The Guardian’s Jay Rayner once described Jeremy Lee as “one of those rare phenomena in the London food world: a chap everyone agrees is a good thing.” At Soho’s historic Quo Vadis, where proto-bad boy chef Marco Pierre White once manned the stoves, Lee has carried the torch since 2012. A magnetizing personality, larger-than-life thespian with a flair for the dramatic, incomparable cook and generous host, Jeremy offered me champagne as soon as we sat down for a chat. It was 11am.
From there, we discussed culinary education, mentorship, collaboration, and more…
Could you tell me about your introduction to this industry?
When I first started, it was anathema for a posh middle class kid to go into cooking. All of my generation fell into it by accident, by default. It was quite a grey, forlorn area. And still, there was this nonsense of “If you don’t start at 14, there’s no hope.”
An absurd notion from your point of view?
Absolutely. I find nothing wrong with serious career changers, or those who find their way into restaurant kitchens later in life.
And do you think there are more of them than before?
These days, there’s a great deal of dissatisfied youth not content to go into the confined arena of an office. They write in with enthusiasm to do stages, to do things with their hands. But once they turn up, the onus is entirely on them. The honeymoon period is about five seconds long.
Yet you find something special in these neophyte cooks?
I find that they each bring an acumen to cooking that is very refined, very wonderful. They channel all of that into learning. Everyone has to start somewhere. And it is very nice to be part of folks’ story.
After talking to other chefs all over the city, it sounds like you’ve made it something of a personal mission to promote and collaborate with up-and-comers from across the industry. Would you say that’s accurate?
I’ve been fortunate to cross paths with some incredibly talented people. When it comes to those who pass through my kitchen here, I just try to sprinkle some kind of dust on them, to help them to flourish. Anna Tobias [formerly of Margot Henderson’s Rochelle Canteen], for instance — it’s a joy to watch her blossom. When Tom Adams [of Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall] came to me at just 17, his thoughtful approach and intellect already suggested he was a cook apart. Nicola Hordern [of Darsham Nurseries in Suffolk] used to be an accountant! Now look at them all — it’s just wonderful.
What about all of the collaborations you do? I know you started the Quo Vadis & Friends series a couple of years ago.
Oh, yes, and what a joy those dinners are! We’ve done all sorts, with James Lowe of Lyle’s, Jeremy Chan from Ikoyi, Brett Graham from the Ledbury, Margot and Fergus Henderson… We host the Quo Vadis & Friends series several times a year. They’re a chance for everyone to shake things up a bit, and cook the kinds of things they normally wouldn’t in their own restaurants.
You must have loads of great stories.
A couple of years ago, Lee Tiernan [of Black Axe Mangal] was here for Burns Night. It’s a raucous evening, full of haggis, kilts, and bagpipes. Lee is simply a phenomenal cook. He did this squid ink flatbread with sea urchin, a beautiful bit of mutton bo ssam. Later on, he asked if I thought it would be going too far to do these pink, penis-shaped meringues for dessert, a cheeky nod to the graffiti people have scribbled on his restaurant walls over the years. “Darling,” I told him, “it’s never too far. You’re on Dean Street.”