Bill Sewell, restaurateur, food writer and food blogger describes his life in food
Bill Sewell has had and continues to have an illustrious career in food. He’s a qualified accountant and a serious cooking talent. He’s founded several restaurants. He’s a published cookery book author. And he’s a food blogger. Just imagine the #foodbiz insights you’ll get from a conversation with someone with these accomplishments.
Bill is based in Hereford, in the UK. Hereford is also the location of one of his two restaurants, Cafe @ All Saints, which is where I interviewed Bill for this episode of the podcast.
What You’ll Hear About in this Episode
In this episode of the show, Bill Sewell:
- Describes how he took time to get experience at the culinary coalface by working in restaurant kitchens before setting up his own restaurants.
- Shows that running a successful restaurant is about having not just a flair for cooking but also a firm grasp of the numbers.
- Explains how food blogging, as a way of engaging with customers, can be used as a marketing tool for your restaurant business.
- Describes how he published two cookery books.
Click on the Player Below to Listen to the Show
Get the Show Transcript
If audio isn’t your thing, you can download a transcript of the show here: Ep #030. Bill Sewell, Cafe @ All Saints. A life in food. restaurateur, food writer, food blogger.
You can also find the full transcript of the show at the end of this post.
Very Sound Bites from Bill Sewell
Don’t Miss New Episode of the Artisan Food & Drink Business Show
If you’d like to hear each new episode of the show as it’s released you can subscribe for free on iTunes.
Links Mentioned in the Show
- Trinity College Cambridge
- Cafe @ All Saints website
- Cafe @ All Saints on Twitter
- Cafe @ All Saints on Facebook
- Michaelhouse Cafe
- Anna Thomas, The Vegetarian Epicure
- Launceston Place
- River Farm Smokery
- Patisserie Valerie
- Cafe Below
- The Stagg Inn
- Barefoot Books
- Time Out Magazine
- Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen
- Delia Smith, cookery writer, presenter and national treasure
Thanks for Listening
Thanks for listening to the show. If you are a food or drink producer who would like to come on the show (there’s no charge) to talk about your products, or if you are an industry professional who would like to talk about your services, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by using the Contact Form on this website or by tweeting me @FoodDrinkShow.
To hear when each new episode of the show is released simply sign up for my newsletter.
If you have any questions or comments just use the Comments section below.
Like It? Please Share It!
Please share the show with friends or colleagues who might find it useful or interesting — just use any of the social media buttons on this page.
Transcript of the Show
Catherine Moran: Hello, and welcome to episode 30 of The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show, the show where artisan producers tell their brand story and share the secrets of their success. I’m your host, Catherine Moran.
On today’s show we’re going to hear from Bill Sewell, restaurateur, cookery book writer and food blogger.
This is the first of a two-part episode with Bill. In this episode Bill tells the story of his life in food. And it’s a fascinating story. Notable milestones include his emergence from Trinity College, Cambridge as a history graduate, to becoming a qualified accountant in the City of London (and chasing a fraudster in Switzerland), to working in a scruffy vegetarian restaurant in London where the chefs’ dress code was less chefs’ whites and more singlets and hairy armpits, to then working the pastry section in a high-end restaurant also in London, to eventually running his own — one of several — ecclesiastically situated restaurants.
Our discussion is wide-ranging and includes how big food brands so often over-promise and under-deliver, the centrality of the customer (not the chef) in the dining experience, and the centrality of the reader (not the author) in the food writing experience. And a whole lot more. Let’s now hear my conversation with Bill Sewell.
Well, I’m here with Bill Sewell who is a restaurateur, food writer, a food blogger. Bill, welcome to the Artisan Food & Drink Business Show. Thank you very much for your time this morning. It’s bright and early and I don’t know how the acoustics are going to sound on this recording, but perhaps you could just explain where we are?
Bill: OK, so we are in All Saints Church, which is a beautiful mediaeval church in the centre of Hereford, started I think in 1166. As you can see, I don’t know if you can see, I’m seeing, is there a camera here somewhere?
Catherine: No, there isn’t. No, this is a theatre of the mind, now.
