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Simply Simon

'Roast Chicken and Other Stories' isn't just a cookbook for the ages. It's also a testament to one of the best minds of his time.

January 15, 2006|Emily Green | 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.

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