The Wordrobe takes five with Valentine Warner, best-selling food writer and TV chef
We get up close and professional with Valentine to find out more about his top cooking tips and passion for slow-cooking – as well as what inspired him to put down the paintbrush and pick up a spoon instead
What inspired you to become a chef?
As a child, I was always biting everything I could find – whilst not always with a successful outcome, it’s how I understood the world. Primarily though, it was my parents, although I didn’t know it at the time. They were both very talented cooks.
We travelled a lot and this is where I grew a love and understanding of both the very simple provincial food of villages and trattorias as well as luxury dining in wonderful restaurants.
Growing up in the wilds of Dorset on a farm with my mother’s great food (effortlessly thrown together) and my father’s knowledge of the hedgerows – everything to me was soon to be thought of in terms of “edible or inedible’
What prompted you to change career from painter to chef?
One day I put down the brush to pick up the spoon. As a painter, I rarely handed my commissions in on time and the thought struck me ‘Oi Mr Warner. This lack of discipline is no good.’
I often seemed to be thinking more about things I could be creating with goats and octopuses, rather than painting – the kitchen seemed like just the place to go. It was the call to discipline within a creative structure that ultimately pointed me to the apron.
What has been the proudest moment in your career?
I’m not sure. I occasionally think ‘Wow, I’m proud of this or that. Remember this moment Val,’ but then I simply forget.
I’ve cooked dishes that have thrilled me, met people whom I have come away all the better for meeting, visited some amazing countries and done some things I never thought I’d do.
I guess also as a very shy teenager I successfully stamped that self-consciousness, to enjoy the things I can today. So I’m glad I walked towards things I wanted to walk away from.
I’ve written a handful of books and that’s been no small feat as I’m the most fidgety person I know who likes to be on his feet, not sitting down!
What is your favourite midnight snack?
What isn’t? It could be cold ham loaded with cold congealed parsley sauce – I love cold food. Then again, around midnight I do like a hot chocolate – 4tsp bitter chocolate powder, 2tsp muscovado, sugar and full fat milk. Yoghurt and honey would also be a favourite.
If you weren’t a chef, which career would you most like to pursue?
I’d call myself more of a cook on the grounds I’ve never had a restaurant. As a career I revisit this idea of being a ‘chef’ often but have to put it down to fantasy. You cannot run a successful restaurant with good cooking alone.
I hate the idea of having to daily grapple with spreadsheets. I just want to cook. I’d like a restaurant made of wood, in a wood where I’d cook over wood. Who knows?
I wasn’t ready at the time but think I’d have liked to pursue a career as an artist. I love making art, emptying my head onto paper. I’m lost to the world when drawing and cutting with scissors. Collages are a favourite at the moment. Total absorption.
What’s your favourite slow-cooked dish?
Recently I cooked ox tail with walnuts, miso paste and Leffe Brune. It was exceptionally rich and intensely delicious. Perfect food now that the smell of autumn is on the nose.
Ultimate favourite? Well, it would be lamb shoulder with cider and cockles. Particularly proud of that recipe! My mum’s jugged hare is also pretty special and dare I say, maybe just as good if replacing the wine with Leffe Brune – a premium specialty beer, with a brewing history that that goes back centuries!
Do you have any tips for slow cooking? What is your favourite technique?
I don’t pay much attention to sous-vide. I see its point but think it is overused. I have nonetheless learnt a lot by using very low oven temperatures for much longer periods.
I often place cast iron pots in the embers of cooking fires to then cover them and leave them be while I go ‘left field’. Delicious pots of ham hock and beans are a favourite that even with a lid on take up the smoky flavour.
People would do well to revisit their slow cookers. I’m certainly having a romance with mine again. Put it all in in the morning, return home to something delicious.
Do you have any tips for aspiring chefs?
Go and ask a chef you really like for a job and don’t presume they will say no. Kitchens are ever changing and good chefs spot keen creativity. Work somewhere creative. Get a grip on good cooking, not just Michelin stargazing. This will make widen your possibilities.
Tell us more about your culinary background… How would you describe your style of cooking?
I’m a cook without a kitchen. I have no restaurant and travel a lot. I like understanding of my situation. What is this area famous for? What am surrounded by? Who am I with? What are the moods and the setting?
Now cook something given this information. I tend not to ask for ingredients that aren’t immediately around me unless required to for a reason. I’m more likely to be trying to charm a wild boar and olive recipe from an Italian widow than talking sous vide with a molecular chef.
What provides you with inspiration for your dishes?
Nature, as ultimately food is the outdoors bought indoors. I adore Japanese food for the very reason it so beautifully appears to resemble an environment on a plate.
Do you have any role models?
My father. I miss him terribly. He was an inquisitive man with a very adaptable brain. He had an extraordinary ability to remember fact and an ability to really find and understand the complexities in a given situation. A marvellous storyteller – he spoke in pictures.
What food takes you back to childhood?
Jelly Tots, cream, and mulberries (my favourite fruit). We had a tree at home and I used to emerge from under the low hanging canopy with red hands and messy clothes.
What are your favourite seasonal dishes?
I’ve just polished off a plate of fresh ceps, sautéed with parsley and garlic. Yum! Give me a juicy gritty pear and I’m a happy man, especially with a good chunk of Stichleton or Berwick Edge cheeses.
Celeriac cooked in hot charcoal embers, baked apples, mountains of mussels are also great. This season is such a perfect time to tuck in.