Bill: OK! [laughs] There is a glass-covered mezzanine, which is a bit like an upturned boat, which is totally modern, done in 1997, finished in 1997. The place was revamped — reordered is the word — and lots of beautiful stuff has been done here, including creating what is now my café, Café @ All Saints. We’ve been here for, ooh, a frighteningly long time. We’ve been here for 18 years. I still think of it as a new café but it’s not really a new café anymore.
Catherine: No, that definitely doesn’t qualify as new.
Catherine: This isn’t your only café, is it?
Bill: No. I have another café in Cambridge, which is remarkably similar, also in a mediaeval church, in Michaelhouse Church, which was the chapel of the original college of Cambridge, which then got subsumed into Trinity College. It’s now a working church, as is All Saints, so we have a café which takes up about half the space, as we do here at All Saints, that we opened there, the café opened there about 10 years ago, and they are both really extraordinary spaces in which to be able to have cafés. We are part of a partnership in both places with the churches, and we do our café thing and the church does its church thing, and we work closely together but separately.
Catherine: Yes. Would you give us a little background about what you did before setting up as a restaurateur?
Bill: Sure. I got into it, I was doing a history degree at Cambridge University. I was a vegetarian at that point, and I didn’t enjoy the food that was on offer that Trinity made so I started cooking for myself. You got a like a gas Bunsen burner on the floor that you could cook on, and I had a very amenable, very ancient, very eminent law professor living the floor below who had an oven, which was a great honour and privilege to get hold of an oven, so I started cooking, and particularly from a wonderful book called The Vegetarian Epicure by a woman called Anna Thomas, a Californian woman.
It was a book that was about delicious vegetarian food. It was very much not hair shirt vegetarian cookery, it was about full on deliciousness. Then because, actually cooking for yourself is duller than cooking for other people, I’d invite people around. I discovered that I’m a complete sucker for people saying, “Oh, Bill, that was really nice.” I found that I enjoyed that more than a history professor saying, “Yes, sure, that was okay, but really put a bit of effort into this.” So I got more and more interested in cooking and it became fairly clear that I wasn’t going to be a history prof or any such thing.
My family background is my parents had an antique shop, so the idea of doing your own thing was very natural to me. One of the things people often say, “Oh, you set up your own business, oh, it’s really brave.” Actually it’s not brave if that’s where you come from, it’s just normal. I went to the Cambridge University Careers Service and said, “I want to setup a vegetarian café. What’s the route? How should I do this?” They were actually surprisingly good. You might think they only advise merchant bankers and lawyers and stuff but they were good, and they said, “What you need to do is you need to go and talk to some people who are in the business already and see what they’ve got to say. They’ll have good advice.”
I went to speak to a guy, I went to attempt to speak to guy who ran a restaurant on Parker’s Piece in Cambridge, and said, “I’ve been advised by the Careers Service to come and chat to you.” He said, “That’s fine. I charge my time at X pounds per hour.” That was a little bit scary, really, but basically what he said was, “Don’t be an idiot. If you want to do this, go and work in the business first and don’t just think you can go and setup a café from scratch,” which was, of course, the right thing to do.
So I went and worked, when I left Cambridge, I went and worked for a business called Wilkin’s Natural Foods, which was an institution for many years in Marsham Street in Westminster. It was a great place, it was setup by a woman who had worked for Cranks for many years. The great thing about Cranks, I never really knew Cranks in its real heyday, only towards the end of its heyday, was that they were passionate about making everything themselves. They always made their own bread. In fact the Cranks bread as a formula lasted many years longer than the cafés did.
It was all proper food, it was proper food of a particular area, it was very brown, and obviously it was vegetarian. It was decent food, it was decent grub. That’s what we made at Wilkins Natural Foods. I went there straight from Cambridge. It was a great place to start because there were, I think, three shifts there, there was a baking shift, a main cook shift and a salad shift. And, if you stayed there more than a few months you did all of them. For me it was like a breath of fresh air after university, which didn’t particularly float my boat. Going and working with food, I immediately knew this was what I wanted to be doing.
