INSPIRED: Sam Stern

Sam Stern is a bit (well, a lot) of a genius when it comes to cooking. First, he shared his family’s recipes with us in Cooking Up A Storm. Then he made cooking cool with his Student Cookbook. And now, he’s on a mission to make all of us feel confident and adventurous in the kitchen with the release of his latest tome, Virgin To Veteran: How To Get Cooking With Confidence.

Despite the fact he’s already had six books published, he’s only 21 years old and still has one year to go on his course at the University of Edinburgh (where he’s studying Politics and Sociology). Pretty impressive, eh?

Here, Sam spills the beans (not literally – he’s too much of an expert for that kind of thing) on getting published and why cooking is his passion, and tells us how anyone – yes, anyone, even you – can become a decent cook.

What’s your earliest foodie memory?

My earliest food memory is the gorgeous smell of my mum’s treacle bread wafting out over our kitchen as it cooked. Foodie memory is asking for and eating olives as I sat in my pushchair in the queue at the deli.

What’s your favourite dish to cook?

Roast dinner – because it’s what we always have when all of the family are round. And it’s what I usually turn out when my mates come round for a get-together.

Were you a natural at cooking straight away or did it take practice?

The enthusiasm for it came naturally. Food has always been central to my life. First thoughts on waking every morning have always been ‘what’s for dinner tonight?’ The actual practical bit grew organically as I hung around the kitchen as a kid and got involved with everything. Then there was the competitive factor: I wanted to be a better cook than my older brother. That was a great incentive.

What’s the story behind Virgin To Veteran?

It’s the book I’ve always wanted to write and I finally felt I’d got enough knowledge and experience to do it. It’s all in the title really. It’s there to help virgin cooks get down with the basics and develop a workable cooking repertoire of really tasty everyday food and classics. One that will have them cooking anywhere and everywhere with enjoyment and confidence. I’ve tried to de-mystify the whole process basically.

When you walk into a supermarket as a new cook you’re bombarded by choices. So many decisions to make – what bit of chicken to pick off the shelf, what to get to go with it, what to ask for at the fish counter or deli and then, when you get it home, you need to know how to store it, prep it and cook it.

Virgin to Veteran guides you through those choices and each stage of the cooking process from setting up a basic kitchen, to shopping, to flavour combining, to seasoning and that’s before you get to the recipes. There’s even a bit of basic nutrition. It’s all about enjoying the process and building confidence and creativity.

The recipes are divided into basic food groups for clarity. And most recipes have ‘change it up’ or ‘bonus bite’ options which encourage cooks to experiment with the basic recipe. Work across the whole book and you’ll end up proficient in most of the key cooking techniques.

There’s nothing too complicated in the book but I hope even Veteran cooks will pick up something interesting and new.

You need the knowledge and the basics before you can be properly creative.

What’s the one dish that every ‘young creative’ should have under their belt?

For a meat-eating young creative wanting something really special I’d suggest roast marrow bone served with griddled bread, a parsley salad and a pot of beef tea on the side.  I’ll post the recipe on my blog one day or maybe use it for the next book.

How did the first book, Cooking Up A Storm, come about? Did you approach publishers or did they approach you?

Cooking Up A Storm was like a cunning plan to get our family recipes published plus a bit of a mission to get people of my generation cooking for themselves and getting hooked on the process.

My mates would mostly put a frozen pizza in the oven when they got in from school. But they’d come to our house, watch us cooking, eat the results and be amazed at how easy it was to do it.

At first no publishers were interested. They didn’t think a cookbook aimed at teenagers had a chance in the market. But Denise Johnstone Burt, Editor and Director at Walker Books saw the proposal and bought it.

Your other books include The Student Cookbook, Get Cooking, Real Food, Real Fast and Eat Vegetarian. Which has been your favourite to produce/create and why?

I don’t have a favourite. They’re all special. You put so much heart into every one and they’re all a part of your personality. The fact that my best mates and my family played such a big part in them all – joining in with the cooking, recipe choices, photography, means they’re part of our shared history. I still use them all.

What advice would you give to budding professional chefs/cooks?

Immerse yourself in food at every level. Read as many cookbooks as you can.  Make time to cook every day, no matter how busy you are. Build on your mistakes – that’s where you learn the most. It’s all about developing your palate so try new food combinations all the time. Season everything. It makes all the difference. That’s not just about using salt and pepper. Use different vinegars, spices, lemon and lime juices, oils. Experience the difference it makes. Taste everything as you go along and learn to judge what’s right. Follow your tastebuds, your nose and enjoy it all. Make it look great on the plate. Start with the basics and then be creative.

If you want to follow the professional route see what food style of eating you like best and do your research. You can apply to go straight into a kitchen or go to cookery school.

Who’s your foodie hero?

Keith Floyd was an absolute legend in the TV chef world. I really love his approach to food. It’s all about enjoyment and no pretension. I like the honesty of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I enjoy Fergus Henderson’s nose-to-tail philosophy and the food at St John [Fergus Henderson’s restaurant].

What are the pros and cons of being a professional chef?

I’m answering this one as a cookery writer not a professional chef. I have huge respect for professionals. Having done a stint in a restaurant kitchen I know what a hard job it is. You’ve got long hours, early hours, late finish, heat, heavy labour, you rarely see the sun, it’s pretty stressful. It’s a hugely creative job at one level but built on a lot of very hard graft and sweat. There’s a great buzz when you’ve finished a smooth shift.

After Virgin To Veteran, what’s your next project?

I’ve got some exciting offers and ideas in the pipeline but there’s a final year at Edinburgh to finish first so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Have a look at the Virgin To Veteran site and read Sam’s blog (warning: will make you hungry). Follow Sam on Twitter: @Sam_Stern.

Read our review of Virgin To Veteran here.

Virgin To Veteran (£20) by Sam Stern is published by Quadrille and is available to buy here. All images © Chris Terry.

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