Food writer, cook and stylist, Rosie Birkett, gives us the inside track on her favourite foodie gems and how to carve out a career in the industry
Photo: Uyen Luu
Spending just a few minutes with Rosie Birkett will teach you one thing: she’s obsessed with food. Real food. The kind that’s comforting, clever and makes you want to dive head first into the plate.
The food writer and stylist has previously written for papers including the Guardian and the Independent, and also co-authored J’aime London (hardcover, £35, Hardie Grant Books) with the three-Michelin-starred chef, Alain Ducasse.
But now Birkett has become a cook herself after writing her first and, quite frankly, mouth-watering book, A Lot on Her Plate (hardcover, £25, Hardie Grant Books), published in April 2015.
The best part? It’s a real celebration of food with not a fad diet in sight. Michel Roux Jr even described it as taking the reader “to a gastronomic heaven". Clearly he was talking about the salted butterscotch popcorn cheesecake (you need to see this and then make it immediately).
We caught up with Birkett to find out how she got into the industry and to tell us where her favourite foodie spots are. Plus, she admitted to being a bit of feeder, which made us like her even more.
You grew up in quite a food-loving family, didn't you?
"Absolutely. It’s always been about food in my family. I grew up in rural Kent and we had a lot of outdoor space; our garden backed onto fields and a river. There was a lot of beautiful greenery.
"My mum is a gardener and my dad grew all our vegetables – he was obsessed with food in a certain way. When it was cobnut season, he would go foraging (before foraging was cool) in his socks and sandals, and he'd get angry with the squirrels who were looking for them too!
"I was in the privileged position of being exposed to home-grown produce. My mum would also make a Sunday lunch every week. She'd joke that she was the only woman cooking a roast at the height of summer but my dad, who's since passed away, always wanted one. Every Sunday we would all come together for a roast."
What’s your earliest food memory?
"Being a small child and standing by my father’s side, digging up the veggie patch. I was really into getting muddy and was very interested in toads!
"I loved being outdoors with my sister and our friends. I was always reluctant when we were called in for lunch but when you smelt the gravy wafting through the house, it was worth it."
Do you think your cooking now, and particularly in your new book, has been influenced by the food you were brought up on?
"Definitely. There are recipes in my book from my mum. Loving vegetables comes from having them straight out of the ground. Understanding where food comes from. My dad used to take me to the butcher and I was never grossed out by meat. There were lambs running around in the field but my parents would make us aware that they were always the lambs you would eat on Sunday. I always understood."
How did you get into food writing?
"I wanted to be an actor but my parents wouldn’t let me go to stage school. I did an English degree at Leeds University, which is where I began my writing. Some of my friends started a magazine, so I wrote for that.
"After university I stayed in Leeds and got a job as a journalist, but my desk was always surrounded by crumbs and I stored condiments in my filing cabinet.
"My editor kindly suggested that I write restaurant reviews, which is how I got into food writing. I decided to move to London for work and I got a job on the Caterer, which has been going since 1878. All the chefs read it. It was absolutely incredible; I got to meet so many people in the food industry and was mesmerised by it all. I still am really."
And the food styling?
"After writing about food for so long, I was inspired by all the chefs I was talking to. I realised that I wanted to learn how to cook properly and make myself a better food writer. I went to do a cookery course for a month in Gloucestershire which formalised what I already knew. I got to grips with the basics and classic techniques.
"Then I met Helen Cathcart, a photographer. One day we hung out, I cooked and she photographed it. We started working together and that's when I knew I wanted to get into food styling.
"I enjoy styling because it’s so visual. Writing can be very isolating, but what I love about styling is that you’re working as part of a team. You are creating something with a group of people."
What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in food writing or styling?
"There has never been a better time to do it. When I said I wanted to do this job, I got a lot of sideways glances because people thought I wanted to be Delia (who I love!). It’s only now that it’s starting to become a job that people understand.
"It’s a very inclusive and welcoming industry. Get stuck in, get on Twitter, start following people, write your own blog and publish it yourself. It has taken me years to build up what I have now. You need to be proactive."
How would you describe your style of food?
"It's food that celebrates the joy of cooking. I hope it’s evocative. It taps into trends and ingredients that people are excited about. It’s important to be connected with ingredients, to understand the backstory. It makes you respect them so much more."
What are your favourite London food markets?
"Brixton was where I first started shopping and I was blown away by it. Seeing all the fresh produce and piles of herbs: it’s really interesting. Also Maltby Street market, Borough market and Spa Terminus are doing wonderful things, while Chatsworth Road market is emerging."
What are you favourite restaurants?
"Lyle’s in Shoreditch. They’re all passionate and talented people and it’s incredibly exciting. James Lowe is one of the best chefs around at the moment. Verden in Clapton as well; it used to be my local so I was there every night. You can have a plate of cheese and the wine is exceptional. Bó Drake in Soho is such as great place to know in London. It’s a really unusual mix and everything is smoked, such as the pork ribs with Korean plum sauce."
The quick-fire foodie round
Tea or coffee?
"Both are essential. I can’t do anything without a cup of tea to start the day and then it’s coffee. I once saw a great sign, which sums it up: 'Coffee keeps me busy until it’s time to shut my eyes'."
What ingredients could you not cook without?
"Eggs, flat leaf parsley, onions – which are the essential base to make flavour – good olive oil and vinegars."
"Everything. I don’t say no to anything. I think there is so much confusion about saying no to certain things, but you should eat a little bit of what you fancy. Food is one of the most fantastic and creative things to do for yourself. It’s really sad that people are worrying too much. Food should be a celebration."
Favourite kitchen gadget?
"My KitchenAid. That was a watershed moment. It’s like having an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. It is also pistachio green, which makes me happy."
Pet hates in restaurants?
"Table turning: when you’ve booked into a restaurant somewhere and it becomes apparent that they are trying to get rid of you or bringing things out too quickly. I'm guilty of outstaying my welcome. I don’t go clubbing anymore so it’s my night out."
What would your last supper be?
"I’d start with a seafood platter, for sure. Some langoustine, oysters, caviar, lobster, and a really really good bottle of champagne. Then it would be my mum’s roast beef and yorkshire pudding, and something involving whipped cream and poached rhubarb – a trifle, perhaps – and loads of cheese."
"Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (paperback, £15, BBC Books). I also love Ottolenghi’s books, as well as Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver."
"James Lowe, Tom Kerridge, Gizzi Erskine – she’s a woman who knows and loves her food – and Elly Curshen from The Pear Café. There are so many brilliant women in food at the moment. I have a lot of respect for chefs. I worked in the Lyle’s kitchen for two days, and saw that they have so much stamina. They are incredible people."