Simply Simon

Emily Green is a Times staff writer.

It took 11 years for Simon Hopkinson's peculiar blue book "Roast Chicken and Other Stories" to make a bestseller list. When it finally did, it came out of a dusty remainder pile to knock "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" from the Amazon U.K. No. 1 slot only two weeks after the release of the Rowling book. The British press reacted by declaring it the silly season.

I couldn't understand the mockery. Since it was first published in 1994, "Roast Chicken" is the one cookbook that rarely leaves my kitchen counter. I give parties just to serve its leg of lamb with anchovy, rosemary, garlic, butter, lemon and white wine and bask in the wonder of the people who eat it. My only question about "Roast Chicken" becoming a bestseller was: What took so long?

I first met Simon in the early autumn of 1988. He was chef at a new restaurant, Bibendum in South Kensington; I was one of the food editors of the Independent. I wanted Simon to become one of our columnists and stood outside his kitchen door to show how I had edited a trial piece by him. It was an awkward wait. A meal in this restaurant cost my weekly salary. Even the waiters were better dressed than me. Bibendum was the grandest restaurant of the time and the most influential. Hopkinson's partner in the venture was designer Sir Terence Conran. The setting was the Michelin Building in South Kensington, a dreamy Art Nouveau affair. Between Simon and Conran, they had created a pleasure palace: the sun-drenched dining room had the most comfortable chairs, thickest napery, shiniest glasses, oldest Pomerols.

I expected a Paul Bocuse-type figure: monogrammed jacket, souffle hat, a cleaver, perhaps. Instead, a big man with dark hair and a kind of camp grandeur came out of the kitchen singing the theme to "Goldfinger." "You poor dear!" he cried on seeing me. "You needn't have come across town." He sat down, read the edits. The only thing he objected to was an introductory line in which he had been called a "chef."

"I'm a cook," he said.

Simon is from Lancashire in the north of England, a part of the world where bluntness is akin to good character. Any pretension is open to instant, often excoriating ridicule. He cooked what he liked instead of trying to impress critics. In anyone else's hands, Bibendum's kitchen would have decided to meet the luxury of the room with typical Michelin-style bait for big spenders: langoustine, foie gras, caviar. In Simon's hands, there was caviar, all right, but it might come out as a topping for a baked potato.

After so many trips to his kitchen door with edits, I finally had to stop loitering, save up my money and start eating. It still seems incredible that familiar foods could be so good. I remember having roast cod with mashed potatoes that were made with olive oil instead of butter. There was the night a friend and I split an entire roast chicken, its crackle perfect, and a heaping bowl of salty, thin French fries.

The Good Food Guide called it "Modern British Cookery." Perhaps. Simon never stooped to a theme. He didn't need to. He had character. He knew what he liked, and then served it. He started out in a typical enough way--as a teenage apprentice in a French place. In London, he got a job as an inspector for the Egon Ronay guide and ate his way across the length and breadth of the country. For his own edification, he ate his way across France. By the time he was back in professional kitchens, opening Bibendum in 1987, he was one of the few original-thinking cooks of his generation.

He took the ethos of the north, not necessarily the recipes. He would serve fish and chips in a fancy restaurant, but he also understood better than Bretons how to serve fruits de mer. He loved Bofinger, all the great Paris brasseries, and from them brought to Bibendum racks of ribs, jambon persille, gratins. His pot au chocolat was the chocolatiest, his apple tart came caramelized and piping hot straight from the oven. I remember, to close a meal, often there was a tiny little fluted glass of Poire William.

Whatever he did, he did it until he perfected it. I once complained to him that I couldn't make pies. After a look that I still can't distinguish between disappointment and annoyance, he simply said, "You have no idea how much I've had to throw away." It took me years to accept how blithely insulting I'd been, basically saying that I couldn't be bothered to learn.

Learning was the only thing he did more aggressively than teaching. Britain's answer to America's MFK Fisher and Julia Child was a prickly scholar named Elizabeth David. He was not only David's favorite cook, but also her greatest interpreter. Yet when she told the world to make mayonnaise with olive oil, he quietly concluded--after making it and making it and making it--that "Mrs. David got that wrong." It was too fiery and green, a changed sauce, so he went back to what proved to be the French classic, a mild sauce with corn oil. I can hear his explanation about how to get perfect roast vegetables around the Sunday roast. "Par cook them until they are just that bit shaggy. That way they bind with the juices." He never did a thing he hadn't thought about, where he couldn't see the value.

