I grew up eating cucumber sandwiches, macaroni cheese and toast. That was all I liked. Occasionally, green pepper; then I hated them and preferred red. That passed when I preferred yellow best of all. I liked croquettes until my grandad called them potato croquettes and I remembered how I hated potato. My parents suffered endlessly, but kept trying. Many times I ended up with aborted meals on my head; notably, spaghetti hoops and pizza.
My uncle Paul, at pains to change me and broaden my plates’ futures, once paid me £5 to eat a small cube of a seared beef steak. My mother paid a further £1 for photographic proof of the moment. A quality racket to run. The meat was fine, but I still preferred the white sauce and pasta.
“One day, you will eat everything. You’ll look back and laugh,” Paul said more than once.
I entered student years armed with the finest 29p noodle soups and pasta sauces, but somewhere down the line something changed. I don’t know what it was, or even when, but I am an adventurer now. Not so much at home, apart from with vegetables and spices, but when at a restaurant, all my guards are dropped. Paul is responsible for this, by and large, for constant nudging and encouragement. For making me feel daft, letting me try interesting food in his restaurant, making me understand the theatre and joy around dining.
When my girlfriend and I decided to visit Copenhagen in 2009, we tried to get into noma and were lucky, so very very lucky. This experience blew my mind, and forced me into eating things that I swore would never pass my lips (cod roe, raw razor clam in its own juices). The relaxed atmosphere, and knowing that a complete genius was at work, made me lose any inhibitions that I had. Everything was an incredible piece of art designed with absolute understanding of its place in culture behind it. Most of all, it was designed for eating, laughing, enjoying.
From then, we’ve tried to recreate our own bits of noma at home, and stretch ourselves when dining out. Last year, we went to Purnell’s, which was stunning in its exploration of West Midlands flavours, Asian spices and British produce. The duck with licorice ash and the amuse bouche of cucumber sorbet, ras el hanout and black rice particularly incredible.
This weekend, we took a trip to the North West to Nigel Haworth’s Northcote Manor. Lisa Allen was running the kitchen, and the confidence, calmness and beauty of the food in front again pushed me to go beyond my own limitations. Scallop carpaccio, oyster and my first tastes of lobster are still making me laugh.
nb. The vegetarian experience is over here.