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Jeremy Lee is chef proprietor at Quo Vadis, London.
Born in 1960s Dundee, Jeremy was introduced to the joys of food and cooking from a young age. ‘My mother was a domestic science teacher and my father was an illustrator for D.C. Thompson,’ he tells us. ‘They like their tuck, so you had this remote corner of Scotland with this couple who cooked every night and wanted a boisterous table to sit at with good food as part of their daily life. Me and my three siblings assumed this was normal, so it was quite a shock when we went to other people’s houses!’
This naturally led to an interest in cooking professionally – something that in 1960s Scotland was not seen as the glamorous profession it is today. ‘I did entertain art at one stage and my father was quite keen on it, but after reading the books of magnificent French chefs like Michel Guérard I could feel the kitchen beckoning,’ says Jeremy. ‘In those days, middle class boys did not become chefs, so when I turned up they always wondered what on earth I was doing there. Professional cooking is always going to be a hard business but I never worked in a brutal chef environment like the ones you hear about. Puzzled, annoyed and frustrated, yes, but I always worked with great people who were firm believers that a happy kitchen makes happy food.’
After working for a few years in a Scottish country house hotel, Jeremy made the move down to London and landed a job at one of the most exciting restaurants of the 1980s. ‘Terence Conran was starting to take his restaurant business very seriously and had the brilliant idea to choose Simon Hopkinson as his head chef and partner at Bibendum, a restaurant on Fulham Road housed inside the old Michelin UK headquarters,’ explains Jeremy. ‘Cooking with Simon was a revelation; at the time, everyone was beginning to understand produce and we saw the birth of British cooking. After that I got to cook with Alistair Little, who worked in a very different style in a very different kitchen. He’s been a great friend ever since.’
Simon and Alistair had a huge impact on Jeremy’s cooking and approach to good ingredients, eventually giving him the skills and experience needed to become a head chef. After running the Frith Street Restaurant and Euphorium, in 1994 Terence Conran offered Jeremy the head chef role at Blueprint Café in the Design Museum. ‘When I went to The Blueprint Café I was given free reign which was remarkable, especially as Terence was such a well known businessman and it was an incredibly rare opportunity for a chef,’ says Jeremy. ‘It was a time when British cooking – which I still believe is undefined – began to really gather momentum. We had a lot of catching up to do with all the esteemed French and Italian cuisine, but because we’re an island nation and have imported and exported so much, we have this phenomenal freedom of thought and practice which is less confined than countries not surrounded by a coastline.’
It’s this incredible dedication and interest in British cuisine that has helped shape Jeremy into the chef he is today. ‘I think British produce is becoming more and more regional,’ he says. ‘People are beginning to get back into crafts and are eager to work with their hands. Amongst all these artisan producers are wonderful growers which is making an incredible difference to the dishes on our menus.’
In 2012, after eighteen years at the Blueprint Café, Jeremy was offered a new head chef role at the iconic Quo Vadis hotel in Soho. It had just been bought by Same and Eddie Hart, the restaurateurs behind Barrafina. ‘Eddie and Sam wanted to turn Quo Vadis into a celebration of British produce, and when they approached me to become head chef I realised that you only get one chance to work in a building so grand and iconic,’ says Jeremy. ‘I couldn’t say no.
‘We went about taking everything off the walls, pared it all back, painted it white and waited to see what happened,’ he continues. ‘It was extraordinary – folk loved it and with John Broadley’s illustrations it all seemed incredibly, ridiculously right.’
Jeremy turned Quo Vadis into a must-visit restaurant, with everyone from foodies to celebrities wanting to experience the clean, simple, flavourful food that celebrated the seasons. Over the years he has developed close relationships with suppliers, meaning he has access to the very best produce. ‘Keeping an eye on your supply chain is a full-time job, so we tend to look to a very good greengrocer who knows where to get things like the best lemons from Sicily,’ he explains. ‘But closer to home it’s easier to talk to people – we know we want crabs from Dorset, smoked herring from the east coast and razor clams from Orkney. The fishermen are great and a focus on vegetables is the next huge revolution in cooking. Foraging is great but oh boy do you need to know your stuff, and I think if you’re going to charge a spectacular amount of money for a leaf on the plate you better make sure it’s brilliant.’
While the dishes Jeremy cooks change daily depending on the seasons, there are a few things on the menu he has become famous for. His smoked eel sandwich – a simple combination of smoked eel, horseradish, fried bread and pickled onions – is the sole reason many people book a table at Quo Vadis. The sizeable meals are also a big draw. ‘If we try and reduce our portions – which are suitable for trenchermen – then there’s nothing but revolt from our customers,’ says Jeremy. ‘So we just go generous, abundant, epic and let it fly!’