Tim Anderson

27th March 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

27th March 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

The afternoon we spend with Tim Anderson in south London, on a rainy day in the middle of winter, is enlivened by two of his favourite things: Japanese food and good beer. The former comes in the shape of sukiyaki, a traditional nabemono or hot-pot dish which Tim cooks in his living room on an induction hob and which we fall upon the second it’s ready, plucking slivers of beef and vegetables from the broth with chopsticks and dunking them into a mind-blowingly good sesame dip. The latter is satisfied by a couple of pints at his local pub.

Tim grew up in Wisconsin but has been fascinated by Japan since he was a kid. He spent two very formative years there in the mid-2000s, living in Fukuoka prefecture down south and immersing himself in the country’s food culture (which involved eating lots of ramen). He met his girlfriend Laura in Japan – she is now his wife – and came back to England with her in 2008. After a couple of years working in the beer industry he decided to put his cooking skills to the test and apply for MasterChef. “I didn’t have any big ambitions,” he claims, but he went on to become the show’s youngest-ever winner at 26.

Since then, he has been doing pop-ups around London – his most recent ran for a month in Brixton last August – and he’s about to publish his first cookbook, Nanban: Japanese Soul Food!, on 16 April. Tim is great company and full of excellent knowledge – he seems delighted when we ask him to talk in detail about ramen, which could be his specialist subject if he ever went on Mastermind. He also shares some top London eating recommendations: if you see us wolfing down pig-tripe skewers down a dark alley in Chinatown anytime soon, you’ll know who sent us.

Continued below...

How long have you been in London?

I moved here in 2008. Before that I was in Japan for two years. That’s where I met my girlfriend, now wife, who’s English – and she’s why I wound up here. We used to live in north London but it got crazy expensive. It’s a bit more affordable down south.

Where were you living in Japan?

I was in Fukuoka prefecture in the south. I wanted to live there because they’ve got amazing food, especially ramen.

So you were interested in Japanese food before you went?

Yeah, I’ve always been into it, since I was a kid. And I’d studied Japanese food in college – a tiny liberal arts college called Occidental in Los Angeles. When I signed up for the JET programme to teach English in Japan, you get three choices of places to live. I chose all of them based on ramen. My top choice was actually Sapporo in the north but it gets really cold in the winter so I’m kind of glad I didn’t end up there.

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Did you do any food-related work in Japan?

No, just teaching English. I didn’t start working in food until after MasterChef.

But you were eating as much interesting stuff as you could find.

Yeah – eating, cooking, travelling. It was actually the first time I’d lived on my own, apart from dorms in college, and it was cool to be cooking by myself for the first time in Japan. Every time I went to the supermarket there’d be something new to try.

Describe a memorable food experience you had in Japan.

God, there were so many. When I moved there I started dating this girl but we broke up after three months and I was all sad, and it was cold, so I just took a trip by myself to Kumamoto, two prefectures to the south. I went to see my favourite ska band[footnote]His favourite ska band, incidentally, is Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. “If you listen to just one ska band, it should be them.” [/footnote] but I had some really good meals as well. I remember getting a set lunch with local specialities including basashi, which is horse-meat sashimi served with ginger, onions and shiso. It made me fall in love with Japan again.
I made little trips all around the country. Wherever you go they’re very proud of their local specialties and they change a lot from place to place. My wife and I took a trip up to Sapporo in the summer…

“Everything is £1.10 and you get a weird mix of ingredients – broccoli, tofu skins, pig tripe – all boiled in this delicious salty spicy broth. It’s my favourite place to eat.”
Tim on his favourite London restaurants – see Address Book 

You met your wife in Japan?

Yeah, we were working in the same town… So Sapporo was like going from one extreme to the other. They have a very different food culture up there. Germans and Americans were brought over in the late 19th century to teach them how to make use of the land: they taught them how to grow barley and brew beer, how to raise dairy cattle and grow corn. So the food up in the north is quite different and weirdly European. They also have amazing seafood – they’re known for their snowcrabs and sea urchin – and as they were the first to start brewing beer in Japan, they had a lot of microbreweries when we visited.

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You’ve mentioned ramen a few times. Is it an obsession?

