Come Dine With Me: Jackson Boxer
The brains behind London’s Brunswick House and St. Leonards, chef and restaurateur JACKSON BOXER cooked the Brown’s team dinner and shared some of his culinary secrets with us just in time for Valentine’s Day.
On how he became a chef…
I wrote a cookbook when I was six which my mum still has somewhere. I find it mortifying but also cherish it! There was a recipe in it for something I then termed a ‘half strawberry,’ which was a small alpine strawberry, bisected and stuffed with chive flowers and lemon balm. At school, I read lots of cookbooks too alongside comics, my favourites were Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking and Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food. I later discovered from Nigel himself that he’d been encouraged to start writing about food seriously by my grandmother [Arabella] so the circularity of that pleases me. Later in life, I studied English at Cambridge, but after leaving I needed a job and realised that cooking paid slightly better than my utterly useless attempts at a writing. That’s kind of how it all started. I went onto to set up multiple restaurants early on in my career, and people always ask me how I had the courage to do it. I used to say it was because I was too stupid to understand how little I knew and had no fear of failure but I’d probably say now that I was idiotically privileged, and felt entitled to make the kind of blundering errors that would horrify a more self-aware intelligence.
On cooking for your Valentine…
You really exist when you’re cooking for someone, both for yourself and for others in a way that lots of the trappings of modern life mediated by screens, phones, feeds etc. don’t allow for. It’s an honest activity and you can taste the love of a person, or its absence, in food. The care put into the meals that people prepare for themselves to eat alone are also a great insight into their relationship with themselves - I cook myself total rubbish, read into that what you will. Cooking is an intimacy with yourself and a fundamentally sensual, rather than cerebral activity. The physical engagement of it is like dancing in that when you’re cooking, you can’t do, or even really think about, anything else. Like talking to someone, if you’re really talking to someone, it’s the total and sole focus of your attention. That’s pretty sexy.
On how his background has influenced his work…
My family has quite a storied culinary history, which I once totally took for granted. Those things which surround you from birth you tend not to understand as exceptional, especially when it’s something as quotidian as simple good food for every meal but I’m now very grateful about it all. For example, I have two young children and they’re fascinated by everything except food, naturally! My parents are incredible hosts and I learnt the art of hospitality through them. They’d open their door to anyone. I remember well my father’s sheepish disappointment when we discovered the man he’d met in the park and invited back for a cup of tea had returned to steal all our bikes. Still, I really admire my parent’s generosity of spirit though.
You want to impress your Valentine, what dish do you serve them?
I’d serve them their favourite thing, done just so. That’s a really clever trick, to pull it off you really need to know them and where other would-be suitors are too self-absorbed to try it, you’ve taken that time to get them as a person.
What’s the most romantic food?
Anything in the right company is romantic. Really the food should just get out the way.
What’s the best Valentine’s gift you’ve ever received?
I have never been given or accepted a Valentine’s present, I’m always too busy working in the kitchen on Valentine’s Day.
What’s your favourite dish or meal mentioned from fiction?
There are so many. Maybe Mr. Leopold Bloom's lunch from James Joyce's Ulysses.
What would your last meal be and where?
I get asked this a lot for some reason, which is fine, because I’m a deeply morbid person. Sitting round a fire, on a beach, watching the sunset, surrounded by my children and family, wrapped in thick blankets, and who gives a fuck what we’re eating.
What food have you grown to love?
Vegetables - I hated them when I was younger. I think it takes an adult palate to appreciate all their earthy complexity and a taste for the unadorned and minimal. A simply steamed potato, with a pinch of salt and a splash of good olive oil, is an unimpeachably fine thing.
What’s your top tip for bad cooks?
What’s your most and least favourite food trends in recent history?
Instagram. It’s bought the world together in the most thrilling way, but also homogenised everything to the point of mundanity.
How would you describe your culinary style in a sentence?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t be such a dick.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
Give thanks that I’m not hungover.
Last thing you do before bed?
I’m so tired by the end of the day it’s all I can do to pull some of my clothes off. I mean often my boots are as far as I get.
Most prized ingredient?
Caviar. It’s the only expensive foodstuff that’s worth the inflated ‘luxury’ price tag.
What are you currently reading?
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, and The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
Dream guest for dinner?
Nightmare guest for dinner?
The official Brexit Leave campaign tried to book out the whole of one of my restaurants for a vast amount of money to wallow in their referendum victory. Maybe I could start there.
Washing pots for Margot Henderson at 16 - I’d call that my first real job.
What can’t you live without?
Tea and hot buttered toast.
Describe yourself in three words…
Better in person.
How would your friends describe you in three words?
Even worse, actually.
Best thing about London restaurant scene?
All the great little places.
Worst thing about London restaurant scene?
All the dreadful big places.
London’s hidden gem…
Italo Deli, 40 Maltby Street, Rochelle Canteen.
Jackson Boxer's new restaurant, Orasay (www.orasay.london), will open in Notting Hill on March 6th. He also has the much praised St Leonards (www.stleonards.london) and the much treasured Brunswick House (www.brunswickhouse.london).
Interview by Ross Aston