Sunny Jane Hornby on Baking, Dicing, Stocking the Pantry and What to Cook and How to Cook It

Some interviews are a dragged out affair from coordinating schedules to getting answers and after a long slog finally publishing it.

In this case, it was arranged on Friday afternoon, we met on Monday and interview is served still warm 2 days later.

I walked in the Phaidon Store after walking in freezing NY. Jane Hornby was so charming and sunny that it did not take me long to warm up to her company.

Here is Jane, au naturel, without pretense.

Q: Jane, since your book is titled ‘What to Cook and How to Cook it’, how did the topic surface?

The publisher found me. They wanted to offer a beginner’s guide to homely cooking with a lot of visual cues so it would not be intimidating. They knew my experience in showing recipes from soup to nuts to regular folks rather than ‘experts’. They also liked my passion for sharing what I learned along the way.

Q: Do you find that people tend to eat out, order take out or buy prepared food as much for lack of planning (menu, food shopping) as for lack of skills?

In our modern era we have lost touch with tasks like planning our meals ahead and making shopping lists. It is all part of household management and makes lunches and dinners run smoothly.

Q: I noticed that a number of cookbook authors put the emphasis on having a well-stocked pantry. Do you feel that when in a bind if you have a few vegies (even frozen), spices, pasta, lentils and other dry goods, you can whip up a meal with relative ease?

It goes back to what I mentioned earlier. Checking your cupboards, having spices, parmesan cheese, good olive oil, pasta, beans, lentils, fresh vegetables and some canned and frozen foods helps you out of sticky situations.

Q: Even while in the restaurant business, I worked with many young ladies (waitresses) who did not know how to cook. Do you think that this lack of cooking skills affect women as much as women?

I have female friends who don’t know how to cook. Once they have kids there’s no escaping learning at least how to prepare a few meals. Men tend to cook more than in previous generations but many of them don’t want to do it on a daily basis. This is more a week-end or special occasion thing when they can show off a bit, get noticed.

Q: I published recently your 12 step recipe for Cinnamon Rolls; in your book could you name the dish with the least steps and one with the most?

The longest recipe might be the Lemon Tart (page 350). Not too time consuming is the Thai Curry with Beef (page 168) and quickest would be side dishes and salads.

Q: Amongst all the recipes name a few that you are most happy with and why?

The Mediterranean Fish Stew (page 270) came out well. It also is a flexible item as you can use different types of white fish and decide what shellfish you want to use. I like 1 pot dishes a lot.

On the dessert side, Butterscotch Banana Bread (page 364) is my favorite. It gives you a chance to use these slightly overripe bananas. It has been a hit in the UK. We shall see if Americans take to it as well.

Butterscotch Banana Bread

Q: The step by step video and photo shoots you did for the book seems like quite an endeavor, does it take a calming presence to keep things moving?

All the years I have spent staging dishes came to good use. Each day had a detailed list of what needed to be done including number of recipes we had to go through. Since we shot each dish step by step as well as its ingredients it takes good planning. If we did not finish what we had on our plate we would have to stay late or come early the next day. We had only a number of days to get it done. It was mostly myself, an assistant (Marisa Viola) and Angela Moore, the photographer.

Q: Last week, I was looking at a number of Food blogs and was left feeling that these were perfect pictures, perfectly cold? Have we reached a stage where food photo shoots are as airbrushed as models and celebrities? Where is the emotion?

I wonder if some of them are on a quest for perfection (perfect macaroon). Is anyone except the author cooking the recipes? With that fussy, showy trend in mind, Angela and I made sure that the plates, tableware and utensils used in photo shoots would be the kind one can find at Ikea.

Q: You had a 6 year stint on BBC’s Good Food, in which countries outside the UK are you best known?

Yes, I was with BBC’s Good Food from 2003 to 2009. Outside the UK, Australia is the country where I might be best known. Good Food Magazine has a good following there. I visited Australia in November to promote my book. I did a cooking class as well.

Q: You have 2 Twitter accounts with a moderate following, is it an element that does not come as naturally to you as TV, books and magazines?

Call me old-fashioned if you want, I don’t like to share my life with the world every minute. I am a very private person. I also try to control my pace. In any case the past year has been crazy busy putting this book together and now promoting it. What I do like about the online world is the ability for readers to interact with you instantly and directly? I am not trying to become the next celebrity chef. My biggest pleasure, satisfaction, is when readers tell me how much they enjoyed a certain recipe; send me pictures of their re-creation of it at home. One happy reader like that makes my day.

I do plan on dipping my toes online more often in 2011.

Q: How did you experience the transition from being one of many contributors with Good Food books to carrying your own project with this first cookbook?

The biggest shock was not the book itself but rather the transition from working in a large space with an office, a professional kitchen, getting feedback from others which I got used to at the BBC to being home alone. I had a hard time knowing when to stop, how to separate work and play. I ended up sharing space with others at The Old Clinic, a 1930’s building in Mortlake. There is no kitchen there so I still cook at home but I bring my try outs. Rather than throw the food out, I get feedback from fellow Old Clinic occupants.

Q: Along the way, were some people and places from the food realm inspirations, mentors?

Growing up, I would say Delia Smith. In the UK we have that expression ‘doing a Delia’ when we cook. You might laugh but I collect the Time-Life collection of Cookbooks. I hunt them down at charity shops like Oxfam bookshops. Amongst my contemporaries, I have an appreciation for Yotam Ottolenghi and others like Nigel Slater.

Q: Are there things you would never eat? Why?

I like pretty much everything. Don’t serve me brains or jellyfish, sweetbreads are OK as long as they are crisp not soft. As for cooking things, I have a hard time cleaning the insides of crabs. I can do it yet would rather do without.

Q: When you are tired of cooking, what place do you escape to in order to refresh your batteries?

Singing in a Community choir really clears my head. We cover pop tunes from 60’s to 80’s and do charity shows from time to time. I also enjoy walking. My area of London is graced with green spaces like Richmond Park where it is not unusual to spot a deer.

Q: Can you share some of the favorite places you ate at, whether in the UK or abroad?

In general I don’t care much for white table cloths restaurants. I like casual fare.

In London, there is a dim sum place called the Peninsula by a Holiday Inn Express near Millennium Dome. The place looks like nothing; food is great, perfect for a family outing with kids. Add to the list Fernandez and Wells in Soho, Terroirs wine bar near Charing Cross offers a lot of little plates.

When I visit my hometown of Birmingham, I have to have Balti, a curry dish. There is no place in London that serves Balti as good as in Birmingham.

Q: If someone played you in a movie, who should it be?

Maybe Anna Chancellor ( ‘Duckface’ in 4 Weddings and a Funeral).

Thanks to Jane for taking the time to talk with us and Maria for making it possible

Jane Hornby first book solo What to Cook and How to Cook it is published by Phaidon.

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