For TOAST Portraits, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces – some archive, some new – have stood the test of time. This month, Mina and Elena met with Jeremy Lee, chef and proprietor at Quo Vadis, at his home in east London. Below is his story.
“Is that you?” Jeremy Lee’s booming voice drowns out the intercom crackle with its rich bass.
“It might just be!” I reply, giddily clutching a paper bag of pastries. I am standing outside the large converted warehouse in London Fields, once a factory for the suit-maker Hornes Bros, in which he has had a flat for over 20 years. Jeremy reminds me of the floor – “E,” he says, “for everything,” – before buzzing me up.
Few people give welcomes like Jeremy. Regulars at Quo Vadis, the central London restaurant where he has just celebrated ten years as chef-proprietor, will be familiar with his open arms greeting and ability to make you feel so at home within its walls that it feels rude to be in Soho and not stop by.
I make it to floor “Everything” and am met in the corridor by the same booming voice – not speaking this time, but singing – and the interwoven smells of coffee and something just-baked, which waft out of the open front door. Inside, there are towers of books, piles of crockery, fresh flowers, and a table groaning with breakfast: rhubarb and vanilla compote, marmalade, yoghurt, butter and the pistachio biscuits I could smell baking, a recipe from his forthcoming book, Cooking: Simply and Well, for One or Many.
And then, of course, there’s Jeremy himself, resplendent in double linen – shirt, apron – and his signature horn-rimmed glasses. We sit down for breakfast and I comment on the tall mason jar of marmalade; I aspire to making gluts of preserve like this, I say, but it never happens. “Well I have Covid to thank,” he replies: “This wasn’t a working house until then. Just bottles of milk, packets of cereal, lots of unused ingredients. It was full of promise, but nothing much happened – like an Egyptian tomb!” With Quo Vadis closed, lockdowns forced Jeremy’s creativity into new territory. He made his flat into a hub to prepare meals for DeliverAid, a charity set up to address food insecurity in London, feeding lower income families and hospital staff with restaurant-prepared meals. It had, says Jeremy, mutual benefit to those who ate and those who made the food. “The great thing was it gave a bit of structure to the week. I got a jolly little gang of cooks over every Saturday morning, we cooked, the food was collected, and then we had lunch. It was a little window of bonhomie.” And, suddenly, his was a home where food was made preemptively – stocks bubbled on the stove, beans soaked overnight.
Home cooking is not the only thing Jeremy rediscovered during lockdowns. When his sister, Annabel, went back to the family home in Scotland in 2020, she unearthed a file of her brother’s old drawings. “That serendipitous kismet was the prompt,” he says, “I reached for a pen and just started drawing – bowls of artichokes, Dundee cake, bagna cauda, spinach and Alexander soup, cock-a-leekie” – pictures that visualised the ingredients of some of his favourite recipes. There in his living room, I rummage through some of them, pen and ink doodles, often on the back of old QV menus. Some of them I recognise; he posted them on social media at the time and I remember feasting on his creations, even though I couldn’t eat them.
Jeremy flips open the marmalade jar and deftly scoops a layer of mould from the top, chucks it, then digs down into the burnished golden gloop. He explains that he’s been developing this recipe, with a 50:50 ratio of sugar to fruit, for some years. Using less sugar makes for a softer set and, yes, the marmalade is more prone to a little mould, but it is deliciously tart. The secret, he says, is a copper jelly pan – “a wise investment – its conducting power is second to none and the fruit doesn’t lose its brightness.” We both spoon lashings of it onto slices of generously buttered bread.
The pandemic also gave Jeremy a push to finish his book, which, he says, he delivered “three years late.” I ask him about it. “It’s roughly based on Julia Child and Jane Grigson’s food writing” he says, “the thoroughness of the former with the arbitrariness of the latter. I love how their books flow, you can dip in and out, and they’re often very funny.” And then there’s all of Jeremy’s life as a chef (and eater) to distil into its pages, “as much at Quo Vadis as Alastair Little or Bibendum or growing up in Scotland – it’s all of those things, woven in together.”
