Recipe for life
CRUSADING COOKING: Fast food doesn’t have to mean bad food, according to Allegra McEvedy, who, in keeping with her joyously irreverent character, was ‘bollock naked’ when she received notification of her MBE, she tells Louise East
IT’S 9.30 ON Monday morning and Allegra McEvedy has already been cooking for three hours. Her book, Economy Gastronomy(a tie-in to the BBC series she presented with fellow chef and co-author Paul Merrett) is still bobbing around the top of the bestseller lists, but already she has a new one on the go.
“I’m always writing. One of the paradoxes of my life is that I spent my teen years rebelling. I got thrown out of this posh school, didn’t go to university and yet I’ve ended up a journalist just like all my friends.”
She laughs uproariously.
“I really thought I was doing something completely different and 20 years later, I find myself doing exactly the same bloody thing as everybody else.” Well, not quite. It’s doubtful whether many of her friends have the letters MBE tagged onto their name at the age of 38.
“I don’t know quite what that was for, but I was very pleased to get it. I was hungover like a bastard and I had one of those parking tickets that I knew was going to double on the day, so I came down to check the post, bollock naked, and opened the first official-looking envelope I saw.”
That tableau probably wasn’t quite what Queen Elizabeth had in mind when she signed off on the honours list but it’s pretty typical of Allegra McEvedy, who is a joyously charismatic antidote to the Stepford Wife trend in celebrity chefs (a term McEvedy hates).
Pretty much everything on record about McEvedy has a larger-than-life, Rabelaisian air, from the wilderness years spent clubbing up north to the time she was fired from the Groucho Club for canoodling in the showers with a girlfriend and a bottle of Jack Daniels. In 2006, she married her partner, Susi Smithers (referred to throughout our interview as “the missus”), in a culinary hoe-down featuring canapés by Heston Blumenthal and a tiered wedding “cake” made of £1,000 worth of cheese.
None of that is what got her the MBE (officially for “services to the hospitality industry”), nor the TV series, the books, the newspaper column. McEvedy’s reputation is built on a London chain of fast-food joints called Leon (no relation to the Irish outlets of the same name), created in 2004 with two business partners.
Here I should declare something of a personal interest. I’m slightly obsessed with Leon, not because it’s one of my favourite places for lunch but because it offers a profoundly optimistic business model to the conundrum of how to improve ethical eating practices across the board, and not simply among the well-heeled few.
When you order at Leon, your food shoots down a metal slide behind the cash register, much the same way a burger does in McDonalds, but there the comparison ends. What ends up on your tray might be a slow-cooked beef stew, some chunky Moroccan meatballs, or a superfood salad packed with smoked mackerel, edamame and beetroot, all for under a fiver.
Of course there are many small-town heroes putting out good food at good prices, but what makes Leon revolutionary is that it was planned as a roll-out concept capable not just of competing with sandwich shops on an already over-crowded high street, but also of luring in customers who couldn’t care less whether their grilled chicken slept easy at night.
Currently Leon serves 90,000 customers a week from nine branches. It is, in other words, a profitable fast-food chain, yet the produce is still, and always has been, ethically produced. Right from day one, McEvedy’s pricing took into account that the chicken and eggs would be free-range, the fish sustainable, the chocolate Fairtrade, the coffee organic and the vegetables as local as possible.
McEvedy says that sourcing materials they could live with while remaining competitive was “a real nightmare”. Three weeks before opening, they discovered their allegedly free-range chicken supplier was as battery-operated as a Duracell bunny, while sourcing fresh sustainable fish appeared to be an impossibility along the lines of juggling water.
“We learnt very quickly that it was cheapest to cook seasonally,” says McEvedy, reeling off the vegetables she would be serving in early winter: potatoes, kale, parsnips, cabbage, chard.
“We had a big summer hit with a pepperonata, kept it on through autumn because it was selling so well and, of course, the price of peppers went sky-high and we lost money on it. With nine restaurants, our purchasing power got a lot stronger, but in the early days it was always a challenge.”
Earlier this year, McEvedy stepped down from day-to-day operations at Leon (she remains a shareholder) but she’s still concerned about the fast-food misconception. When rugby star Jonny Wilkinson claimed that he would never eat fast food, she wrote to him pointing out that fast food does not have be bad food.
“To my mind, fast food, or serving food in a fast way, never meant you had to compromise with the ingredients. If you make a yummy soup, there’s no reason why that soup should be loaded full of bad things, just because you’re getting it quickly, yet it’s something we’ve come to connect: fast and bad for you.”
