The Gannet Q&A

Claire Thomson

7th December 2017

Interview: Adam Park
Photograph: Ivy Lahon

Born in Zimbabwe, Claire Thomson is a chef and food writer whose latest book is Art of the Larder (one of our cookbooks of 2017). After studying journalism, she spent a decade cooking in kitchens around the world (China, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand), with the intention of going back to writing once she’d clocked up enough hours in “proper” kitchens. A mother of three, she lives in Bristol where she co-owns a food education company called Table of Delights.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

Linguine con vongole in Naples. I was 20 and on summer holidays from university with my flatmate. We got to Naples totally broke and located the flat where we were staying – with the grandmother to a waitress friend in Cardiff. From there we were whipped off to the market at breakneck speed on the backs of two of her grandsons’ mopeds. No helmets, no anything, just fast, Naples-style. At the market, clams, garlic, parsley were purchased. We didn’t speak Italian, the boys didn’t speak English, but it didn’t matter, we knew what had to be done. Grandmother was back home waiting for us. Terrifying and wearing a completely brilliant 60s housecoat-style apron, the granny cooked this pasta dish with ease and brilliance. In the time it took for the pasta to cook, the clams were swished about in water, garlic fried, chilli flakes added, a slosh of white wine. In went the pasta and parsley. This was vongole lore – no lemons, no tomatoes. This was her way, this was the only way – anything else was not linguine con vongole. We ate the pasta and it was sensational.


What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

I rarely cook verbatim from a recipe book so my most splattered food books are food reference books. I look to these for inspiration and food matches. With this in mind, it’s probably Gillian Riley’s The Oxford Companion to Italian Food – as a book I will look something up in, see what goes with what, and cook with this information in mind. Harold McGee, likewise.

What’s your biggest food or drink aversion?

I really don’t like very ripe green or yellow melons. Just cannot bear them, I find the smell – especially of one that’s been cut and is really really ripe – absolutely awful. I like most ingredients to have a note of acidity somewhere in the mix, and ripe melons have none. That said, I would eat a slice of melon wrapped with some really good ham wrapped around it. I’ve got three children and I want them to grow up brave and bold in their food choices – for this reason I eat most things. Tripe, jellyfish and pig’s stomach have all featured of late.

Describe your perfect breakfast.

Cliché perhaps, but avocado on toast with a squish of lemon, flaky salt, good olive oil and a flash of chilli takes some beating. My 10-year-old agrees. Porridge with butter and salt with very cold milk comes a close second (I am half Scottish).

You get given plastic gloves and a plastic bib as your towering plate of spiced crayfish arrive, numbing with Sichuan pepper and hot with chilli

Of all the restaurants in the world, which makes you happiest, and why?

The River Café probably. I was taken there by my first head chef and given the lowdown on why it is such a great restaurant. Simple, with few ingredients on the plate and no stripes or foams or jellies to speak of.
For 100% pure taste and adrenaline, the street food sidewalks in Chengdu where my stepmother is from are unparalleled. I especially love the hotpot places where you take a shopping basket and pick what you want, all the ingredients positioned on wooden skewers to hurl in the hotpot – duck tongues, chicken livers, spring onions and more – and when you’re done you throw your skewers on the floor. The bill is totted up by how many skewers are under your table. I also love the Sichuan crayfish market where you get given plastic gloves and a plastic bib as your towering plate of spiced crayfish arrive, numbing with Sichuan pepper and hot with chilli. Pretty bloody mind-blowing.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

Cerys Matthews on BBC 6Music on Sunday mornings. That and The Food Programme. The kids have their own Spotify playlists – it’s an avalanche of various musical treats let me tell you, from Dolly’s 9 to 5 to the Frozen soundtrack via the Beach Boys and Adele.

Tell us about a dish you make when you’re short on time.

Recently, it’s spaghetti with tinned sardines, fennel seeds and breadcrumbs. In terms of store-cupboard staples, this is a pasta dish that ticks all the boxes for me and my family. I can assemble it in the time it takes for the pasta to cook. Tick tick tick.

If you could only drink one thing, aside from water, what would it be?

Wine, without a doubt. I love the lexicon of wine and the fact that all the clever people I have every known have also loved wine. It’s on a par with food for me. It is taste, history, geography and more. Along with food, it encapsulates what I think life is really all about. Sharing good food and wine with friends and family, there is nothing better.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

Most likely chicken Kiev. Child of the 80s, me.

Who is your food hero?

There are many worthy contenders, most likely all big names that everyone has already heard of – you know the ones. Instead I’d like to give special recognition to Barny Haughton (his was the first proper restaurant I worked in) for his ongoing and tireless work with school children, elderly people in homes and for providing people in the community with access to a very brilliant cookery school.

I want vegetables to look like vegetables: a courgette isn’t spaghetti and cauliflower isn’t rice

What’s your greatest talent in the kitchen?

I am a chef so can cook with pace and under pressure. I’ve worked in restaurants so busy you no longer bother to read the checks – just listen out for the roar of the person on the pass shouting numbers and dishes. It’s a bit like how I imagine being in a ballet – you move with a seamless rhythm to a beat that controls you. Pans moving on stove tops, oven doors opening, food on plates, pots, the pass – a sequence of movement in unison. Sounds pretentious but it really isn’t I promise. I’m also pretty good at cooking vegetables.

What ingredient or food product are you currently obsessed with?

I feel pretty lost without a lemon. Gram flour gets a good hammering in this household too.

Share a useful cooking tip.

Season food with salt from the off, you’ll use a lot less than if you season at the end.

If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

Italy. But China comes a close second.

Describe the thing that most annoys you as a customer in a restaurant.

Not being offered free water nicely presented and cold.

What food trend really gets on your nerves?

Low-fat, low-carb, spiralised. I want vegetables to look like vegetables: a courgette isn’t spaghetti and cauliflower isn’t rice. As for low-fat, low-carb, I have three girls and I want them to grow up with a healthy relationship to eating and food in general. Everything in moderation.

What’s your favourite food and drink pairing?

Oysters with the spent oyster shell filled with a shot of muscadet – that’s pretty cool.

To find out more, go to Claire’s website

Follow Claire: Twitter | Instagram

Posted 7th December 2017

In The Gannet Q&A


Interview: Adam Park
Photograph: Ivy Lahon

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