Jeremy grew up in Dundee – a city, of course, that’s famous for its jam, one of three ‘Js’ along with jute and journalism – without any aspirations to cook, although, he says, food was important at home: his father made a mean pan of mince and the boeuf bourguignon his mum made for his 21st birthday reduced him to tears – “it was the most chic thing in the world for a boy from Dundee.” A bookish, artistic teenager (or “an unwordly geek,” as he puts it), he was en route to art school but took a job as a waiter at the Old Mansion House Hotel nearby, to earn some pocket money. “I was so rubbish that they put me in the kitchen, which shows something of the esteem in which chefs were held at the time.” He was still there four years later, when his employers encouraged him to go to London and cook at the hotel’s alma mater, Boodles. “London was all about incoming folk from everywhere else then – the food wasn’t brilliant, but the training was amazing – the skills that job gave me were something else.”
Jeremy was not alone, he says, in having no plan – “this was true for most of my generation of cooks” – but in that sea of uncertainty was a current of vision, who later became loosely termed the Modern British Cooks. “We liked pulling away the formality, the rationale being that we had such wonderful times at home, why couldn’t we do that in a restaurant?” He quotes Sir Terence Conran, his one-time boss (at the Blueprint Cafe in London’s Design Museum), who championed less the suits, twinsets and pearls and more “the jeans and the tiara” look. “The produce then started to ramp up as cooks grew more interested. We gave the Michelin stars a run for their money, and an enlightened group of restaurant reviewers – like Fay Maschler, Matthew Fort – helped it gain traction. It was brilliant reporting that made it into a cohesive whole.”
Quo Vadis is today a London institution, but for all the prestige attached to its name, Jeremy runs a kitchen where good cheer and informality reign. “I never had to work in a kitchen where you said “Chef” – I still don’t understand that. People have names, and when you use them, they stand up straighter. We are asking people to do long hours and intense work – but the simple truth is that a happy kitchen makes happy food.”
As you might imagine, Jeremy’s kitchen is not one occupied by chef’s hats. Every day is an opportunity to be unapologetically him – and his clothes do just that. He originally fell in love with TOAST Menswear, he says, because they took inspiration from the traditional Scottish, Cornish, Welsh, Irish and Breton garb he so loves, from “the great Donegal woollens” to a white shirt he still has, which “harks back to Edwardian tailoring, when everything was handmade and someone in the village would unpick it and make the pattern. I love clothes that hark back to gentler times.” He adores dabbling in nostalgia – be it with clothes, culture, or the food he serves, such as the kickshaws and bloater paste that have featured on the menu at QV – but is more aesthete than romantic, going on “...all a load of bollocks really, when you think there were two world wars, famine and no penicillin.”
We talk some more about his book, dipping pistachio biscuits into coffee marbled with milk. It is published this autumn, with 180 recipes which have been written over many years, then re-tested for domestic cooks “because recipes don’t halve or quarter politely”, and with written-through titbits by Jeremy about, say, parsley or impromptu puddings or peas, in his inimitable turn of phrase.
There is nobody in food, or in life at all, who has Jeremy’s way with words, from the “scrupulously clean bowl” he might call for to the “full fat fun” with which he describes a good time. Also his Instagram captions, often about puddings with a nautical theme – a “fleet”, or a “regatta”, or “a flotilla” of tarts or meringues, which “set sail for the dining rooms”. And, my favourite of all, his email sign-offs, the best ever being “love and diamonds.” Is there a better way to end any piece of writing than with that?
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.
Jeremy Lee's cookbook, Cooking: Simply and Well, For One or Many will be published in September, 2022.
Pictured in Jeremy’s wardrobe is our Fair Isle Merino Cotton Tank from our Menswear collection.
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