MOB Meets... Ed Smith
"Most of the time we simply cook the things we do so that we can eat what we fancy,” writes Ed Smith in the introduction to his latest cookbook Crave, “it’s no more complicated than that.” It’s hard to disagree with that logic. And it’s hard to disagree with a cookbook author, chef, and food writer who’s made a living by being aware of our deepest, darkest cravings with recipes and blog posts dedicated to what we desire.
Not only is he a professionally trained chef but Ed (who you’ll likely already follow on Instagram over at @rocketandsquash) has had his moreish writing appear in an array of publications ranging from The Guardian to Waitrose & Partners Food magazine. His award-winning food blog, Rocket & Squash, was one of the first to make waves online over a decade ago.
In spite of how comfortable he seems at the top of the food media totem pole nowadays, Ed hasn’t always been a man about the London food scene. Initially working as a corporate lawyer in the city, Ed’s life was dominated by his job. The few moments that he was free to enjoy his meals were spent in Byron Burger or some other passable chain on a Friday night. So Ed did what anyone with a passion for cooking and food would do in his situation and blogged himself out of Pizza Express purgatory. Having successfully navigated the internet and forged a successful cookbook career for himself, Ed has proved himself adept at feeding people like you and me with great eats.
His latest cookbook, Crave, focusses in on the key question: “What flavours am I craving right now?” Recipes in the thick and fetching are arranged to satisfy your cravings – whatever the weather, your mood or appetite – and delineated into six flavour profiles:
- Fresh and fragrant
- Tart and sour
- Chilli and heat
- Spiced and curried
- Rich and savoury
- Cheesy and creamy
Whether you’re in the mood for a tart and sour Fermented and Fresh Tomato Salad with Feta or a rich and savoury Mushroom, Kale and Tarragon Lasagne, Ed should have at least one recipe on hand to satisfy your craving. It’s not rocket science, it’s Rocket & Squash science. Here’s what happened when MOB met Ed Smith.
When did the desire to start the Rocket & Squash blog first come about?
Rocket & Squash was something I started in 2010 – just over a decade ago. I was a corporate lawyer at the time but I'd always loved food and cooking and eating out. As a Junior Associate at a big city law firm, I was working really hard at all hours of the day and I was constantly reading about all these restaurants that I'd never get round to booking for myself. I wanted to give myself a reason to finally eat at those places so every week I made myself book a new restaurant and cook something new. The blog part of it was just a creative outlet, I suppose. I had no ambition to do anything beyond that with it but I think that about two years in I just sort of realised that whatever you do in life, you've got to work hard and put in the hours to achieve success, and wouldn't it be a better idea to do that in that in an industry that you're actually interested in? Which I just palpably wasn't with banks and corporate institutions.
Was there a specific moment or event that motivated you to pursue food full-time?
I didn’t have a Damascene moment, exactly, but I do remember writing a blog post at midnight, just after I'd got home from work. I was writing that and it got to about 2 o'clock in the morning and I just asked myself: "what the fuck are you doing? You've got to be at work in five hours' time." I took that as an indication that maybe that was a path I should pursue. I didn't know what it was I would do specifically – I thought I was going to start a cookery school or some sort of scaleable chain – but I knew I wanted to work in food so I went to Westminster Catering College and intended to make a plan after that. To be honest, I never actually wrote that business plan and just kind of ended up floating around food and food media from then.
Obviously, the landscape has changed an extraordinary amount to how it was in 2010. What would be your advice to someone trying to break into food media today?
Let’s just say if I wanted to work in food media, or in the food scene as a chef, today I would not do what I've done. I've had a few lucky breaks and I've taken the opportunity to write or work in restaurants but I haven't really laid the groundwork for how to break into food media. My advice would be: if you know what you want to do, you need to put in the hours at the base level. If you think you want to be the next Nigel Slater then the best thing to probably do is to work at a food magazine or work at a restaurant as a junior and work your way up so you can get a really good grounding and find out what you're good at. If you want to be a chef, then work in the restaurants you love and don't assume or think that you should break out and do a pop-up straightaway. I think the people that have put in the hard yards manage to excel better in the long term. I think Ravneet Gill is a great example of someone who's done the junior chef bit, worked out what she wanted to do, and is now creating an impressive presence and platform for herself. I think it's easy these days to think that you need to get somewhere quickly but you're actually probably more likely to get somewhere more efficiently if you actually do those early bits and work at a more traditional entry-level job first.
You mentioned Nigel Slater, who's a big personal hero of mine. Who are your culinary heroes?
