Tim Hayward

30th November 2017

Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Dan Dennison

30th November 2017

Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Dan Dennison

In the kitchen of his mid-century modern house in Cambridge, as he filters coffee through a woodneck dripper, Tim Hayward is telling us about all the things he’s done in his 54 years besides writing and broadcasting about food and, since 2011, running a popular bakery and restaurant, Fitzbillies, in the centre of town.

He was, he tells us, an ad man for 15 years. Before that he did stints as a bouncer. He worked front of house at various US diners and at a Hard Rock Café in San Francisco. He was the stand-in “Slammer Girl” handing out shots of tequila from a bandolier in a Tex-Mex restaurant on the south coast of England. He wrote questions for the late-80s TV show Going for Gold.

All this points, appropriately enough, to a man of energy and enthusiasm who looks at food, in all its complexities, through the widest lens. This comes through in his journalism – writing restaurant reviews for the Financial Times and appearing on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet – and his books: his latest, The Modern Kitchen, explores the history, uses and cultural meanings of 100 key objects, from lemon squeezers to jelly moulds to springform baking tins.

Tim’s energy is fully on display today as he bounds around the kitchen cooking our lunch, a pot of Italian sausages and lentils, and making advance preparations for dinner – he has friends coming over later on for whom he’s braising a pork leg and defrosting a lobster. (“A frozen lobster isn’t my favourite thing in the world,” he says, “but to be able to produce a bowl of lobster pasta for guests who don’t eat meat whenever I want is amazing.”)


And his enthusiasms are on display throughout the house, a light-filled construction, built in 1958, which he shares with his daughter Liberty (Lib, partner on restaurant reviews and meal preparation) and his wife Alison (Al, who runs Fitzbillies). The kitchen island, where we eat our very comforting lunch, was once a surgeon’s operating table, before Tim rescued it from a skip in Soho and fitted it with a butcher’s block on top.

We see more signs of DIY wizardry in his workspace, connected to the main house by a gorgeous glass corridor. And on our way to the end of the garden, where he has his knife workshop and a smoker, we pass a small fire pit and assorted totems of outdoor cooking.

One lesson we take from visiting Tim, whose home combines the expensive and the improvised, is that good craftsmanship doesn’t have to come at a cost. Take knives, the subject of his last book, as an example. The delight you get from a £6,000 pound sashimi blade could be equalled, he says, by “a knife that’s made for blokes on fishing trawlers by a company called Moro in Sweden. It has a nonslip handle, is deadly sharp, has a lot of heft and comes in a box of 10. And the minute it loses its edge you throw it over the side. There’s nothing else like it.”

Continued below...

Your work is quite varied: how would best you describe what you do?

I’m pretty baffled by job descriptions. I guess I’m mostly known for being a journalist, but if there was something hugely dramatic at the end of my road I wouldn’t know how to how to develop it into a story. And I don’t think I’m a writer because I haven’t written the great Western novel. I’m not comfortable with calling myself a critic, and food writer seems ridiculous as I probably write more about what goes on around food. I guess I write about what I’m interested in, in a way that vaguely amuses people. If I had to choose one thing, to fit the parlance of our times, it’d be something like “hospitality-related content generator”.

That really rolls off the tongue.

As a restaurant owner, it’s awkward having to write about somebody’s business similar to your own in the national press – but I do love hospitality and I do love restaurants. The hospitality, the human warmth element, is what it’s really all in pursuit of. There’s a marvellous quote from Jim Harrison in his book The Raw and the Cooked: “Distance from food preparation poisons the soul with cold abstractions”. And that’s as much about what’s on a plate than it is about everything before it. Like us chatting now, for instance.

What’s a typical breakfast for you?

I don’t really do breakfast. I never want to have a plate of food in front of me and feel in the slightest bit guilty about it, so, being a man of a certain age, the easiest thing to do is to keep low on carbs, and to skip breakfast. I do a bit of gym stuff now and again, but coffee is about as far as I get with an active morning ritual.

How do you like your coffee?

At the moment – and this is one of the truly great things about living in a small town, though I really shouldn’t because it’s so shameful – my favourite thing is to get up in the morning, jump in my car and zip down to Fitzbillies, a place where everybody is nice to me, and I can sit outside in the sun with my cup of coffee and just smile and be happy. And then I come home and write something.

