Londonist loves to eat. And we like to cook as well. Hey, we just like food. But we thought for a change it would be nice to catch up with some of the dudes and dudettes who really feed London - its chefs.
Nicola Bassil was always going to be an artist of some sort: amongst various strings to her bow is the fact that she is a classically trained double bassist. She’s worked at some of London’s top eateries: St. John and Livebait. These days she prefers to make music in her kitchen at Trattoria La Ruga in Walthamstow’s chi-chi village. Can't remember the last time we actually heard anyone use the term girl power with any degree of seriousness - but this lady exemplifies it and sets a shining example for any women pondering a career in catering.
What got you into catering?
As a small child one of my favourite games when I went to visit my Grandad was playing restaurants. He made me a pretend kitchen in the garage. A cardboard box for a stove with circles drawn on the top and a flap cut out of the side which opened and closed for the oven. We had tin pots and plates and a motley assortment of cutlery. My Grandparents had an average sized town garden at the back of their house but they were keen gardeners and managed to grow a variety of fruit and vegetables as well as maintaining a small flower garden. My brother and I would ‘help’ pick the runner beans and peas, strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants. When the apples were ready we would help pack them in boxes for the winter. Having finished the harvest we were allowed to take any substandard produce back to ‘our kitchen’ where we ‘cooked’ for Grandad. He would sit in the wheelbarrow with a napkin tucked into the top of his shirt and my brother would go and take his order on his special pad with a pencil attatched that Grandad had made him. I would be busy in the kitchen preparing the vegetables and making a mud gravy with water from the water butt.
As I got older I got to do real cooking too. My Mum used to bake her own bread, make marmalade and jam and lots of soups and stews which were my Dad’s favourites. Philip and I would be given any leftover pastry or bread dough to make something. Older still and I was baking cakes every weekend. I think I worked my way through the good housekeeping cookery book. I love that book. I still use it a lot for reference even now.
When I was 18 I moved to London to attend college and I shared a student flat above a restaurant. Like all students I was in need of a part time job to keep me in beer and cigarettes so I started working in the restaurant washing dishes. I found myself to be in my element. I got to watch a ‘real chef’ working and I would go home and practice what I’d learned on my flatmates.
About a year later a flustered waiter appeared on my doorstep asking for my help. The chef had not turned up for work and there were customers in the restaurant. That evening I was the chef! I only cooked for about 10 people but it was a great feeling. That was the beginning of my career in catering.
What would you say to someone who’s thinking about food as a career?
Think about it and think about it again!
You need to have a real passion for food to sustain you. I firmly believe that without that passion you’ll never be very good at it so if the only reason you’re considering it is because you like the idea of being a celebrity chef then forget it cos it’s bloody hard work and the money’s not that great. When I hear people moaning about cleaning the mussels or picking the spinach, and particularly if they start to handle it roughly, I get quite upset. I feel like I’ve been personally assaulted. You won’t get anywhere with that attitude- specially not in my kitchen.
Not bad at all! We have a strong following of local and not so local people who are regular customers.
Tell us something funny that’s happened to you in the course of duty
Funny but could have been deadly... I was boiling 12 tins of condensed milk in a large saucepan to make caramel for banoffee pie. I forget about them and the pot boiled dry. I think it must have been dry for quite some time. The tins were bulging threateningly. I had to act fast. I put the lid on the pot, tied it to the handles with a tea towel and carried it outside where I left and retreated to the kitchen. After a minute or so the tins started to explode. They blew the lid off the saucepan and caramel flew everywhere. It went as far as the neighbours' first floor flat. I’m sure they were wondering what kind of bird could possibly make such an almighty mess on their window!
What’s your culinary Achilles heel?
Nothing specific. Just anything at all if I’m not in the right mood. To make the best food you have to put your heart into it and if your hearts not in it, it can only be mediocre.
What is your secret ingredient?
Not very secret, but....dripping!
Meat and especially roast potatoes taste so much better cooked in solid fat rather than vegetable oil. I know everyone worries about cholesterol but have you seen what vegetable oil does to the inside of the deep fat fryer? And don’t get me onto the subject of free radicals!! My belief is that high cholesterol is a product of our modern living, not from eating saturated fats.
What do you eat at home?
Unless I have guests I am a very lazy cook at home. I mostly live on pasta and salad. I like the variety of salad. It doesn’t have to be like rabbit food though I love lettuce and use that as a base then put all different things in it like beetroot and grated carrot, toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds, capers and sundried tomatoes or fresh tomato with mint or basil, red onion and cubes of feta cheese.
I always add plenty of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Tricky one this, but in your opinion London’s top eatery is
La Ruga of course!!
No, seriously, it depends what you’re looking for at the time.
I don’t think it’s possible to judge one against another. It’s like saying what’s the best thing in your wardrobe. The slinky black dress that cost an arm and a leg. It’s beautiful but it won’t keep you warm in the winter
Personally I don’t like pretentious trendy places so a lot of the restaurants that would generally be considered to be top eateries wouldn’t even make it into my top ten.
I don’t get to eat out very often and when I do I usually stay local but as yet, unless you live round here the Walthamstow area is still pretty much off the radar. Maybe this article can change that!
So I still haven’t answered the question have I?
Sorry, I can’t.
Would you cook a well done steak?
Yes I would, and I do, though sometimes I find it a little bit upsetting when I have a particularly yummy looking piece of meat. Ricardo usually tries to talk the customers into having it medium and often succeeds. We have quite a few converts.
Funnily enough Grandad always used to order a well done steak!
One of your favourite recipes...?
This is a very simple recipe that I gathered from an old English book which uses up stale bread and would have been made by Nannies with their charges in the nurseries. As I am a great lover of anything caramel flavoured it immediately appealed to me. I often have it on the dessert menu at the restaurant, served warm with homemade vanilla ice cream and it’s a firm favourite with the regulars now.
8oz dark soft brown sugar
12oz golden syrup
1 loaf of white bread
About half a pint of milk
Cut the bread into cubes and add milk so the bread is saturated but there’s not too much excess.
Put the sugar, butter and syrup into a saucepan and melt together and boil till it’s nice and bubbly,
Add the bread and milk and bring back to the boil then turn down the heat and cook slowly for another 5 minutes until the bread has absorbed the caramel. Stir it occasionally to keep it from burning on the bottom but don’t overdo it or the butter sometimes separates.
Trattoria La Ruga is open seven evenings a week, together with Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes. Tel: 020 8520 5008.