There was a kind of heightened sensibility to food and how to use it during lockdown. Then this wonderful momentum starting out of lockdown, and I think nature does so much to feed us mentally as well as physically.
‘When I went to my publisher to discuss books for 2019, I said, “Look, I want to write a cookbook for divorcees and the recently bereaved. And let’s do it like a psalm book on really thin tracing paper.” And she said, “God, you really are quite weird, Val.” But that was the initial starting point.
‘There was lots I wanted to write about. The “recently bereaved” part was because my father had died, and he was someone who had left a massive imprint on my life. I don’t like to use the word “therapy”, but within my father were a lot of wonderful stories, a lot of great times. By putting everything down, I feel like I’ve emptied the warehouse for the second part of my life.
‘One story in the book that is close to my heart is the one about the nettle soup. I was in the gloom of my father’s death, getting drunk, and the only way I could shake myself out of this hangover was to walk into a bed of nettles on purpose and sting myself so horribly that it sort of snapped me back. I would then go for a swim in the sea, and my legs felt almost like that sensation when you drink half a can of Coca Cola in one go and you can’t take any more. That’s what my legs felt like – this combination of nettle stings and the cold, salty sea. It was the most exhilarating feeling.
‘An important chapter to me was the one about cooking for the Jamie Oliver Foundation and how essential it is for the young to be nurtured, to be told stories rather than lists of dogmatic facts. The minute you start telling them stories – and taking care with them – food opens up this extraordinary world that can go off in many different directions. It’s a wonderful thing when the guys at the back who are clearly thinking, “Who is this guy with the stupid name and the posh voice?” are, by the end, boiling live crayfish and skinning rabbits. That’s a real win for me.
‘Life is aspirational and we’re constantly being reminded of how amazing everyone else’s lives are on social media. With this book, I wanted to write something very warts-and-all, because I think it’s vital to share the idiocies, the failures and the disasters, rather than trying to gloss through. But I’m not wagging my finger in the book. Humour is extremely important to me – laughing, giggling and being silly makes everything manageable.’