I remember eating Dead Man’s Eyes: fried white bread squares with a dollop of cold mashed potato on it and a bit of ketchup in the middle. It was a great treat

It’s hard not to notice all the coffee-making kit you have at home…

It’s definitely been a preoccupation of mine, over the years. I spent five years trying to make the perfect shot of espresso.

How did you get on?

Oh, it was a complete waste of time.

There’s got to be more to it than that!

Well, if you really want to know, the answer is this: the espresso machine was invented to service Italian factory workers who needed their coffee in a 15-minute break in the middle of the morning. The best way to make coffee for a thousand thirsty workers in 15 minutes was to make a machine that uses steam pressure.

Consistency was the key: they knew they needed 17 grams of coffee, they knew the pressure they needed, they knew the grind they needed. And all this came from a machine four times bigger than you can get in your kitchen. It weighed half a tonne and there’d be one bloke who’s got nothing to do but that, a thousand times a day. So, making just small changes over the years, that machine at that factory is going to produce the nearest thing to the “God shot” for those workers. To attempt to recreate that in any way whatsoever in your kitchen, that industrial process, really is just a waste of time.

Somebody gave me the Len Deighton Action Cookbook and I thought, fuck, this is wild, this is actually written by a classless grammar-school boy. For men. It was so strange

What was your best attempt?

I spent five years of my life building and rebuilding an espresso machine of my own. It was quite a small, single-head thing, and I think I got to about one shot in eight being really, really good. And that was when I had the timer warm it up two hours before I got up in the morning, and it had to be drunk at a specific time of the day otherwise it wouldn’t be right.

So what was your ultimate conclusion?

I’m really hard pushed not to tell people that if your aim is to have a really consistently good cup of coffee, every fucking morning, buy Illy. Because they’ve put millions into making sure that it works 100% of the time. Or when people want to know what sort of coffee machine to get, I think it’s hard to beat one of those Nespresso machines, because it’s going to be an 85% good cup of coffee, 100% of the time.

Was it a little disappointing to follow such a long path, only to end up kind of where you started?

It’s the journey. It allowed me to commit to some serious geekery, which I love. I’ve got a 1958 Austin Healey Sprite on the go and it’s just a complete delight to get my head under the bonnet and weld new bits onto it and to take it apart and put it back together. And I’m that way about food. When I was at the Guardian I wrote a recipe for haggis, which is essentially a rather stupid endeavour to cook at home. I think it still melts down their servers every Burns night – but ultimately there’ll only be eight or so people who make the bloody thing. But I love them for it, because that’s me, too.

On The Menu

Lunch with Tim Hayward
Cambridge, England, August 2017

To eat:

Salsiccia con Lenticchi »

To drink:

Climpson’s “The Baron” blend coffee

What was food like growing up?

Mum was a pretty good cook. We were a classic Bristolian working class family. I remember eating Dead Man’s Eyes: fried white bread squares with a dollop of cold mashed potato on it and a bit of ketchup in the middle. I remember her cooking it and it being a great treat.
And I remember my grandmother having a chip pan into which all the drippings would go over the year, and she would fry the chips in it. The cat fell in once, but they still used it. Then my mother threw out the chip pan and we weren’t allowed to have a deep fat fryer again because chips were sinful and mortally awful. Funnily enough now, when I’m doing fried chicken, I find myself spending a couple of days beforehand making the grease out of a combination of pork lard, chicken fat and bacon fat to get that authentic “my family has grown up with this grease over the years” aspect to it.

What was it that really got you into food?

Two things: Len Deighton, and some years I spent in the United States.
As I was growing up, I didn’t really encounter reading about food or writing in any way until somebody gave me an Elizabeth David book, which was fascinating but really alienating. It felt so female and so middle class, and I was neither. And then somebody gave me the Len Deighton Action Cookbook (see Things) and I thought, fuck, this is wild, this is actually written by a classless grammar-school boy. For men. It was so strange. And then it disappeared. We got nothing after him because it all became Robert Carrier and bloody Delia.

What’s special about it? Nothing, really. But it’s my favourite place to eat in London. It has a perfection that’s evolved slowly, but there it is: they don’t have a star chef, and the staff have been there for years
Tim on his favourite restaurants

And what about the States? How did you end up there?