I worked there for a couple of years, and then there was some possibility of doing something with the owners there, that didn’t work out. Then I was chatting to a friend who is an accountant, and he managed to make, which I have to say in retrospect, was a great achievement, he managed to make accountancy sound interesting and exciting. I thought that would be a good thing to do before setting up my own business, it’d be good to learn a bit of the business side. I went and trained with Price Waterhouse and learned to be an accountant, and did all that.
I have to say even compared to history I did here at Cambridge, which actually was okay, accountancy is dire. It was an incredibly useful thing to do and I absolutely hated it, except after I qualified I had one interesting job chasing a fraudster in Switzerland and having interviews on Wall Street. That was cracking. The rest of it was dull as wotsit. Anyway, so I did that for a bit, I wanted always to get back into cooking.
As soon as I qualified, I immediately went back into working on other people’s restaurants, ran a couple of vegetarian restaurants while friends were going on holiday, and worked briefly but incredibly usefully in a place called Launceston Place in London, which is now a Michelin-starred restaurant, was then a smart but not Michelin-starred restaurant. Fantastic people who were the owners, founders, runners of it, Nick Smallwood and Simon Slater, he went on to own Kensington Place, which were two, were in their day, two of the most fantastic restaurants in London.
I arrived there as the useless commie, which was slightly bizarre having spent three years learning to be qualified at something, something that you are absolutely back at the bottom of the heap, because they weren’t really interested in somebody who had worked two years in a vegetarian café: that did not count. I was there for about three days and then the pastry chef left, and they said, “Oh, you are a vegetarian, you can do pastry.” I had a day, or two days, in which to learn all these recipes, which was stuff I was not familiar with; brandy schnapps and tuile baskets and proper lemon tart and all those things.
I did that, learned that, stayed there, not for very long but it was brilliant, and learned how a proper professional kitchen is organised. Then I started looking for my own place in between doing a little bit of accountancy because unfortunately, being a chef in London doesn’t pay the mortgage, which by that time I had got.
Catherine: What age were you then?
Bill: I was about 27, 28. Then a friend had an exhibition paintings in the foyer of St. Mary-le-Bow Church in London, and we went for a private view, glass of wine, in the crypt afterwards, and because I had been working in the City a bit, I knew that this was an amazing area for anyone in the café business or the restaurant business, and because there is only business five days a week, and in those days there was no evening trade either, so literally you could have a business that worked on five lunchtime sessions a week, but they were, if you did the right thing, they’d be busy.
I thought this is an amazing crypt; it was clearly under-used. I went to see the vicar the next day and rang his doorbell, I had never met him before and said, “I’d like to have a vegetarian restaurant in your crypt.” He was a great guy, he had arrived there only about a year before, and he said, “Oh, that sounds interesting, let’s do it.” I think about a year or 18 months later we opened, which was not totally straightforward. Opening a café in a working church is not a totally straightforward business, there are all kinds of particular ways about the church giving them work that need to be sorted out, but it was great.
We opened in 1989 and we were really busy from day one. In those days the idea that you could do something serving fresh food, lots of fresh herbs, lots of olive oil, lots of fresh fruit, vegetables. It just didn’t really exist in where we were in Cheapside in London. It was great. We were busy from early, early, early. I had that restaurant for, I don’t know about over 20 years, and eventually sold it three years ago to the guy who was running it for me. It was really… it was a big part of my life for a long time.
Catherine: Now you’ve moved out of the city, London, and into the country.
Bill: Much to my amazement, I was brought up in London, Notting Hill Gate, and I never would… I wasn’t actually sure that places existed outside London. I heard rumour that there were places outside London, but that’s how Londoners are. This place, All Saints, I came to because the vicar who was doing this amazing transformation of the building was a pal of the vicar who was my landlord in London. He came down, Andrew came down to London to look around and see what was what was what, see who was doing interesting café stuff because he knew he wanted to have a café in his church in Hereford, and we got on really well together. He came to the Place Below [Café Below, now], which is the café in St Mary-le-Bow.