I've got a lot of interests in different areas so I definitely have heroes in the chef world but if we’re talking food writers then it’s obviously got to be Nigel Slater. I think Simon Hopkinson is also a bit of a God in the way that he writes about food and how his recipes are always truly delicious. If you look at a lot of Hopkinson’s books, which are 20 years old now, they almost feel quite contemporary. And that's because I think he looked at global cuisine back then in a way that we still do now. He didn't do it in a faddy way; most of what Hopkinson wrote is still relevant because it was a proper Vietnamese salad or a classic French dish or his own take on an Indian tomato curry. There's a timeless quality to his writing and that's something that I aspire to. There are also loads of my contemporaries right now that I look up to. People like Gill Meller and Olia Hercules are particularly inspiring. I really rate Olia Hercules as someone who researches and presents recipes that intrigue me, and is also passionate about all things food. Rachel Roddy sits alongside Slater and Hopkinson, and I always look to see what Anna Jones and Meera Sodha are cooking, and how they present that to home cooks.
You write a lot in your latest book about comfort eating and how moods tend to dictate what we crave. What’s your ultimate comfort food?
I think the interesting thing about comfort food is that the first thing most people think of is chicken soup or beans on toast or something that's savoury. Crave is obviously broken down into six sections and the 'Rich and Savoury' and the 'Cheesy and Creamy' section are both the natural places to look for comforting food. Sometimes I’ll seek out comfort food because I'm feeling down but other times I’ll be driven by something like the weather or events just being a bit grey. In those moments, a katsu curry always does the job. I don't think there are many things I'm drawn to more on a cold, wet day than a katsu curry. Anything that has beans in is also super comforting to me. There's a borlotti, browned onions, and sausages dish in Crave which was a recipe that I cooked on one of those miserable days and it actually helped give me the idea for the book. I was hungover, it was wet, and my son was about one at the time so we were stuck at home. All I had on-hand were some dried beans, some onions, and some sausages so I just braised them all together and it was perfect. Brown food is immensely comforting.
The recipes in Crave are arranged by flavour rather than course. Where did the idea for that come from?
I think it was about three years ago that I first started thinking about this book. I've mentioned that particularly wet day with the beans as an early inspiration but I think it could quite easily have been inspired by a day that was unseasonably hot as well. It just dawned on me that we so often think about seasonal cooking as the “right thing” to do, but that reduces our year to four seasons in Britain. And it’s not rare for you to have a hot day in early Spring and a wet, freezing day two weeks later, for example. The seasons don't always work when the weather isn't playing along so I started thinking about food and how the weather makes you feel about food and it just clicked that what it actually does is change what you’re craving. So rather than spend loads of time browsing through books or the internet and looking aimlessly, I thought: what about refining your search by the flavours that suit the mood or your appetite? I just went from there, really. I think the whole point of the book is that it's actually supposed to be quite intuitive – it's not rocket science. As I started to work on the flavours that you might be craving at any given time, and how they might be slightly different to each other, the six sections fell together pretty easily. Which either means I haven't looked hard enough or it really is as intuitive as I hope!
If you could only eat one of those flavour profiles for the rest of your life, which would it be?
Good question. I think everyone definitely has a section in there that they're drawn to more than others. All the editors who have looked at Crave have mentioned that they spent most of their time in a different specific section and I think if I had to be in one of them it'd probably be 'Chilli and heat'. It's a good example of a flavour profile that works across so much of your craving. On a hot day, a little chilli buzz on your lips is a great thing to cool you down but it's also so good on those days which are grey or in which you need a bit of a bump from food. So, yeah, I think I'm kind of drawn to 'Chilli and heat' but ask me tomorrow and 'Tart and Sour' might be my choice.
What’s the best thing about Instagram?
I still try, though, it's inevitably a platform to promote yourself on these days, to treat Instagram like I did ten years ago. I still see it as a way of sharing things that I like, sharing food that I cook, and appreciating and being inspired by the food of others. I think Instagram is best when it's coming from that genuine place and, interestingly, I think you get the best engagement when something is actually organic and you're not pushing it on someone else for any ulterior motive. I think you can really benefit from Instagram as a place for inspiration and a place to share your own creativity. It's also terrible, obviously, and I really resent the time I've spent doomscrollling on it.
What’s the worst thing about Instagram?
The worst thing is that there’s an unnatural buzz and endorphin rush you get when you’re receiving likes and comments. You feel drawn to see whether people have liked your photos and that's definitely a bad thing that invades my mental headspace far too often.
What’s the one dish that you think everyone should be able to cook?
I think being able to cook a curry from scratch is essential. Obviously, curry is a massively wide term but I think if you know you can do that, and realise how easy it is to cook something like that from scratch, then the world is your oyster. It’s little things like knowing that frying off your spices to start with, to get them fragrant, is important. Or knowing whether you’re cooking a curry where the onions need to be cooked down beforehand or knowing what stage you need to add the fat. If you can cook a curry, and pay attention to the spices and flavours used in a particular cuisine, then that’s really going to help you when you do branch-off into other cuisines.
What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?
I usually just put James Blake (the eponymous album) on and let it play. That album was on a lot when James and Isaac [Lowe and McHale] were writing the next day’s to-do lists upstairs at The Ten Bells, where I got my first experience in restaurant kitchens. If I had to choose one track from that album it’d probably be ‘Lindisfarne II’.