Where I grew up, the only jobs you could get were catering jobs – and this was long ago, when catering was neither sexy nor clever. And when I fell in love with a waitress and moved to the States, catering was an easy avenue for work. We spent five years moving around the South, and when we got to a new town we’d find a local diner where invariably we’d find a job, so within 24 hours we’d have employment and a built-in group of mates to drink with. And one of them would help us find a flat, and so on. It was great, a lovely way to travel around.

Ah! Diners.

I love diners. They were usually run by immigrant families; a lot were Greek then, now there’s a lot of Syrian-owned diners. Little family operations. When they’d arrive in a town they’d have to fit in with the local community and provide the needs of that community. Like that Norman Rockwell painting of the cop with the kid who has run away. And they’re beautiful operations, and the food is… I mean, I still watch Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and I love it because of the integrity of the people who work in these places.

Can you talk about a diner that sticks in your memory?

I spent some time in a place called Elizabeth City in North Carolina. I’d get in to work at 5am, there’d be some farmers who’d drive their tobacco-cropping combine harvesters into the parking lot and come in for breakfast. Then the school bus would pull up and we’d feed the kids as part of a deal we had with the local authority, and then the firefighters would come in, and the mayor – there was an occasion where he called up and told us he’d forgotten his anniversary so we kept the place open late just for the two of them, and we baked them a cake. That’s an incredible key part of what a diner is. It’s about trying to fit in with what a town needs and expects from you.

It’s more about hospitality than just feeding people.

I’ve got a very fixed notion of the nature of hospitality, and it informs what kind of restaurants I like to visit. Michelin star stuff is great but it can also be inestimably boring, but then go to a restaurant in Alabama where I was last year – which wouldn’t have even passed an EHO inspection – and you judge both of those on the same level of comfort and how happy they make you feel… Alain Ducasse doesn’t do it for me, but this shack in the South had it in spades.

Is it the welcome? The atmosphere?

I’ve been to places that made me cry because of how much they love you when you walk in. Not just me: anybody. Come in, we love you, you’re great, you’re really going to like this new dish, or whatever. And you don’t want to leave – that’s what it’s really all about. This probably makes me a shit reviewer, but it’s a consistent argument, at least. It’s about hospitality, from suit to nuts.

A concept not hugely familiar to British diners through the ages.

For most cultures in the world, it’s mandatory on philosophical, religious grounds. If you come to my door and you’re broke, I will shelter you and I will feed you – and you understand the other part that when you’re in my house you don’t run off with my wife or steal my grain. And wars all over the world have been started that way, wars that have escalated to huge conflicts. And then we, in England, invent Come Dine With Me. Where the premise is: isn’t it funny to be rude about this person who is cooking for me? And then we export it to the rest of the world.

So do you cook for people a lot at home?

Not as much as we should. Maybe once every couple of weeks. I think I always imagined, like everybody else, that once you start doing this job you’d constantly have people over and have big gatherings of food writers around a giant table, but it rarely happens. The industry isn’t like that. When I worked in advertising we had loads more dinner parties – everybody would come and it’d be tremendous. I’m lucky now to have a place big enough to cook in and entertain lots of people, but god knows there are loads of other people who can’t.

When I worked in advertising we had loads more dinner parties – everybody would come and it’d be tremendous

Do you cook much just for you and your family?

I cook every day. We don’t really have any pre-prepared food, we sit down for dinner every night for dinner together as a family. A solid rotation of larder staples, preserved goods. A constantly full fridge.

Do you go out a lot here in Cambridge?

Not a great deal. Life in a provincial town is quite different – the customer’s behaviour is different. If you live in the city, maybe you’ve got nice flat or a little house but you’re pretty lucky if it’s a place you want to spend a considerable amount of time in. So when you finish work at the end of the day, probably the best thing you can do, if you don’t have to go home to look after the kids, is go out somewhere. Here, everybody finishes work and cycles home. The dog falls asleep on their feet. Children run around a bit. You put the fire on when it’s cold. Then, around six or seven o’clock, somebody asks what’s for dinner.

The Modern Kitchen is out now. For more about Tim Hayward, go to www.timhayward.com

Follow Tim: Instagram | Twitter

Fitzbillies is at 51-52 Trumpington St, Cambridge CB2 1RG; www.fitzbillies.com

Posted 30th November 2017

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Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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