How to source ingredients: Jack Rayner talks to Simon Bradley
"I think a lot of people at home tend to overcomplicate things. I can understand why, because they see people doing it on TV"
At what point does someone become an ‘expert’? The cliché of “10,000 hours’ practice” may not be strictly accurate in a scientific sense, but it certainly gets across the importance of discipline and commitment in honing your craft.
One thing we can be sure of, though, is that when it comes to sourcing quality ingredients and then treating them the way they deserve, Simon Bradley is undoubtedly an expert. Having worked his way up through the traditional kitchen ranks, starting with washing up and ending up at his current post of executive chef at the sprawling, Georgian manor, Eynsham Hall, Simon seems not to have lost focus on his passion once in the last 20 years.
Kickstarting his career by spending 18 months in Paris, Simon has absorbed the French attitude to fresh, local produce into his cooking to an almost obsessive extent. His “simple things, done well” attitude hasn’t shown signs of faltering after launching the new brasserie at Eynsham Hall only a few weeks ago. I spoke to Simon in his sizeable kitchen to learn how his outlook on cooking has developed over the years.
How does working at Eynsham Hall compare to your placements in the past?
Well to start with, we're really keen to be integrated into the local community - on lots of levels, but particularly in using their produce as much as we can. For example, our mustard supplier lives just up the road in Witney, and is just as passionate about his mustard as we our about our products. It goes hand in hand. Kelmscott Pork, as well as our cheese and butter suppliers, are all based nearby in the Cotswolds. We are fortunate - it's an incredible part of the country to be part of in general, but in particular, there’s an abundance of excellent food producers. Having said that, we can’t have 25 different suppliers for each ingredient because we wouldn't be giving them very substantial business. I think the next thing I'd like to do would be to get our game sorted out for this year - we're at the end of January now but when the next partridge and pheasant seasons come around, we can do lots in-house. People talk a lot about "fork to plate", but we’re genuinely doing the entire process. Then, of course, we can smoke a bit of it, pot some of it, cure it, so we've got full traceability from day one until the day you eat it.
I know you’re very much into smoking your own meat and fish - can you tell us a bit more about that side of things?
There are lots of different ways to smoke food now, and it's very popular to have smokehouses. There's one in Witney that does burnt ends, ribs, and so on, and that's American smoking, but our style is more of a traditional English smoke. For instance, our salmon: we salt the sides for 24 hours, dry them out, then smoke them for about 12 hours over oak. It's a very simple process, and we don't try and do anything wacky with it, but there are lots you can do, like whiskey cures and beetroot cures, smoking with lapsang souchong and so on. I've got no problem with that and it works very well with duck, but I'm careful of having too many smoked products on our menu at Eynsham Hall. We have smoked lamb on our meat tasting dish which adds another element of flavour, but with fish it's quite a delicate taste, and that's why we keep it traditional. It's nice to show that you can do a basic smoked salmon really well, and some of our clients just want a plate of smoked salmon and a wedge of lemon.
If you're a high-end chef, it's almost more impressive to do a very simple dish.
With simple food, it's more challenging to do because there's nowhere to hide. With a burger, it has to be absolutely spot on. If the burger's dry, burnt or not seasoned properly, your customer will notice straight away. So that's what we're trying to do here: simple things, done extremely well.
Do you have a signature or favourite dish to prepare?
That’s a good question, and lots of people ask me that. We used to have a dish that we used as a starter called "fish and chips", which was beer batter wafers with salt cod mousse, tartare sauce salad and langoustine tails. It was really very good, but now that we’ve done that, I don't think I have a signature dish. I think what we do is make sure everything is done really, really well across the board. I'd like my signature to just be "good food". We haven't yet been here long enough to have one dish on the menu for any length of time, but having said that, I think the new lamb dish could be one that stays on because it just shows skill from the kitchen. It’s a nice way to eat if you’re with a friend or partner, to sit down and be presented with this beautiful board of different lamb. I'm a committed carnivore so it definitely appeals to me. [The dish Simon’s referring to is a mouth-watering sharing platter of lamb cuts prepared in five wildly different ways – more on that later].
I think it's a very particular skill to prepare one ingredient or animal in so many ways. Is it not quite a time-consuming dish to cook?
Well, yes and no. We come in in the morning and prep one element of it, so we might get one of the lamb breasts cooking, and smoke the lamb one day... The lamb sauce we make up in enormous stock pots. That's what we can show in a restaurant that perhaps a home cook couldn't do, and luckily we have kitchen porters doing our washing up as well [laughs]. If you're cooking a dish at home, you have to drive to the supermarket, come back, unpack it... I think a lot of people don't realise how much of a different way of doing things it is in a restaurant kitchen.
Do you enjoy cooking at home?
I love cooking at home. I can have a glass of wine, I can faff around, there's no pressure if it's half an hour late. When I say I cook at home, I make a curry or a roast chicken, or cook some linguine - it's not technical five-course meals. On the other hand, it is the same mentality as work: get good produce. If we're having roast chicken, we'll get a top-quality one. It goes back to the sourcing, every time.
Do you have advice for home cooks like me?
I think a lot of people at home tend to overcomplicate things. I can understand why, because they see people doing it on TV and so on, but dinner parties shouldn't be stressful. I suggest keeping it simple, particularly as we live in Oxford and we have access to some of the most amazing producers, so you can just buy in a delicious lemon tart or some great cheeses. Also, use more salt. I think that people forget that in restaurants, we use tons of butter and salt, and that's often what makes it such a treat. I'm not saying that you should be putting butter and salt in everything but if you're tossing some vegetables, throwing in plenty of butter and salt just amplifies the taste so much. It's that simple, really. For example, I think the reason a lot of people don't like sprouts is because they've always had them just boiled to death, but if you cook them nicely then toss them with some butter, salt and pepper, it completely transforms the flavour. My final bit of advice is very simple: have a dry run at home. If I was doing a dinner party, I'd practice it at work. I think a lot of people just think "well, I'm going to do this dish that I've seen on the internet" without giving a second thought to what ingredients they need or the time it takes to, for example, bone out a side of lamb and then to cook it while you're talking to your guests. I think people can get too stressed about cooking for people at home, whereas In Italy, or Spain, I don't think they would in the same way. They just get paella, or a leg of lamb, or something like that, chuck it in the oven and let everyone take it family-style.
Do you think it's just more natural to prepare high-quality food on the continent?
I think so, yeah. They don't beat themselves up about it. In supermarkets in France, you'll just have one variety of olive oil, whereas in the UK there are about 30 different olive oils on one shelf. You see people looking through all the different varieties and on the continent, they don't care because they know it'll be good as it is. The choice we have between varieties of the simplest things is just unbelievable.
It's almost gross. There's probably 20 types of baked beans.
I know! When I cook at home, I just put huge bowls of whatever I've cooked out and people just help themselves.
To taste Simon’s expertly-sourced cuisine for yourself, book yourself a table at eynshamhall.com
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