Friday, 21 December 2012

Q & A with Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd is the author of Modernist Vegetarian and, it would be fair to say, one of the most pioneering vegetarian chefs in this country. I met up with him in Chorlton to gain an insight into his culinary background, his influences and his thoughts on modernist cuisine. You can download a copy of Eddie's book at the Modernist Vegetarian website and see a slideshow featuring his beautiful and innovative dishes on Youtube.

Jamie: Did you consciously decide to become a chef or was it something you fell into? 

Eddie: It was something that I wanted to do. I was doing a philosophy degree in Scotland and working in kitchens as a pot-washer initially; but I was a very enthusiastic cook at home. At first, it was just lucky circumstances - a chef left and the guys saw some potential in me as I'd been helping them out already. As soon as I got my first chef's jacket I knew that's what I wanted to do!
I was 20 then so I learnt the basics there (I was a vegetarian by that time but still working in restaurants that served meat) then moved around a few restaurants until I got to work in a vegetarian restaurant in Glasgow where I moved up to sous and then acting head chef. Then I moved down to Greens and spent a couple of years there.

Jamie: Was it an aim of yours to work at Greens because it is such a respected vegetarian restaurant?

Eddie: Well, I initially came down to work with Simon [Rimmer] for a week and they offered me a job at the end of it - I wanted to keep learning and progressing within the vegetarian cooking scene and it seemed like the best place to be at the time. I also went and did a week at Terre A terre [in Brighton] around the same time. At Greens I got the chance to do more "restaurant-y" vegetarian food for the first time.

Jamie: What made you become a vegetarian?

Eddie: It was a mixture of things. I'd become vegetarian at uni in part because I was studying a philosophy degree - it wasn't a particularly ethical decision but the philosophy raised enough questions that I didn't feel entirely comfortable eating meat. I didn't really enjoy it any more. I think it's more that it suited me.

Jamie: Do you find it limiting being a vegetarian chef or does it have the opposite effect?
Eddie: Initially it did seem limiting to me as a chef but having some sort of constraint can actually be quite useful - very few places try to cook all types of cuisine: places like Noma will only cook with food that comes from within a small radius of the restaurant - that fuels their creativity. It forces you to work hard with your ingredients.

Jamie: Obviously you are somewhat of a spokesperson for modernist vegetarian cuisine so how did you get turned on to Modernist cooking methods in the fist place?
Eddie: Being vegetarian, I was trying to find interesting ways to do new things with vegetarian cooking. A lot of the modernist techniques are to do with creating different textures and finding new ways to serve the same ingredients. The first time I used modern techniques was when I was asked to a veggie version of a dish that used gelatin, so I had to start researching that. I was at the same time getting interested in Ferran Adria and what he was doing at El Bulli. I went to a festival in Madrid called 'Madrid fusion' and saw Grant Achatz [chef/owner at Alinea], then bought the Alinea cookbook and was blown away. It changed the way I thought about food.

Jamie: Your book, Modernist Vegetarian, as well as being ground-breaking, is very artistic. Is art part of your food philosophy?

Eddie: For me, flavour and texture are paramount. It takes a while to work out the finished version of the dish, what it will look like on the plate. I really wanted to get away from this 'brown stuff in a bowl' type of veggie food, which is the negative stereotype - that it's all the same colour and mushy! I wanted to get so far way from that! People can have quite a strong preconception of what a vegetarian meal will be like so you can really play with their expectations.

Jamie: When did you first think about writing your own cookbook?

Eddie: It had been in my head for a while that I wanted to do a book at some point and it was only earlier this year that I started to focus on freelance stuff and had more time to research and try new dishes. I would love to do a print version one day but an ebook is easy to publish and you can sell it at a more reasonable price. I'm glad it's out there, it's no good having all these ideas in my head!

Jamie: What's the reaction been like from your peers?
Eddie: I was really pleasantly surprised. I had good feedback from chefs, especially Marc Poynton from Alimentum, which got its first michelin star this year. He wrote a review saying how much he liked it. Things like that are fantastic.

Jamie: Through the likes of Heston Blumenthal, foodies are being exposed to more modernist cooking methods and ingredients. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of the modernist movement?
Eddie: I think these things are tools like anything else and now we just have a larger range of tools to work with as chefs. I'm a huge fan of sous-vide and I use hydrocolloids a fair amount but only when necessary. I think there's a danger of chefs using them purely for effect without understanding them. More and more I like the idea of presenting a plate of food like Ferran Adria and ReneRedzepi do - it looks natural but a lot of modernist techniques and technology have gone into it. It's much more hidden, not necessarily shown on the plate. I would never do the caviar which has become such a cliche!

I’ve been asked before whether I think sous-vide technology de-skills chefs – I think the opposite is true. If you know that you don’t have to worry about that one element of your dish and can leave it in the water bath, it gives you time to do lots of extra things for a dish.

Jamie: Are there any cookbooks that have particularly influenced your cooking style?
Eddie: Certainly, there have been a few that were very important to me. There Noma’s, The Fat Duck's, Alinea's. I just got Sat Bains’ new cookbook which is beautiful. Those are the important ones.

Jamie: So at the moment are you just freelancing? 
Eddie: One of things I've been doing for a couple of years is working with a company called Cream Supplies who sell all this modernist cooking equipment. I do development work with them - when they get new equipment or new ingredients they send them to me and I figure out what they can be used for. I’ve had a chance to use equipment before it goes into professional kitchens – like an ultrasonic homogenizer. It’s like a stick blender without the blades [and works through ultrasonic vibrations] I played around with it for a few weeks then it went to L’enclume! Simon Rogan is such an inspiring chef in terms of modern cooking.

Jamie: Being a chef, are you a picky diner? And are there any restaurants you rate highly in Manchester? 
Eddie: I try not to be fussy as a diner. If something’s done definitely wrong then you can spot it. You set your expectations to where you’re going, so I’m quite easily pleased. I liked The Rose Garden in West Didsbury. Looking to next year, there’s some really exciting things with Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan opening restaurants. Another place just outside Manchester that I rate is Aumbry.

I tend to cook at home a lot but I don’t live in a vegetarian household – my girlfriend’s not vegetarian. I practice new dishes at home and I try to keep my eye in with things like making pastry and fresh pasta, which are simple things you need to practice

Jamie: Finally, have you got any good cooking tips for our readers?
Eddie: Something in the modernist vein which i like to do is make a fluid gel, which involves setting a gel then blending it so make a smooth puree or sauce. It gives you so much control over flavour as you can start with a juice – so you can make a puree out of, say, apple juice and get that pure apple flavour or make gels out of ingredients that don’t lend themselves to being pureed. The other thing that’s good for vegetarian cooking is the different ways to add the ‘umami’ flavour to dishes – you can get a meatiness from kombu seaweed and dried shiitakes by adding them to stocks or to the actual dishes. Vegetables have a lot of flavour but not necessarily that depth of flavour you get from meat.