Jo Haywood talks to inspiring young cook Sam Stern who gives his verdict on York’s foodie culture
Sam Stern is always at our family dining table. In fact, he’s been our special guest at least once a week since he wrote his first cookery book eight years ago.
His five bestselling books are well-thumbed (and crumbed) favourites in our kitchen and his straightforward but deeply delicious recipes are given the full silver service treatment (ie I plonk them down and yell “Tea’s ready!”) more often than any other writer’s in my embarrassingly ample culinary collection.
This very talented young York cook – he’s still only 22 – writes with self-deprecating good humour and great warmth (particularly about his family and friends); traits which, thankfully, come to the fore in conversation too.
He talks briefly about his latest book, Sam Stern’s Cookery Course For Students In The Kitchen (£18.99, Quadrille), a much more detailed and, frankly, grown-up collection of recipes which have been beautifully photographed and illustrated with amusing and informative graphics. But he really comes alive when talking about his first love: food.
“When I was young, Jamie Oliver made cooking seem quite cool for boys,” he said. “Before that it had all been a bit middle-aged and Ready, Steady, Cook. He was a fresh face doing fresh things.
“But I’ve always been inspired by everyone around me. Even now, when I’m watching people cook or I’m eating out, I’m constantly thinking: what are they doing with the food; what can I do with it; how can I make it even more interesting?”
York ‘lacking something’
Sam was initially inspired by his mother, Susan, who worked with him on his early books, and by his home town.
He’s obviously a polite young man (well done Susan) but with a bit of persistent questioning, not unlike wheedling a snail from its shell with a miniature fork, he does admit that York’s restaurant scene is not everything it could be.
“If I’m honest, it’s always lacked something in terms of restaurants,” he said. “There are some great places to eat in the city, but it’s still missing something.”
In the meantime, he loves to eat out at old favourites like Coconut Lagoon in Clarence Street – “it does authentic southern Indian food that really reminds me of a trip I made to Sri Lanka… and you can get nine dishes with rice and chapattis for £12, which is just amazing value”.
And he’s also a fan of Il Paradiso Del Cibo on Walmgate, a tiny little Italian where he celebrated his birthday with a gang of mates (and nearly filled the place).
“I’m really looking forward to trying the new Star Inn the City,” he added. “That’s quite an exciting prospect and could be the restaurant that changes things for York.
“And I also want to try the Blind Swine.
“I called in one lunchtime but decided against it when they said it was a blind tasting menu. I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. But I’ve heard such good things, I definitely want to give it a whirl.”
Sam might still only be 22, but he’s a veteran of the kitchen having cooked for his family – he’s the youngest of five – and friends for years, refining his skills along the way and dedicating himself to inspiring other young cooks.
Leaving York for Edinburgh University, where he studied politics, sociology and business, was a chance to really put his aspirations to the test. It also showed him how cooking could be a valuable social skill.
“Most students start by eating nothing but takeaways,” he said. “But they soon realise this is way too expensive. Then they start cooking.
“It was interesting to see friends cooking together. It’s a very social thing to do, and even if you’re only chopping one vegetable, you gain experience and confidence.
“I saw a gradual change in attitude. We started out with takeaways and ended up with dinner parties. Loads of us would get together, chuck in a couple of quid each and end up with a great plate of food.
“It’s a great way of meeting people, getting to know them and eating well.”
Sam has now completed his degree and is concentrating on launching his TV career. This will probably involve a move to London in the New Year, but he promises not to be a stranger in his home town.
He also promises to continue writing his bestselling cookery books, for which my family, at least, is eternally grateful.