There is a select handful of people in this world who on entering a room, light it up with magnetic luminosity. The chef-proprietor Jeremy Lee is one of these switches. What with his bellowing Dundonian voice, wry humour, and infectious smile, is it any wonder that he has charmed the socks off restaurateurs, customers, and critics alike?
Lee was born in Auchterhouse, a village northwest of Dundee. In this patch of Scotland, Lee and his three siblings grew up around the kitchen table, stocking their bellies with the wondrous food made by their mother, a domestic science teacher and their father, an illustrator at D.C Thompson.
“Back then it was the grim, dim 1960’s and 1970’s and so supermarkets barely existed,” explains a cheerful Lee from his home in Hackney. “My parents would happily drive around the east coast of Scotland, a true larder of all-things great, to get produce like asparagus, lamb, sea kale and lobsters for our big dinners. The love for eating started there, and it very much stuck.”
His first foray into cooking was an apprenticeship at the Old Mansion House, a Scottish country house hotel just down the road. Here, Lee was catapulted “into the deep end”, and he would go on to stay there for just over three years before heading to “to meet his alma matter” and pursue his dreams. “When I arrived in London, my whole world and outlook on everything changed,” he states.
Lee would then go to finesse his skills at the flagship Conran restaurant, Bibendum in the famous former Michelin building in London’s Knightsbridge. “I remember walking into this incredible building for a meal, and being amazed at the light-filled room and the extravagant glass windows and space. Before I batted an eyelid, I got my dad to draw me a cover to my C.V and I landed an interview with Simon Hopkinson. We got on like a house on fire, and I joined aboard a young crew of darlings like Bruce Poole and Phil Howard.”
After almost half a decade at Bibendum, Lee went to work for the “godfather of modern British cooking” Alastair Little at his 49 Frith Street Restaurant, and in 1994, Terence Conran offered Lee the head chef role at the Blueprint Café in the Design Museum, where he would stay for an impressive 18 years. Throughout his time at the Café, job offers came in their droves. But Lee insisted he wouldn’t leave, for love nor money, unless it was for a “basement in Soho.”
As luck would have it, Lee met Eddie, Sam and James Hart at the Blueprint Café’s 21st birthday party. The brotherly triptych are now renowned restaurateurs but back then, they had just opened a fledgling Barrafina and were scheming to open up a part-restaurant part-members club next door called Quo Vadis.
Quo Vadis originally opened in Soho in 1926. As a former notorious brothel and lodgings for Karl Marx where he began to write Das Kapital, the venue on Dean Street in Soho is steeped in salacious history. The restaurant passed through several hands before it found itself in the palms of the Hart brothers who flung its doors open in 2009, with Lee recruited to be at the helm of the kitchen.
“It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” Lee confesses. “It was a well-knocked about building which had fallen on hard times that desperately needed its blood quickened. We took all the art off the walls, threw a riot of flowers everywhere, and filled the space with lemons, pumpkins and oranges. We also teamed up with designer Julian Roberts of Irving & Co, and the illustrator John Broadley and they made sense of all of our scribblings and scrawlings. It was a beast untamed, but off we went.”
Lee is reflective when we discuss the politics of buildings and the people who inhibit them. “I’ve noticed that I always seem to cook in buildings with imposing facades,” he admits. “From Bibendum to the Blueprint Café, one thing all these places have in common is that once you cross the threshold, it feels like you’re coming home. We work incredibly hard to make sure that the second you arrive, you are swept up in the arms of Quo Vadis, where the ambience is as lovely as the food which is as lovely as the wine. We just want it all to be a sheer delight.”
On the downstairs floor of Quo Vadis, there is a restaurant open to the public. Venture up the lacquered stairway, and there is the dining room for members. The theatrical menus at Quo Vadis read like commandment stones, offering irresistible small and large plates where Broadleys’ illustrations dance in-between. According to Lee, the food revolves around the seasons, inspired by the finest regional ingredients from Britain and further afield. But it also includes Lee’s “greatest hits”, guest appearances”, and “new takes on old favourites.”
