An interview with TV chef Valentine Warner
PUBLISHED: 15:05 19 May 2016 | UPDATED: 15:05 19 May 2016
Â© Thousand Word Media
She only has 15 minutes, but Katie Jarvis ends up being fascinated by the back-to-nature ethos of chef Valentine Warner - and the food’s not bad either
So here’s the question. A pink slug or a huge bottom? What I mean is, (and be honest, here) which interests you more?
It’s not an obvious question, I know that. To be helpful, I’ll add a bit of context. The thing is, I’ve got 15-ish minutes to interview TV chef (and chef-chef) Valentine Warner and, even though that’s hardly time to whip up a bowl of Angel Delight, I’m hoping he’ll say something surprising and really, really interesting. Spill the culinary secret of the universe. Reveal that Paul Hollywood’s piercing eyes are pricey blue contact lenses. Criticise Mary Berry’s soggy bottom. Something. It’s only 15 minutes, for heaven’s sake.
He’s not being awkward. He’s in the midst of a busy evening cooking for (very nice, quite posh) people at the Wheatsheaf in Northleach; part of the Lucky Onion group that hosts events at which well-known chefs cook for very nice, quite posh people (my interpretation). Hemsley and Hemsley are coming soon.
But he’s a bit manic because he’s whirlwinded in from the kitchen to see me; and I’m a bit manic because I’ve only got 15 minutes.
I feel I ought to ask him about the menu: canapés of raw scallops, curried vinaigrette and cucumber; a starter of deluxe skagen with bleak roe; confit duck leg with lentils, celeriac and apple pureé, and kale salad; and, to finish, apple fritters with bitter chestnut honey and whipped cream.
“Well, I’ve travelled a fair amount in Scandinavia, a country I love and skagen is basically a jazzed up prawn mayonnaise. I kind of boil up the shells and I season it with its own shells and a good dash of brandy, crispy onions and something called kalix. It’s a highly-prized bleak roe [golden, mild, whitefish roe], which they love to eat in Sweden – lovely, delicious stuff,” he says calmly and kindly, even though, inside, he’s probably screaming, “AND I NEED TO GET BACK TO IT NOW! IT’S PROBABLY BURNT TO A CINDER!” Well, I would be.
My problem is that, while I’m very interested in the menu, I’ve just watched a video on the Guardian website, in which Valentine – a former art student – is asked to draw a self-portrait. And it’s fascinating; revealing; lightly tormented. He talks about his dad, Sir Frederick Warner, a diplomat, who died when Valentine was in his early 20s, “when I needed him”. “I look very much like my father… I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be like my father,” he says. Followed, shortly after, by, “If anything in my life, I’m trying to be less like my father.”
On this same video, he talks about grieving; about trying to let go. About how happy childhood memories were of time spent with his parents but “because of their jobs, I didn’t spend a lot of time with my parents.” And then about the big, dark dormitories and the big, dark teasing of boarding school.
I’ve only got 15 minutes. And I should talk about the richness of the confit duck and the meaty lentils; or the kale salad with its cider vinegar, muscovado sugar and toasted fennel seeds; or his latest book, What To Eat Next.
But there’s something so appealingly vulnerable in this interview; something that – like the hint of a flavour that teasingly eludes you; like a fish wriggling on the floor of a river-bed – you want to try and grasp.
So may I ask him some awkward questions?
“You can try.”
“About food. But about how food is more than just food. Your dad was a diplomat, so food was about impressing people. You were at boarding school, where food was about not being at home. And you talk about the importance of being there for your own kids; so food is about love.”
“What are you winding up to?”
“Is food about rebalancing your own life?”
“It is a way of giving things to people. I guess, in a funny kind of way, it’s a way of getting attention. It kind of fills a hole in a very literal way; god knows what, but I need to ingest stuff. I certainly would call myself wilful to a degree – a man of appetites.”