She’s still proud of both the restaurants and last year’s Leoncookbook (one of my most stained and beloved of midweek supper manuals), but she doesn’t miss it. What she occasionally hankers after are the restaurant kitchens in which she first started cooking once she’d re-attached herself to the rails.
After aceing some cordon bleu training, she did stints at the River Café and at Tom Conran’s pub, The Cow, before heading to the US, where she ended up as head chef at Robert de Niro’s Tribeca Grill in Manhattan, overseeing 500 covers a night. It was there she had what she describes as her “Matrix moment: the point when I saw the wood for the trees”.
Describing that night’s special to the waiters, she realised the Chilean sea-bass she was selling for $42 cost around $5 to produce: “I just suddenly thought, God, it’s a bit of fish, with two puréed wiggy-diggas on it. That’s not my kind of food.”
True to her word, she returned to London and set up a restaurant in a community centre, surrounded by AA meetings, steel-band practice and children’s ballet classes. “I’ve always liked doing things a bit differently,” she says, comfortably. “I loved being a bit irreverent with my food, irreverent with my life.” Several years on, she brought the same egalitarian ethos to Economy Gastronomy, a series and book outlining how to cut food bills and improve your midweek suppers, using a concept she calls “tumbledown”: cooking once then converting the leftovers into two different suppers for subsequent nights.
“It’s not like you get the same dish three times. What Paul and I did was to adapt and change each dish so you actually get three separate dishes, but you only have to do one big cook and two little tweaks.” Should the series be commissioned again, she reckons she might abandon one of the tweaks (“Keeping something back for two nights away just seems to do people’s heads in”) but she’s still enthusiastic about the principle.
“Don’t just think about your meals as a succession of one-night stands. You’re in it for life. You’re here today and tomorrow, and all of next week, so you might as well get your head around basic planning.
“One of the best things you can do to save money is not think about your dinner [until] half an hour before you eat it. Yet as a chef, all you ever get asked for is: ‘Give us a recipe for dinner in 25 minutes with ingredients you can get from Tesco.’ It’s kind of frustrating.”
Still, when times get hard, it’s items from the organic or Fairtrade sections which are likely to get turfed out of the shopping basket, and McEvedy is not immune. Organic flour, she suggests, is a good one to keep because of wheat’s high surface area, whereas things you peel might be substituted.
“I do buy less organic now,” she says, looking stricken. “Partly because I think a lot of farmers have pulled their socks up to the extent you don’t need to have the stamp to have the quality, and those farmers need to be represented in the shops. “On the other hand, the Fairtrade thing is so close to my heart because I’ve visited three different projects, in Malawi, Kenya and South Africa, and holy smoke – it’s just pennies for us and it makes all the difference to those people. What it comes down to is, well, who do you want to give your food money to: Tesco or a local green-grocer? It’s your money. You’ve earned it. Who would you rather give it to?”
As we round off the interview, I ask McEvedy what she would be, if not a cook, and in the course of explaining her alternate career she reveals an Irish great-grandfather who “killed someone in a bar-room brawl in Galway in 1860/1870. Stool over the head.”
That fantasy job, by the way, is a London cabbie: “I know all the routes and I love the chat. It’s the Irish part of me.
“You know,” she says, warming to the theme, “elitism bothers me. Something like going to Henley, nobbing around with nobby people, is my idea of sheer hell. Always happier in a pub, me.”
Allegra McEvedy’s Christmas
“My mum died a long time ago, so I’ve always done the cooking. I usually do a goose, because I love the meat and you get great fat off it. It’s got such a big cavity, you can do two different stuffings. Everybody loves stuffing. There’s not that much on a goose though, so I usually do a ham as well. We’re about 16 to 20 for dinner.
So baked ham and a goose – it’s a great combination and I’d recommend it to anyone – but I’ve done it for so many years that I feel I should do something different, so for Boxing Day I’m going to do a big partridge and wild hare pie and then this really freaky thing I first cooked for the television series Supersizers.
It was a recipe from the Savoy Hotel of the 1920s and it sounded so disgusting. You make a really good veal stock from bones, a day on the stove, reduce it down. Then you get yourself a very ripe Camembert. When your veal jelly is so reduced it’s solid, you put a bit on the bottom of the dish, pop your whole cheese on and when that sets, you pour on more jelly, and stick it in the fridge.
Basically, it looks like a brown jelly, but when you cut into it, you get the melty cheese in the middle and somehow the intense beefiness mixed with the creamy cheese . . . it’s just the most incredible thing. I looked at it and thought: when on earth would I ever make this again? That’s when I thought: ah, right, Christmas.”
Economy Gastronomy , by Allegra McEvedy and Paul Merrett is published by Michael Joseph, £20.