I spend my entire working life in restaurants: eating in them, talking about them, planning them or even building them. But I’m not a chef. My background has always been front of house, waiting tables, bartending or hosting, and I have mostly left the cooking to the professionals.
Having said that, I have, over the years, taught myself to cook. I’ve needed to eat, of course, and needed to feed other people, too, and so by observing the professionals, copying their techniques, learning their methods and stealing their recipes, I have become a reasonably competent but rather reluctant cook.
I learnt the first recipe in my repertoire from my grandmother, Gwen. In her Seventies Formica kitchen in London’s East End, she taught me how to make chocolate cornflake cakes. Not a sophisticated dish, but the transformation of a few simple ingredients into something that became greater than the sum of its parts was an important lesson in the magic of cooking.
As I got older, I got a little more ambitious. While studying English at Sunderland Polytechnic, I came across a tatty copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and, in the course of three years, tried to cook everything from it. It wasn’t always pretty. I ruined several saucepans and on one occasion had some serious explaining to do to the local fire brigade. But I got better.
The turning point was a student trip to Venice where I fell hopelessly for Italian cooking. It is the freshness of the ingredients and the simplicity of the flavours that makes Italian food so winning. After college, I moved back to London and experimented frequently with Italian classics in a succession of kitchens in North London flats. My mentor at the time was the late Martin Wilson, head chef at Joe Allen and Orso. Although I was a mere waiter, I spent a lot of time watching Martin’s cooking in the restaurants. When I said I wanted to make a risotto for friends at home one night, he gave me the recipe and instructions. The next day, he asked me how it had gone. I told him I was worried I had used too much Parmesan. He said, “Russell, there is no such thing as too much Parmesan.”
I noticed something else, too. Women really liked blokes who could cook. It’s why chefs are such hot stuff, I suppose. When I met my wife in 2001, I basically seduced her with food. The first thing I did (well, probably the second thing I did, if I’m being honest) was to cook for her. It was spring. English asparagus was in full season and the first tiny peas were coming over from Italy. Mint was in abundance in the garden. And I made her risotto primavera. I can still taste those flavours. I can still see the look on her face. I hope you have as much success with this recipe as I have had.
Risotto primavera (above)
1.5 litres chicken stock
Extra virgin olive oil
2 echalion shallots, peeled and finely diced
Flaky sea salt
Ground black pepper
400g carnaroli risotto rice
Small glass white wine (or dry vermouth)
1 small courgette
8 slender English asparagus spears
150g fresh peas, shelled
Large handful mint leaves, roughly chopped
75g unsalted butter
Large handful grated Parmesan
Teaspoon of lemon zest
1 | Heat the stock in a large saucepan and keep it simmering. Put a couple of glugs of olive oil in a separate large, heavy-based saucepan and place over a low heat. Gently sauté the shallots with a good pinch of salt and a twist of black pepper. Continue for 7 mins or so making sure they do not colour or stick. They will take on a glossy, translucent appearance. Add the rice and mix well, coating each grain. Turn the heat up a little and add the wine. This will produce a satisfying hiss of steam and a beautiful aroma.
2 | Add a ladleful of hot stock and gently stir. Continue to do so slowly and gently, making sure the mixture never absorbs all the liquid and is always very slightly submerged. Add more stock, little by little, and repeat for the next 15 mins.
3 | Meanwhile, remove the ends from the courgette and discard. Cut it into 3cm-thin chips. Cut the asparagus into 3cm sections and discard the woody stalks. Mix into the risotto and stir gently for another 5 mins, slowly adding more stock as necessary. Add the peas and mint. Stir well and cook for another 4–5 mins and then test the rice for doneness. It should have a little resistance between your teeth but not be hard. Remove from the heat. Add the butter and the Parmesan, folding carefully into the risotto until it is all fully absorbed, and serve onto warm plates with a very light scattering of lemon zest.