He loved the good life: For several years, we subdued our hangovers on New Year's Day with martinis at the American bar in the Savoy and a trip across the Strand for lunch at Orso. At the Groucho Club, the manager poured Bloody Marys off the ice for him. Otherwise "they get slushy," Simon said. He adored fine script--his own hand was a fine italic, and he confessed to occasionally hiring cooks because he liked their writing. He hated most cookery writers, particularly their helpful hints for substitutions. "If you can't get coriander [cilantro], use parsley" drove him nuts. More than substitutions, he loathed pointless novelty. After seeing me toss a dried sea urchin into chicken stock because a Chinese cook had told me that every dish must have something from the sea, he didn't speak to me for a year.

Several years after we first met, the Independent contracted with Simon for a regular column, and he stayed at the paper through much of the 1990s. In 1994, his favorite recipes ended up in "Roast Chicken and Other Stories," written with the help of his old friend, the former Time Out restaurant critic Lindsey Bareham. There was some lovely art in it by painter Howard Hodgkin and charming illustrations by Flo Bayley.

Big company, yet somehow it was so Simon. The table of contents read like an alphabetized list of his enthusiasms: "Anchovy, asparagus, aubergine, brains, ceps, chicken" and so on. There were favorite dishes of friends--Rowley Leigh's vinaigrette, Elizabeth David's Piedmontese peppers--and things borrowed from Americans he admired--Nancy Silverton's milk chocolate malt ice cream, a terrine from Richard Olney, Jeremiah Towers' Montpellier butter. Simon was known as a meat cook, and anyone who has followed his roasting tips can understand that, but his fish cookery is superb. Saffron soup with mussels. Sauce vierge--with tomato, red wine vinegar, garlic, shallots, basil and olive oil--is reason alone to cook white fish.

"Roast Chicken" promptly won a Glenfiddich Award, a scandal-free version of the James Beard Awards. Yet it was an elite little tome and sold lightly; for the first 11 years, Simon never got a royalty. By the late 1990s, with new cooking shows on TV every week, the man who opened the door for a generation of young cooks was left holding the knob as a parade of exhibitionists--Angry Chefs, Naked Chefs, Nigella--passed him by.

Shortly after "Roast Chicken," Simon left Bibendum. The column for the Independent lasted about seven more years. We grew apart. However, the week I left to move to California in May 1998, he cooked a dinner of roast beef, roast potatoes and vintage claret for me. He gave me two antique linen pillowcases and said that he would visit California only if he could smoke in the house and have an ashtray by his bed. That deal stands, but he never came.

The following year, a mutual friend, Jeremy Lee, came to L.A. After trying a few places, we discovered Campanile and ate every lunch and dinner there for a week. We agreed it was America's answer to Bibendum. By 2000, not even Jeremy saw Simon. Simon had left cooking. He was rumored to have taken up painting. The subtext: He'd cracked up.

He might have; he didn't demand a correction when the Independent reported that he'd had a breakdown. Sitting in Bibendum those years ago, sun streaming in the stained-glass windows, fish and chips served with all the pride of a delicacy, the sheer joy of it seemed too good to be true. Maybe, like the '80s, it was. Or maybe the glory of the table is fleeting, and living in the moment means always having to make new ones. The moments with Simon were over.

In the 1980s, when the food scene was just taking off, I remember pitched arguments with other journalists over who were the best cookery writers of the day; I was the Hopkinson diehard, and remained so even during those awful months of estrangement over the sea urchin. Others seemed to prefer more socially adroit types. Yet as the books by TV cooks have aged as well as platform shoes, Simon's recipes have endured. And there he was, resurrected out of the blue last July, when a poll of food writers in a British glossy magazine, Waitrose Food Illustrated, gave the 2005 Award for "The Most Useful Cookery Book of All Time" to "Roast Chicken." As profiles followed in the Independent, opinion pieces in the Daily Telegraph and interviews in the Observer, Simon suddenly was no longer a fragile recluse, but the experts' expert.

The hubbub over Simon got me thinking for the first time in 18 years what he meant when he insisted that he was a cook and not a chef. Chefs so often feel compelled to inflict originality on their customers. Simon was never tempted to put risotto with cranberries and white truffles on the menu. Rather, he ate and mastered great standards, making each one his own. He accomplished it in a thousand small gestures, like the day we took a pleasant train ride out of London for a pub lunch at the White Horse at Chilgrove. My mushroom soup was dull. "Hang on!" cried Simon, and asked the bartender for a wedge of lemon, then squirted it in my soup. Suddenly the flavor came alive. "Lemon improves everything," he said.

Simon is like that lemon. He improves everything.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World