Yeah, ramen was the first food in Japanese cooking that got me really excited. When I first had a good one, in a shop in Little Tokyo in LA called Daikokuya, it blew my mind. It was the first time I had tonkotsu ramen, long-boiled, really rich, and after that I just started trying as much ramen as I could, and studying it. I’m not as geeky about it as some people. There are people in Japan who’ll go to hundreds of ramen shops in a year – it’s practically all they eat. Whereas I’d find my favourites and stick to those, but every time I went to a new city I’d try a new ramen.

Does it vary a lot across Japan?

Yeah. Ramen started off as a Chinese dish and I always get the impression that people in Japan feel more free to be creative with food that’s foreign or, like ramen, has this air of not quite being Japanese. Which is how you end up with lots of variations. I remember the first time seeing ramen with cheese in Tokyo and thinking, that’s pretty weird…

So after Japan, you moved to London.

Yeah, I moved here in 2008. I was doing sales for a company that was distributing micro-brewed Danish beers. That was before craft beer really took off here. The beers were really good but the company wasn’t successful, and I wasn’t a good salesman anyway.

And then you did MasterChef in 2011. What prompted you to go on?

I didn’t have any big ambitions when I applied. I liked the show – I still like the show – and at some point towards the end of the previous series and I just said “I could do that” and applied. It takes 20 minutes to fill out a form online. Then I completely forgot about it until I got the phone call a month later.

“The Fat Duck Cookbook is always awesome. Yeah, some of the dishes are complicated but it’s great for inspiration and everything is so good.”
Tim on his favourite cookbooks – see Bookshelf

Did you enjoy the experience?

Yeah, definitely. First of all we got to travel – the year I did it they got a big new budget and took us to Australia, New York City, Madrid, all over the place, and we had some really great experiences. We got to work with some amazing chefs. On my series as mentors, we had Yotam Ottolenghi, Michel Roux Snr & Jnr, and I got to work with Wylie Dufresne[footnote]James Beard award-winning American chef, owner of New York restaurants wd-50, which closed in 2014, and Alder [/footnote] and Paco Roncero, who was one of Ferran Adria’s guys at El Bulli.

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Do you feel you developed as a chef during the show?

Definitely, but not nearly as much as I have since the show. You learn a lot in MasterChef, but it’s slightly more controlled than actual professional cooking. In a weird way there’s less at stake. If you screw something up they can just say: “Hey, it’s MasterChef, they don’t know any better”, but when people actually start paying for your food then you have no excuse. You have to get it right.

What do you feel it’s given you as a chef?

It’s little things: tips on being organised in the kitchen, things to make you move a bit faster, cleanliness. You also learn from the other contestants, because everybody has a different style and you can see what they’re doing and taste a bit of their food and say, “That’s a good idea”.

Did the competitive element make it strange? Normally, in a kitchen, you’re working with the other chefs as a team.

I was lucky because I was really close with the other finalists, Tom, Jackie and Sara. We didn’t feel like enemies. We knew we were competing but you do your own thing in MasterChef. There’s no point in getting jealous or angry, though maybe people who didn’t win would say something different. Often it comes down to who screwed up the least, not who did the better dish.

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You said you’ve learned much more since doing MasterChef. What have you been up to?

Mostly pop-ups – that’s the main thing. The thing about pop-ups is that they’re always different: the kitchens, the menus, the people you’re working with, so it means you have to be really organised and figure out well ahead of time what your service is going to be like.

How long do they usually go on for?

Usually a few days, but the most recent one in Brixton was a month.

Can you live off the earnings?

Pop-ups don’t really earn a lot of money – not compared to other stuff you can do. Like a cooking demo: you probably do a quarter of the work in terms of hours and get the same amount of money or more. So I like doing the pop-ups but I can’t rely on them for income.

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Is the goal to open your own restaurant?

Not really. Everyone always said don’t open a restaurant, but I always thought they were joking. I did try to open one – I spent a year looking for funds and premises but I didn’t get anywhere. When I did the pop-up in Brixton, which was full-on, seven days a week, I realised, well, this is what people were talking about. It’s a pain in the ass getting it going and once you’re in it you can’t do anything else. If somebody gave me the right offer I might do a restaurant but it’d have to be a pretty sweet deal. What I’d really like to do is another cookbook. I’ve enjoyed doing Nanban more than anything since MasterChef.

The new book looks great. What’s in it?