I came down here to have a look at this place and I had never been to Hereford before. It was wet and it was the early 90s and the recession was here in the church and its pre-reordered form was pretty depressing, the lighting was bad. Victor, who was my old landlord down in London described it as a church that smelled of second-hand underwear sales, and that was pretty much where it was at. However, it was slap bang in the middle of town, it has people passing in huge numbers on three sides of the building, it’s opposite Marks & Spencer’s, it’s next door to Tesco’s. It is a great site. Obviously it was a great site.
Andrew was asking my advice, and he got me to agree to come and help me open it. The church at that stage wanted to run the restaurant themselves, so Sarah and I came down here, we rented a house for three months. It turned out that we couldn’t rent it for three months because the landlord only wanted to rent it for a minimum of two years, and it was a really lovely house and we had this townie’s dream of living in a beautiful place in the country for a few months.
We did that and then we eventually moved here. We’ve now got kids school in Hereford and we just gradually got sucked in as many, many people do in this part of the world. It was a gradual process, but we are now completely here and not at all in London. What happened was the church ran the café themselves with me having an arm around them and keep advising them for the first five years of the business. I found that tricky because it’s tricky being an adviser when you really want to be running the place, and I’d write monthly report saying you should do X, Y and Z.
The church, it’s not what churches do, they have services, they look after people, and running a café is really, really an utterly different thing. So although it appears to make sense in a theoretical way, it doesn’t really make sense. The church transferred the business to me, they now do significantly better out of it than they did when they were running it themselves. And for me it’s an entire, it’s a much, much better setup. Since 2002 it’s been my business.
Since I think more or less that same year, I had stopped being a vegetarian some years previously, and gradually my interest in meat cookery had grown, and so we are now a fully omnivorous restaurant, very enthusiastic about local meat and as well as still serving great vegetarian food. It’s a transition of what we do is change every time and it continues to change.
Catherine: You mentioned a few minutes ago the beauty of a good lemon tart, and you have written, you said, “I believe that we need to become more democratic about food in this country. You should be able to get a great ham sandwich and a perfect lemon tart without going into a Michelin-starred restaurant.” This is a very non-stuffy approach and do you believe this is the future of eating out?
Bill: I think it is, and I think different people are coming at it from lots of different directions. I’m coming at it from bottom up and my first experience was in a very scruffy vegetarian café where the chefs had worn singlets and they had hairy armpits all over the place, but equally so I’m coming at it from that perspective. I think a lot of what would have been the posh chefs of this world are finding that actually people are responding better to straightforward, wholesome, vibrant, but not fancy food. Obviously there are plenty of people doing fancy food still, but what people are eating in quantity is great tasting straightforward food. That is what I’m interested in.
I’m less and less interested in the tasting menu end of things. Yes, it’s amazing and once in a blue moon it’s lovely, it’s exciting, but it’s almost not food anymore. I had a really interesting meal, I have a friend I eat out with a gastronomic place in London, and we went to the Nuno Mendes place before his current place when I was in Shoreditch, and we had an 11 course tasting menu. It was really fascinating, but it was not the same thing as the visceral caveman satisfaction of eating a fantastically good pork belly sandwich. Really, if I had to choose, I have no doubt whatsoever I would go for the pork belly sandwich over the tasting menu.
Catherine: Any day. I’m totally with you on that. You’ve got a very impressive range of local suppliers on your menu, particularly the meats, the meat suppliers.
Bill: By far… the supplier we buy by far the most of the stuff from is the Tudge family who are pig farmers and producers of bacon and sausages, and so on. I think they are really, really an interesting example and sum up what we are trying to do, although… They have Berkshire cross pigs, which are smaller, they get much less meat off each pig than the great big pigs that we’re used to seeing. They take great care over everything, but they are simple. Their sausages, if you go to most good-quality sausage producers, they’ll have that leek and cider in there, Cumberland in there… chilli sausage. Tudge’s have Tudge’s sausage, and that’s it. It is the best sausage.
We’ve eaten a lot of sausages, and I don’t think there is a better British style sausage, that theirs. There is nothing fancy in it. It is mostly pork meat, bit of rusk, bit of spices and that’s pretty much it. It makes great sausages, similarly the bacon — we buy a shedload of that smoked bacon. When we opened in Cambridge, we started using bacon from our local smokery there, River Farm Smokery, that we still buy smoked salmon from.
