With their first cookbook, Ducksoup, the owners of the restaurant of the same name celebrate simple cooking.
“Believe in the simple. Angel hair pasta with olive oil, sage and Parmesan for example. People always feel the need to impress but you don’t need lots going on. Have confidence that less is more.”
Clare Lattin is sitting with Tom Hill, co-owner and executive chef of Ducksoup, the unassuming restaurant in the heart of London’s Soho that they and Rory McCoy set up five years ago. It’s mid-afternoon and a few people are sitting at the scrubbed-wood tables eating “honest, straightforward” food from a modest hand-written menu of around a dozen dishes that changes every week or so. Willie Nelson drifts through the speakers, the LP chosen by a customer: Ducksoup is now almost as famous for its 33rpm platters as for its food.
We’re talking about their first (and, for the moment, last) cookbook, Ducksoup: The Wisdom of Simple Cooking, 350 elegantly designed pages printed on matt cream paper. The photos, taken by Kristin Perers in the restaurant and at home, are good enough to eat, but gastroporn this most definitely is not. “We all have the same philosophy,” explains Lattin, who worked in publishing (for cookery specialists Quadrille and Murdoch) before putting together a business plan and heading off to the bank. “Simple cooking, great ingredients. Honest food. Everything was already in my head, my thoughts informed from travel. The idea was that it’s not fanciful – it’s an everyday place that you could always come to, but quality was at the heart of it. Really really good food and wine – but no airs and graces. You just pitch up, and you can be on your own. There’s no ceremony, no pompousness.” As to the name: “It sounded fun and quite cute.”
So too with the book, in which everything is gathered under no-nonsense headings: “Quick Things”; “From the Stove”; “A Little More Time”; “Cooking”; “Pudding”. The opening chapter is all about the Ducksoup larder, “the ingredients we come back to time and time again… essentials that will transform the way you cook”. The closing chapter is “Toolkit”, a half-dozen key items that should be thought of as “good friends”, among them a cast-iron skillet and a mandoline. An Introduction describes in equally unpretentious terms how Ducksoup came to be.
Cookbooks are big business, piled high in bookstores and in places such as Williams Sonoma, alongside so much copper cookware. Pots and books do indeed furnish a home. Oft-times that’s all they do, the copper too shiny to spoil, the list of ingredients too long to detain us. But Ducksoup offers easily attainable recipes (razor clams, wild garlic and lemon – just add olive oil) and some that require no cooking at all (prosciutto, walnuts and honey) which anyone can manage, and in the smallest of kitchens. “It’s just assembly – having good stuff in the fridge and knowing how to put it together, ” Lattin says.
What could be better for those of us who love to eat but may be less fond of cooking, or who simply lack the time?
Lattin and Hill met “on the job” when Lattin was promoting a book by chef Mark Hix who had just opened his first restaurant, Hix Oyster & Chop House, in London. Both were food obsessives though their childhood experience of food had been rather different. Lattin was “a terribly greedy child” and while her parents were both keen cooks there wasn’t the money to be lavish. Holidays were spent in Scotland, not then renowned for its cuisine. On the other hand, Hill’s childhood was spent in the countryside, Dorset, in south-west England, and much of the produce came either from his parents’ greenhouse or local markets.
“My Mum loved cooking and eating was very much a family occasion – we’d sit round the table with a glass of wine and have dinner together. My brother and I would cook at the weekends”, often sous-cheffing for Dad, then in his Ken Hom phase. But it was summer holidays in Spain and Greece that awakened Hill’s senses: “We’d eat stuffed aubergines and tomatoes in olive oil. And the oil was on the table, whereas at home we bought it in a small bottle from the chemist! (This was the 1970s and ‘80s: warm olive oil was a treatment for earache.) “There’d be mussels – I was 10 or 12 and it just blew my mind. I remember telling my parents I wanted to try grilled octopus. They asked if I knew what it was and explained it to me. And this massive tentacle came up, beautifully chargrilled with all the suckers on. I took a sucker off and put it in my mouth – and absolutely loved it.”
Thus are chefs born and not made. Hill learned on the job, working in bars and coffee shops in the south-west port city of Bristol where, in the close-knit catering community, everyone knew everyone else. Mitch Tonks was about to open Fishworks, and Hill asked for a job. “Mitch took me under his wing and I saw how a kitchen works.” It was just his thing – a good piece of fish grilled on charcoal and served with salad: keep it simple. After around four years, Hill felt he should broaden his experience and Tonks introduced him to his friend Hicks. “I went from Mediterranean to British seasonal food. You had to create a menu with what you had an abundance of.” Finally, there was a period at Terroir, a London restaurant that early on was into natural wines.
There are now two restaurants – Rawduck, in Hackney, in London’s newly trendy east end, something of a foodie paradise – and a third will shortly open in Battersea, south of the Thames. The philosophy and the style are the same, though the offer is tweaked: Soho, in central London (where actor Stanley Tucci is a regular) is a destination restaurant, the others are local, which makes a difference.
The business may be demanding but the Ducksoup team make time to travel together in search of shared foodie experiences. If Japan wins in terms of taste and texture, the Middle East (they were lucky to make it to Damascus before the war) provided the greatest inspiration. “Food there is not about celebration – it’s about life, community, survival. They don’t worry about perfect lighting or the perfect plate – all the things we feel we have to create in order to survive as a restaurant.” Smoked cod’s roe, spring onion, marjoram and olive oil is Lattin’s lasting memory of Beirut: “The salty row and the perfumed herb – it’s explosive.” And it doesn’t need cooking.
The book also recommends suitable cheeses and charcuterie, and offers suggestions on preserving and fermenting, including fruit-based drinking vinegars – a health-giving alternative to soft drinks and taken from the history books. It doesn’t touch on wine, though the restaurants serve only natural wine, which is to say wine made from grapes that are grown naturally, then picked and fermented. “It’s biodynamic and works with the cycles of the moon,” explains Hill, “the oldest way of producing wines”. The colours, tastes and sensation are all very different from the wine we are used to, which contains stabilising chemicals, and while the movement began in France, Italy and Spain, it is now slowly spreading in America.
Ducksoup is a book to pore over and to cook from, and you’ll want to do both. “It’s about accessibility,” concludes Hill. “It’s knowing you can do something great with just a few ingredients. You don’t need to spend hours in the kitchen – it’s about the sensation.”
Liz Thomson is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and author. She is the co-founder of The Village Trip, a festival to celebrate the history and culture of Greenwich Village.