Meet Alan Rosenthal
Posted by Terry Glover
When I first met Alan Rosenthal, we clicked immediately. I had just opened the Cake Shop and he had recently started his food business, Stewed!. There was something in our mutual food obsession that was similar: a curious, enquiring palate, and a focus on meals that bring people together. Over the time we’ve been friends, I’ve seen him run supper clubs, teach cooking classes and publish books; his third, Foolproof Veggie One Pot, is out now. I’ve done some recipe testing for him and I can wholeheartedly say that his dishes are just beautiful: honest, unpretentious, accessible and deeply satisfying.
Like his recipes, Alan is infallibly warm and generous: a man worth his weight in gold and butter. We chatted recently about favourite recipes and the magic of microplanes – a pleasure, as always.
Terry: What’s your comfort food?
Alan: My comfort food will always be a nice Jewish roast chicken with bread stuffing. I feel like I’ve talked about this before many times, but it will never change. A traditional Jewish bread stuffing is made with breadcrumbs, ground ginger, onions, melted butter and eggs – but not too many – and it absorbs all the flavor from the juices of the chicken beautifully.
T: What’s your favourite dish at the moment?
A: This might be blowing my own trumpet, but I’m a real fan of my kimchi jjigae with smoked tofu and pearl barley – the recipe is in my new book.
T: What have been some major career moments for you?
A: Gosh, that’s tricky. Deciding to write my first book, Stewed!, definitely. The thrill of seeing my own cookbook out there was really exciting, and it also made everything that’s happening today possible. If I hadn’t written that book I wouldn’t be teaching at Leith’s, I wouldn’t have met you, and we wouldn’t be doing the interview we’re doing now. I do think that things happen for a reason, but I also very much believe that you make your own future. Teaching at Leith’s also helped me to discover that I actually really like writing and presenting, which came as a bit of a surprise: I was a shy and retiring little kid, quite introverted. But when I started writing the book and then giving classes, I realized: you know what, I’m quite good at this!
T: So you didn’t always know you were going to be a food writer and chef?
A: Never did I think that there was an option to become a chef or cook for a living. Not because of my mum and dad – they wanted me to do whatever made me happy, which is a challenge in itself! But my grandparents always gave me a sense of not living up to their expectations. And at school I was told from a young age that I wouldn’t amount to anything, in part because I was so terrible at English – and now I have a food column and write books, so that was clearly a load of rubbish.
T: And what does working with food mean to you?
A: I suppose for me, like many others, food is connection to people. Working with food is a way of building bridges, and enabling people to come together through a shared experience. I think that’s really powerful.
T: Do you have a favourite cooking technique?
A: I like grating garlic on a microplane – I think a microplane would be my luxury to take with me on a desert island, not that there would be much garlic to grate. In truth, the cooking technique that is most important to me is heat level; the intensity of the flame beneath the pan. You have to know whether you’re browning or sweating, get the heat right and then let time do its thing. Perhaps the technique is actually time: knowing when to go slow and when to go quick, depending on what you want to do.
T: Can you share some favourite seasonal recipes?
A: Autumn is here, so it’s all about slow braises and oven-baked recipes. Using some of those seasonal bitter leaves is also great: an Italian style chicory, cooked with garlic, chili, olive oil and maybe a few anchovies makes a very yummy side dish. One recipe in the new book that really hits all of those autumnal notes is the caramelized red onions and spelt – it’s got cavolo nero and stilton in there, and some vanilla and cumin seeds as well. You start it on the stove-top, and then you finish it in the oven; it’s got all your proteins, carbohydrates and vegetables, and it’s really, really good.
T: And your favourite Chrismas dishes?
A: I’m a nice Jewish boy! We did used to get a side of Forman smoked salmon every Christmas, and my dad would slice it; that’s a role I’ve inherited from him. I also love bread sauce – it’s one of my bestest things.
Foolproof Veggie One Pot is out now from Quadrille Books: it’s one of our picks for Christmas, and we’ll be cooking some of Alan’s recipes for you to try at our Winter Warmer late shopping evening on Wednesday 14 December, when Alan will join us to sign copies. Find out more about our Winter Warmers here.