The chef who had worked for us here and in St. David’s and was familiar with Tudge’s stuff, said, “Look, this River Farm stuff is good. It’s not as good as Tudge’s. Can we get Tudge’s over here?” We now ship Tudge’s bacon and sausages and ham over to Cambridge. The bacon is smoked for a week. Now, you would not get that in your average, even your average artisan bacon maker, but they don’t do maple cured and hickory smoked and 17 different kinds. They just do the very best bacon that money can buy, smoked or non-smoked, end of story. I really, really like that.
Catherine: There is a lovely simplicity there. It’s almost a brand in itself, isn’t it? Tudge’s sausages, “a Tudge sausage”.
Bill: Yeah, yeah. It is an unintentional brand, like, I think, the best brands are. The contrary example for me is Patisserie Valerie, which was the most incredible café in Soho, which was still an independently run, stunningly amazing café when I used to go there in the 80s. It is now, unfortunately, a rather sad brand. I’m not saying it doesn’t have some good products still, but it is no longer the place on which the whole feeling that I used to have about the words “Patisserie Valerie”, which used to conjure up a whole sensation of sitting in this cramped space in Soho at a table with somebody you’ve never met before, but you start talking to them because you are there, and being served the best croissants and great coffee and so on.
It’s been extended to the point where the original really has been lost, and I think that’s a shame. That’s replicated, I think that’s probably… I’ve never been to the original Bill’s in Lewes but I don’t think it’s probably very much to do with the… Bill’s is a very decent chain, but it’s not really Bill’s anymore.
Catherine: Because, Patisserie Valerie, now that’s a chain, isn’t it?
Bill: Huge chain, yeah, yeah.
Catherine: I did have something in there in Bath, the Bath store maybe two or three years ago, having read a rave review on that. I thought it as dire actually, I was like, “what’s going on here?” Anyway, so we’ve spoken a little bit about your degree, history degree, from Cambridge. I’m just wondering, because you have written two cookery books, and you are a keen, consistent food blogger, do you think there is any connection between the fact that you chose to do a history degree and your food writing?
Bill: I guess, I don’t know whether specifically a history degree, but having done something where you’ve studied hard to learn how to write to get a point across to engage the reader is definitely, yeah, it’s something either, maybe some people are born naturally with it, but definitely something I had to learn, and I learnt it as it happens through history.
Since then, not only is it useful for blogging and stuff like that, it was incredibly useful for writing business plans, and I do some consultancy, advising other people about cafés and being able to communicate with them in a straightforward way. Actually, it’s not dissimilar to food. My thing about writing is it should do what it says on the tin, just like food should. It should tell you what you want to know. I love books that, where you are barely aware of the writing. Where there is not a lot of flummery, so that’s what I’m aiming for in writing. Yeah, I guess doing history degree doesn’t hurt.
Catherine: It’s putting the reader first, isn’t it, this lack of…?
Bill: Absolutely. That again is just the same as with eating. I want to go to places where the customer is put first, not the chef. I’m really not interested in a place where the chef is Mr. Big Cheese and that’s what you are there for.
There is a great pub called The Tram at Eardisley, which is not a famous pub. There are other more famous, fantastic pubs like The Stagg Inn in Herefordshire. The Tram is not nationally famous like that, but is a pub that puts the customer first. It serves great food that is made on the premises, but they do a burger, it’s a really good burger, and they do steak and its excellent steak. They’ll do a handful of other things, some fish of the day or whatever, but you really feel that what they think their job is to look after you, to give you good time. I always enjoy it, whether I’m just going for a pint of beer and a packet of crisps or for going for a meal, I feel looked after.
Catherine: That’s what it’s all about, not … It’s getting really the ego of the chef or the supplier, isn’t it, and very much meeting the needs of the consumer. Make the consumer happy and…
Bill: I hate the word “consumer” but that’s who they are.
Catherine: Yes. Do you think… Let me rephrase that. Why did you decide to write cookery books?
