16 August 2023 · Author Profile
Valentine Warner is a chef, author and TV presenter, who achieved acclaim for What to Eat Now, a pair of TV series which focused on cooking with the seasons.
More recently, alongside his food writing and TV presenting, he co-founded Hepple Spirits, a Northumberland-based distillery that focuses on creating deeply flavoursome and intensely botanical spirits while using techniques and equipment more often found in the perfume industry.
We are delighted that four of Valentine's cookbooks are now available in full on ckbk:
In this author profile, Gabriella English speaks to Warner about his style of cooking and how it has developed.
By Gabriella English
Growing up in rural Dorset in the 1970s, with two parents who were naturally good cooks, clearly had a profound effect on Valentine Warner’s style of cooking: 'I learnt about the world by biting everything. Not always with a good outcome.’ Val quickly understood food as the outdoors being brought indoors and soon viewed all his surroundings as ‘either edible or inedible'. He says he regards people this way too!
Warner's father was deeply fascinated by nature and this was another strong influence. Warner loves to use vegetables picked on the sea shore or pulled from a hedgerow. He fondly recalls 'long walks with my dad, with football sized puffballs picked to be served with buttered toast, and rosehips carried home in our pockets for cough mixture.’
Until he was three, Warner lived in Tokyo where his father was British Ambassador to Japan. Despite experiencing it at such a young age, Japanese cuisine also clearly left its mark on him. His whole family are Japanophiles, and he still travels there occasionally. ‘If I had to choose to eat any food for the rest of my life, it would be Japanese’. This love of Japanese food, with it’s clean and balanced flavours and its considered and thoughtful approach to cooking, has permeates his cookbooks. Try his version of the classic Japanese miso glazed grilled aubergine dish, Nasu Dengaku.
An interest in travel and food has continued throughout his life and career — he wryly describes his own style of cooking as ‘international grandmother’. He is fascinated with local ingredients and cooking styles: ‘Food is a particularly good way to start to understand a country. I'd rather discuss braised octopus with a Sardinian widow than the intricacies of molecular gastronomy with Heston’.
In his early 20s, Warner studied painting at the Byam Shaw School of Art. He notes that the skills involved in cooking and art are deeply linked; ‘both are an arrangement of shapes and colours and have to capture interest’. One has to look nice, the other taste nice. I know great artists who cook well and great cooks who make great art. It's common. Cooking goat in my bedsit at art college, it was a logical progression, years later that I would put down the brush to pick up the spoon’. After the death of his father, Warner, who was then in his mid 20s, began to crave discipline which he was not getting in his life as a painter. It was at this time that he began working in professional kitchens in London, most notably under the chef Alastair Little, who died in 2022. Little was a huge inspiration as a mentor, and Warner expresses some regret at not having spent longer working with and learning from him.
Whilst working in restaurant kitchens certainly provided Warner with the structure and discipline he craved, he felt uncomfortable with some aspects, including the food waste he witnessed, a far cry from the food environment in which he grew up. ‘My mother never went to the shops if she could help it ’ says Warner, who expresses frustration at the ‘ecological impacts of human appetite, waste and food production.’
It was around this time that Warner made the move to working in TV and writing cookbooks, a move that truly defined his career. He was able to maintain his unique approach to cookery while reaching a wider audience. He is very aware of the challenges that many people are currently facing due to rising food costs. He does not feel that it is his place to tell people they should cook, but rather to make them aware of how delicious, easy and inexpensive home cooking can be.
Warner is very much a locavore, taking inspiration from wherever his travels take him, and he encourages the use of locally-sourced ingredients wherever possible, adding '‘I don’t like to superimpose things on a place. Stand still for a second and understand where you are, see what’s in the market, what the area is famous for? This will write your menu!’. This love of simplicity is reflected in his list of store cupboard ingredients that he could not live without: ‘Dijon mustard, anchovies, tomato puree, a really good selection of vinegars - and of course, butter’.
Tomatoes with Dijon mustard & cream on toast from A Good Table is a great example of a dish combining fresh produce with the best of the store cupboard.
When it comes to his perfect idea of comfort food, simplicity again shines through. ‘Eggs, scrambled with lots of butter - and never any milk. They should always migrate a little across the plate - if they don’t then they are overcooked. I hate repetition so sometimes I eat them straight, sometimes mixed with dill and brown shrimp — maybe even a shaving of white truffle if I'm extremely lucky’. More recipes showcasing Warner's love of eggs include Anchovy and Parmesan Baked Eggs, and Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Anchoïade & Fried Egg.
Rustic provincial cuisine from around Europe is prominent in Warner's books. He loves to explore lesser known elements of cuisines, and feels that more people should explore beyond the crowded (and often overpriced) tourist restaurants to experience the wonders of tiny hilltop bistros or shacks on the beach. Remembering a pancake he tasted in a remote mountainous taverna in Greece, made with goat's butter and served with a salad of freshly picked bitter leaves, he says ‘I'd rather eat such things than be disappointed behind a starched napkin'. He is not keen on the current trends to overcomplicate food, and remembers simple vegetable dishes he tasted in Italy that were naturally vegan ‘but without any brain strain.' Warner senses a detachment from the basics of food and cookery in the UK, saying ‘we know less about food in the UK than ever before’. His recipes for Spaghetti Arrabbiata and Apple Charlotte embody his preferred style of simple, classic cooking.
Most recently, Warner has been working alongside Ingunn Rasmussen with Kitchen At The End of the World, located in the Lofoten islands in Norway. His passion for eating local and seasonal food is fully embraced here under the shimmering glow Northern lights and the chill of the arctic weather. Internationally renowned chefs come to cook with Rasmussen, making use of varied bounty offered up from this dramatic landscape. Craft workshops alongside fine food makes for a wonderful 'analogue odyssey' for the guests, a break from the digital mayhem of modern life. Warner's books show his interest in nordic food, with recipes for Lapland Fish Soup, Pickled Herrings and Skagen (a classic Swedish open sandwich with prawns, mayonnaise and dill).