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So, as we gear up for longer and crisper nights, expect plates that will “nourish the soul and belly”. There are small plates of salt cod cakes with tartare sauce, fig coat’s curd with hazelnut and muscat grape and pear, comte and hazelnut salad. And then bigger plates of chicken, guinea fowl and bacon pie to pork chop with pickled prunes and almond.
Other than Lee’s mountainous puddings of brown sugar meringue tumbles, the permanent fixture on the menu is Lee’s signature smoked eel sandwich with onion pickle. From the fried sourdough bread (from Poliâne Bakery in Paris) to the eel (from Lincolnshire) to the horseradish and mustard cream and the thin slices of pickled red onion; the dish is a modern classic, and makes ones tastebuds sing of the sea.
Lee also runs a guest series “Quo Vadis & Friends”, where he invites some of the most talented chefs in the country to cook with him in Soho. The series, now in its fifth year, has hosted everyone from Thomasina Miers and Olia Hercules to Lee Tiernan from Black Axe Mangal. This year, Lee invited some of the industry’s heavyweights like Phil Howard and Stephen Harris as well as exciting up-and-coming chefs like Max Rocha and Erchen Chang of BAO fame.
“Over time, Quo Vadis & Friends became an extraordinary catalogue of peers, colleagues, godfathers, godmothers, young folk all doing new things and bringing new styles of cooking,” says Lee. “We are blessed by a greedy crew at the restaurant, and so it doesn’t matter what is being cooked as long as it’s good!”
You can’t help but wonder what’s the best part of the job is for a zealous character like Jeremy Lee? “Golly, Gee!” he leans to-and-fro excitedly. “It has to be working with a group of amazing folk. After all, there is that golden rule that you are only as good as your team.”
For now, long nights spent at Quo Vadis in bacchian merriment have now been eclipsed by long nights spent at home where Lee is hunkering down on his manuscript. His upcoming book Cooking: Simply and Well for One or Many is due to be released next year. His debut book will be about good home food from impromptu puddings like peaches in wine with bay leaves or useful jams and jellies from his Dundee childhood.
“If there’s a wrong way to write a book, I did it!” he exclaims. “I thought I could run a three-story building and write a book simultaneously. There’s still a lot of homework to do, but the book is based on home cooking and the intricate weaving of restaurant food. When writing, I asked myself: how should we move forward with food? And the answer is that the more you cook at home, the more you understand it, and the more you will enjoy a restaurant.”
For Jeremy Lee’s last supper, he picks a “great a heap of cooked langoustines on a beach in the Hebrides” to start. Followed by “roasted grouse (or cold – he insists that’s just as good) with all the trimmings. And to finish, “a bowl of late-season Scottish raspberries with cream.” To drink? “A lot of burgundy.”
The food critic Jay Rayner once wrote that Lee is one “of those rare phenomena in the London food world: a chap everyone agrees is a good thing. Partly that is because he is sharp, funny, learned, engaged and the kind of bloke you always want in the room.”
After meeting the charismatic Lee, albeit via the two-dimensional parameters of Zoom, I can attest that there is nothing in Rayner’s flattering profile with which I disagree.
Jeremy Lee’s signature smoked eel sandwich
A slice of sourdough
30-40g fillet of smoked eel, taken from an intact fish is best
A heaped teaspoon of horseradish cream, of a fiery temperament
A quarter of a small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
Two table spoons of good white wine vinegar
A good pinch of sugar
Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar.
Steep the sliced onion in the pickle and let stand for an hour or so beforehand.
Warm a grilling pan over gentle heat.
When all is ready, lay the sourdough on the grill and brown nicely.
Cut the eel fillet into three largeish pieces.
Butter the toasted side of the sourdough.
Cut this in half and spread with Dijon mustards.
Lay on the eel and then the horseradish cream.
Lay on the other piece of toast and return to the grill.
Let brown then flip and cook similarly on the other side.
Put on a plate and heap the drained pickle alongside. Serve swiftly.