Bill: I decided because a friend who was, she was the sister of a good friend, who was in publishing. She had setup her own really great children’s imprint called Barefoot Books, and she was enthusiastic customer in London. She was saying, “This is great food, this is different to most vegetarian food that’s available. You should do a cookbook, Bill.” I went, “Oh, no, oh, I couldn’t possibly!” She said, “Actually you could, I’ll be your agent.” I was ever her only client as an agent.
She was brilliant, she was very brisk, told me how to do a synopsis, a sample chapter and so on, and then she hawked it around. It was a good moment because I was having a brief moment of media glory, and we’d won a Time Out Restaurant of the Year award in London. I’ve done a few bits on telly, I was doing screen tests for a series about vegetarian cookery, which in the end never materialised. I was writing regularly in BBC Vegetarian Good Food, which was then a separate magazine.
It was a good moment to put something before publishers, and she hawked the synopsis around and got a couple of people interested. At that point it was one thing led to another, so then there was a contract, so then I had to write it. For me, that was a very good discipline, I’m not sure it would have happened if I’d had to write the whole thing and then hawk it around, but knowing that I’d been paid in advance and there was a deadline for delivering the book was a great discipline.
Sarah and I went away for three months to Cornwall to really concentrate on it, and she was taster and proof reader and all that sort of thing. It worked, and I think… I’m really proud of it. This is quite a long time ago now, and I guess this is getting on for 20 years ago, and I’m still really proud of it. I think there is lots of good stuff in it, and I use my own copy at home, which is slightly bizarre, but it’s a very, very well thumbed book. Then the publishers said, “That’s gone quite well. Do you want to do another one?” I said, “Yeah, I did want to do another one.” I did another one.
The first one was straightforward lunchtime food, and the second one is more aimed at seasonal cooking, which I really got into by that point and slightly fancier of food, some of it, not all of it, so a bit more special occasion food there. That was a long time ago, and I had actually really… I’m getting to the point I’d really like to do another book, but with lots of meat in it because I love meat these days. One of the things I love about cookery is that, certainly for me, and I think for most cooks it’s a lifetime journey. What I know now is quite different to what I knew 10, 15 years ago, and I think it’s likely that what I know in another 10 years time will be different again.
I don’t think most people have that many books in them, I think most people who write a lot of books are actually rewriting the same book a few times. That’s fine, a great way to make a living, but on the whole, you probably only need one or two books from each author. I think I’ve probably got one more really good book in me.
Catherine: Ah, interesting. What do you think the theme would be apart from…?
Bill: The first ones were very based on the café, and I think this would be a mixture of home food and café food. There is much more crossover really for me now. The other thing is that because we’ve got kids now, I’ve had that business of family cooking for, I’ve got to do sums right here, 17, 18 years. That’s been a real learning process and is continuing to be because actually what happens with kids is that eating starts off pretty basic and then evolves over time.
Breast of lamb is one of my obsessions currently, in fact, there is a blog I’ve just done about it, but I made it a different way again at home the other night, and Johnny, our eldest, was saying, he took a mouthful, he has got a good palate, and he was saying, “Oh, this is good, I really like… it was fatty, but the fat is all gone but it’s left that lovely richness that…” I’m paraphrasing what he said, but he was really interested. Then neither of them particularly do much cooking, but they are both growing into liking really, really nice food. That’s great for me. I love cooking
I don’t cook very much at the cafés anymore, I do the occasional shift, but I still have a lot of input in the way that the café food develops. A book would be a mixture of café food and home food, and trying to bring that vision of easy stuff. I actually don’t do difficult-to-make food, and most of what I do is pretty failsafe. I think that’s quite good for people who want to be confident in the food that they are making. Most people don’t want to do tightrope cookery where one minute either way and you are scuppered.
That doesn’t fit well with most people’s lifestyle. Certainly, if my family are anything to go by, I call them to the table and five minutes later I’m getting really irritated and I go and shout for them again. That doesn’t work if you’ve got some fancy bit of turbot that really, you want to eat it now.
Catherine: Absolutely. That’s an insight into your life as a food writer. What about “food blogger”; why do you blog?
