DARE YOU COOK WITHOUT A BOOK? Next Week, Alexis Gauthier Pits His Instinctive Cooking Skills against This Year's Masterchef Winner. Victoria Stewart Put His Theories to the Test

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

DARE YOU COOK WITHOUT A BOOK? Next Week, Alexis Gauthier Pits His Instinctive Cooking Skills against This Year's Masterchef Winner. Victoria Stewart Put His Theories to the Test


Byline: Victoria Stewart

[bar] AVING spent a happy early morning hour handling vegetables in Soho's Berwick Street Market, a state of panic has crept up on me. Staring at some woody chestnuts, my companion asks what I think could be wrong with them.

A touch dirty, I offer weakly. But his look of disappointment suggests that I've missed something obvious.

"It's wet, isn't it?" he says, touching one. "Not ready. Feel this. You don't need an expert to tell you," he laughs.

It turns out that I do. For years I have shopped, cooked, followed recipes and wondered why the results never turned out like the beautiful examples in photographs -- I've been too scared to liberate myself from the set text. But today I am cooking in the kitchen of a Michelinstarred chef, the owner of Gauthier Soho, Alexis Gauthier, whose philosophy is to throw away the recipe books and cook using only intuition and instinct. He even eschews measuring or timing equipment.

His is a bold move. This week, four of the UK's official top 50 bestselling books are recipe tomes. Lorraine Pascale's new Home Cooking Made Easy has swept straight in at number seven, ahead of the Great British Bake-Off, Jamie's Great Britain and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Veg Every Day!, showing the British public is hungry for instruction from professionals. But Gauthier, 38, is among a growing band of London food writers, bloggers and chefs who are creating the quiet rumblings of a backlash. At the much raved-about new Ducksoup restaurant in Soho, Julian Biggs is said to cook whatever pops into his mind. The menu is a handwritten note, photographed on a phone and posted to the website daily, along with snaps of ingredients: freshly severed grouse heads feature alongside neat boxes of French cheese and stewed onions. There is also Roganic, near Baker Street, whose head chef Ben Spalding apparently cooks with whatever lands on his doorstep and who has even been known to change recipes mid-service. At the new Elliot's Cafe, owners Brett Redman and Rob Green create a daily-changing menu based on whatever they forage from nearby Borough Market.

Using trial and error is also something food writer Philip Dundas supports. As a pop-up restaurant host and author of a new book called Cooking Without Recipes, Dundas is keen that everyone gives it a go. "Anyone can do it. If you're just looking at the photograph of what a perfect dish looks like then ... you're never going to get what you want but what someone else wants. It's about practice," he argues. "Cooking like that is easier because as long as nobody knows what it was meant to be, the menu can be whatever you want."

In just over a week Gauthier will test his method when he goes up against this year's Masterchef winner, Tim Anderson, in a new Instinct and Intuition challenge at the three-day foodie extravaganza Masterchef Live (each will be given three food items, a time limit and the task of creating a dish). I have pinned him down to determine whether this new "instinctive cooking" lives up to the buzz.

Back at the street market, Gauthier is waxing lyrical about Swiss chard. "Ah this is it. Look at that vibrant pink. And so crunchy it will be, too," says the French chef as he buys a big bunch. He asks me to choose something that looks good to cook with. There is butternut squash and a box of dirt-covered but strangely enticing beetroot, which I ignore. I point instead at some bright red tomatoes. "No. What would we do with tomatoes?" comes the reply. I offer carrots as an alternative but they are too pale; Gauthier prefers darker ones at this time of year. I suggest fennel but get the same answer. Gauthier goes for the beetroot and I wish I'd piped up.

"OK, so we have this delicious earthy beetroot, the lovely hard butternut squash, the crunchy Swiss chard ... but we need something more."

A man nearby asks if we want to try some British apples, fresh in. …

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