“Lots of chefs, they consume; they drink a lot; they smoke a lot; they screw a lot. Whatever the case. And there’s something quite extreme about cooking; about constantly being surrounded by food. And a need to constantly shove things in your mouth.”
Oh, yes. He talks about that, too; that, when he was little, he explored the world by sinking his teeth into it. Not just food but fertiliser and erasers disappeared down his oesophagus. In other words, he understood a strange world by eating it. Umm.
“It’s very functional for me, as well. I can feed myself anywhere and a lot of people cannot feed themselves anywhere. You’re required to understand nature when you cook. People don’t. They see food and they see nature and, in between, somebody makes the food for them or they are slightly at a loss.”
If he didn’t have to eat, nature would be more important to him than food, he says. And it’s the same with children. Children naturally love nature – real nature, not animals-in-waistcoats – “until they start dicking round with their parents’ phones and it all starts to go wrong.
“And I think quite a lot of the massive food problems we’re having today are because people don’t understand nature. They are far more interested in Justin Bieber or how much weight Simon Cowell has lost than in the fact that we’re losing species every day. I love fashion designers; I love artists; I love beautiful things but nature beats them hands down every time, especially on practicality.”
And then he gets (understandably) cross about food waste and the difficulty of getting people to recycle. “We’re f***ing brilliant about letting ourselves off the hook. The best work that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has ever done is his programmes on waste because it really, really needs addressing. You don’t have a right to waste food!”
And then, on about minute 13, we’re back to the Guardian. You know, the bit where he says that he used to do a lot of stuff because he felt he had to; because he didn’t want to disappoint people.
Because, suddenly, he worries. He stops and backtracks a bit. “I do not live in a mud hut. I don’t think romanticism solves problems and I like music; I like art; I like going off fishing; I like eating in restaurants. It’s very easy to say things and be a massive hypocrite in this life. I’m sure that, while I’m trying to worry about one thing, I’m squashing another. It’s very hard not to be a fabulous hypocrite every minute of the day,” he says.
And then back to urbanism, nobody cooking, and the ridiculousness of spiralisers. “I don’t have a spiraliser; I will never have a spiraliser.”
So do I have my Guardian self-portrait? Not in 15 minutes, I don’t. But the tantalising flavour is there. Like food, which is delicious – don’t get me wrong – Valentine Warner is about so much more than eating. Fascinating man.
May I tell the story about the bully, I ask, finally?
It’s the one where, as a schoolboy, his pockets would be stuffed with Mars Bars and crisps; Fat Val, he was called. Years later, he bumped into one of his bullies at a pub in Cornwall. “Remember me?” he asked. “I’m Fat Val.”
“Yes, you can tell that story,” he says. “He went as pale as a ghost and ran away. That guy was truly funking horrible to me.”
And then Valentine Warner goes back into the kitchen, and I join the private dining room function, where his menu is served. And it’s fun and interesting, and I sit next to the incredibly talented Emily Watkins of the Kingham Plough and talk food and children and hard work. And Sam and Georgie Pearman of the Lucky Onion group are there; and it’s Sam’s birthday. The delicious food keeps on coming – seconds and thirds – along with the chat.
And afterwards, late in the night, as I walk up the steps to the car park, a ghost appears in the dark. Valentine, sweetly appearing to say goodnight.
Oh, the slug! I nearly forgot. I only mentioned it to grab your attention, in case 15 minutes wasn’t enough; but there’s a serious point to it, too. It was when he was talking about disappearing species. “I was reading two newspapers at the same time, the other day. One of them was talking about an amazing bright pink Kaputar slug that’s disappearing from New Zealand. And the other was all about some celebrity who was worried about her arse being so fat. Pink slug, about to disappear for ever or some moron who’s worried about her arse? Do the maths.”
And then he worries again. “I sound finger-wagging. Do I sound finger wagging? Because I don’t want to come across as some worthy ranter.”
Nope, just interesting. Even in 15 minutes.
For more on Valentine Warner, visit www.valentinewarner.com