Bill: I guess I’ve done that for two reasons. One is a straightforward, commercial one… is to give the customers at the cafés something extra, so they may come and eat food, but actually they’ve had one of our lovely chocolate chip cookies, they might like to make it home. We get a lot of people asking for recipes. Blogging is like an active way of putting it out than saying, here is something new that’s good or something that we’ve been doing for years that’s good.
That’s one bit of it, and the other bit of it is actually is more a me thing. I do enjoy the process of writing, and blogging is great because there is no editor saying this is what I want or this is how you have to do it. I’m in control and I decide what to do, and that’s quite a luxury that I really like. I enjoy the process of writing. It is surprisingly hard work, and I guess people think when you are just cooking at home, you just take up the pictures and then you scribble it down afterwards.
Certainly, for me, it’s not as straightforward as that, and you need to plan it, very often you need to do it several times to get it right or to get the pictures right. The writing also, like teaching, which I very occasionally do, I find writing quite, it uses a lot of energy. I need to be really up for it to do it well and to do it properly. It’s a mixture of, it’s a commercial thing for the cafés, and I enjoy doing it.
Catherine: How long do you think, on average, it would take you to write a blog on a dish that you’ve made?
Bill: It’s not the writing, it’s the doing and the writing, and I think the whole thing I’d say all-in-all probably half a day.
Catherine: Oh, right. I would have said it was longer than that because your blog pieces are detailed and they are very ordered and they are clearly, clearly you’ve got a system going that you work to. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just so I mean you are systematic.
Bill: There is an introduction and the chat and then there is the recipe.
Catherine: Yes, this is the method and…
Bill: The ingredients and the method. I think it would be annoying to have a recipe based blog that wasn’t clear, so I think the recipe bit organises itself in a way. Then, the other bit is the bit I like, I like chatting about food, you can tell I’m whiffling on this morning, so I enjoy that process. I am many, many years, I’m still rather obsessed by food and cookery, so it just like, it’s like there is this gushing fountain, and actually I just have to point it in the right direction every so often.
When I say half a day, that’s like adding all the bits of time together, so for instance, the Breast of Lamb blog, I had to think about it to make sure we had the Breast of Lamb, then it goes in overnight so that’s obviously overnight. I’m not adding that in, and then it’s doing all the bits in the morning and then cooking it and then writing it. I’ve never really thought about it, but it’s a substantial chunk of time, it’s not just something to dash off. I think some blogs are dashed off and I don’t think it really works. I think it is something you got to put a bit of effort into if you want to do.
Catherine: I completely agree. I think some few blogs are very sloppy, really. I think it shows the disrespect to the reader because cooking food can often be expensive, some ingredients are expensive and it is a time issue, as well.
Bill: It is a time issue but also very strongly for me there is a trust issue. That if you’re hoping that people will enjoy reading it and maybe actually make the food, it would be outrageous to do that if you hadn’t gone to some effort to make sure it works.
Bill: Same with cookbooks, although it is interesting. There is a great book by that novelist, oh God, his name I can’t remember.
Catherine: British guy?
Bill: Yeah, British guy who wrote about following recipes, and he is a recipe follower. I can’t now remember the name of the book, but the one who takes apart particularly is the Chocolate Nemesis by the River Café, which apparently notoriously does not work. It’s a very famous River Café recipe, which apparently simply does not work. It’s entertaining because obviously they do take trouble over stuff, endless trouble in their restaurant, and I think probably largely in their cookbooks.
Catherine: Very expensive, I understand, as well. There is a lot of chocolate going on in there.
Bill: Is that right? We had this also that it’s a recipe that doesn’t work.
Catherine: No, I haven’t heard of it.
Bill: Anyway he reckons it doesn’t work, he gets quite cross, in fact in a very entertaining way.
Catherine: It’s not Will Self, by any chance?
Bill: It’s not Will Self, but it’s somebody of that generation, Flaubert’s Parrot and all that. Him. [Bill is referring to Julian Barnes, who wrote The Pedant in the Kitchen.]
Catherine: Him. Tip my tongue. Get the web out, find out later.
Bill: It’s like a 100-page rant, this book, really, about how people who are thinking about writing a recipe, they should write a bloody recipe that works.