There’s a ramen section with traditional recipes based on styles you get in Japan. It also includes a grouse recipe that I came up with, and the MasterChef ramen with tonkotsu porcini broth and truffled lobster gyoza, because you have to do that kind of stuff on MasterChef. There’s a whole section on cocktails and there’s a lot of smaller sharing dishes. My goal was to do things that you wouldn’t see in other Japanese cookbooks. I also wanted to deliberately make some of it not healthy because there’s a lot of light Japanese cookbooks out there.

So this has more hearty fare.

Yeah, there are three pork belly recipes and three fried chicken recipes. Good drinking food! It’s mostly southern food from Kyushu and Okinawa – I’d say 90% –and there are some dishes that I’ve created but that you could conceivably find in Japan. I think Japanese food is a little bit more open than people think.

Do you have a favourite meal of the day?

I like dinner, the social aspect of it. I tend not to eat breakfast, and lunch is usually by yourself, so dinner is more fun. You also have a bit more time and effort to spend on dinner.

So would you spend a lot of time cooking dinner at home?

To be honest, no. I only spend time cooking if I’m working on a recipe. Maybe I would have done before I started cooking professionally.

Does becoming professional take the romance out of cooking?

It’s not that, it’s more that I like quick cooking. I like making things like pastas and stir-fries because I don’t have to think about them. I can just chop up some vegetables and fry them in a pan with some oil and have something delicious and simple on the other side. And I’m impatient as well. There’s nothing like a slow-cooked stew or a braised pork belly but it’s hard to work that into my schedule, which is quite weird. I don’t have a fixed daily routine. So when I cook at home it’s quick, hearty, basic stuff.

“A friend sent me 5 kilos of black sugar from Okinawa. It makes amazing ice cream, you can put it in your coffee and it’s good in savoury dishes too.”
Tim on his favourite ingredients – see Pantry

Do you have a fall-back dish?

Well, ramen actually. There’s always noodles in the house and usually pickles and eggs, spring onions and chilli oil, and I can whip up some broth from some dashi powder or something. Ramen is as much about the toppings as it is about the broth, so it’s not going to be the best ramen if you make it out of dashi powder but it’ll tick the boxes.

Do you cook Japanese food at home more than anything else?

I cook a lot of pasta. I like things that’ll take anything: with fried rice it doesn’t really matter what’s in the fridge, you can work it in. I also like grains like bulgur wheat and spelt, and make pilafs out of those.

Do you listen to music when you cook?

The phone on shuffle mostly. I listen to a lot of weird punky stuff. Do you guys know Bis? They were big in the 90s and broke up 10 years ago but now they’re back touring. So I’ve been on a big Bis kick recently.

On The Menu

Dinner with Tim Anderson
London, November 2014

To eat:

Sukiyaki »
Freeze-dried durian

To drink:

Hwayo soju

Do you do all the cooking or does your wife cook?

She’ll cook for herself if I’m not around and sometimes she’ll decide to do a project, usually something baked. Last year we got some apples from my in-laws’ back yard and she made a really good pithivier with them. She’s a good cook but I’m usually the one in the kitchen. It’s my office.

Any cooking tips you’d like to share?

If you add bicarb to red cabbage juice it turns blue… I don’t know how useful that is.

Is dessert something you get excited about?

I do like sweet things but if I’m craving something it’s usually ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s mostly. I like sweet breakfasts, that’s probably the American in me: French toast with fuckloads of maple syrup.

Where in America do you hail from?

I’m from Wisconsin.

Not a noted foodie state, or am I wrong?

We do have good cheese and beer.

Were your family interested in food?

Yeah my mum always was. She worked, so a lot of our meals were just pasta, but every now and again she would cook something interesting and foreign.

Did she ever cook Japanese food?

No, she cooked Bulgarian, Brazilian, but never Japanese. But it’s strange: I was going through old family recipes last time I was home and and my grandmother on my father’s side had a recipe for tempura from 1969. I was like, that’s weird and pretty adventurous for somebody in Wisconsin in that day and age, but actually if I think about it there’s always been a minor Japanese influence in my family. When my dad was a kid he had a Japanese exchange student come and stay with them. The first Kikkoman soy sauce factory outside of Japan was in Wisconsin, so we always had soy sauce. And I had a Japanese exchange student when I was a kid. I don’t know how much this influenced me but it was always there.

For more info on Tim, check out his website and blog
Nanban: Japanese Soul Food! is out on 16 April 2015

Posted 27th March 2015

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Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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