Bill: Actually somebody like Delia [Delia Smith, British cookery writer and presenter] who, I believe, has a whole team working on her recipes. They do work, and that’s good. The reality is that when most of us who cook regularly, cook at home, we do not measure out 75ml of wine, as you see Delia doing to put in your casserole, we just glug from the bottle. For a recipe, actually I used to be very sniffy about Delia’s measured quantity of wine in her things, but for her recipe, yeah, you should specify the quantity because that’s helpful. You’re there to hold the reader’s hand.
Catherine: It’s the science side of cookery, not just the art. Sometimes I think that the web has introduced, while it’s very enabling and it gives you, you don’t need permission, you don’t need anyone’s permission to blog…
Bill: That’s right.
Catherine: I think it introduces a whole new layer of potentially of, what’s the word, “sloppiness” or recipes that don’t work.
Bill: It’s like where you get information from, where kids get information from when they are writing, doing their homework from school. They go to Wikipedia, funnily enough I think Wikipedia is actually pretty reliable these days, but I think there are lots of sub-Wikipedia bits of the web, which are utterly unreliable. In fact, I don’t read much of the food blogs, but I was looking… we want to develop… I’m looking at whether we can develop a really delicious, dairy-free flapjack.
I started looking on the web and obviously there are 17 million recipes for such things. One of them, the pictures looked quite nice and I thought I’d give it a go. Like all bloggers, she describes this as being really fantastic, really delicious, quite a well-known blogger, actually, who I won’t name. It was foul, it was inedible. Either she has got weird taste buds or she has never actually made this recipe. It could be either.
Catherine: What were the photos like because that’s usually a fairly good indication?
Bill: The photos were okay, but actually with flapjack that’s tricky because what you see in a flapjack is does it stick together, which it did. In fact the recipe did, physically it worked. It wasn’t like a flapjack that fell apart. Perhaps the photos didn’t glisten in the way that a really nice buttery flapjack glistens.
Catherine: So the diary-free element with a flapjack would be a flapjack that had no butter?
Bill: It would be no butter, yes. That’s obviously, in a way you are saying, that’s ridiculous, butter is what flapjack is about. That may be so, so I haven’t yet found a result to this, and we may abandon the quest because we will never serve anything here simply to tick a box of gluten-free, or whatever. We got an interesting one, we’ve just come to, which is we now serve only a gluten-free chocolate brownie. We don’t serve a glutinous chocolate brownie.
I actually think it’s better than the very good chocolate brownie that we used to serve. It’s different and it has involved me using an ingredient I never thought I’d go anywhere near, which is xanthan gum, but it is fantastically good. It’s probably just a tad more crumbly, but it’s got a nice texture. It’s got that real chocolaty moistness, there is still tons of really good quality chocolate in it.
My thing on all those avoiding stuff, avoiding gluten, avoiding sugar, I actually would love to be able to serve people those things, but I will only do it when we find a recipe that is utterly delicious for everybody. I don’t want to do something that … I really don’t like that phrase, “You wouldn’t know it was gluten-free.” That’s not the idea, the point is, is it delicious? End of.
Catherine: That’s point number one, isn’t it? Is it delicious?
Bill: Yeah, yeah.
Catherine: I hope you found Bill’s insights on the restaurant business as well as recipe book writing and food blogging useful. You can visit Bill’s website at www.cafeatallsaints.co.uk/. And Bill is on Twitter as @cafeatallsaints. Bill is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/cafeatallsaints.
Don’t forget to tune in next week to hear part two of my conversation with Bill, which is full of valuable and hard-won insights about the do’s and don’ts of setting up your own restaurant or café.
All links mentioned in the show are available at the show’s website, which is www.myartisanbusiness.com. And you can download a free transcript of my conversation with Bill there. To get updates on when I publish new episodes of the show, subscribe to my email list at myartisanbusiness.com and I’ll let you know when new episodes are live.
You can find me on Twitter as @FoodDrinkShow, so please get in touch if you have any comments, questions or suggestions.
Until next time, I’m Catherine Moran, happy cooking, happy brewing, happy fermenting, and thank you for listening.