Arthur Potts Dawson: "Food is a real demanding mistress."

[[{"type":"media", "view_mode":"media_large", "fid":"55", "attributes":{"class":"media-image alignright wp-image-238", "typeof":"foaf:Image", "style":"", "width":"350", "height":"467", "title":"2012-09-09 11.58.46", "alt":""}}]]Part I of a discussion with chef Arthur Potts Dawson on his recently-released cookbook, Eat Your Vegetables, held during Dawson's book signing and cooking demo at the New Amsterdam Market. Look for Part II over the next few days. by Rachel Signer

RS: Tell me about how you came to be a chef and to want to write this cookbook.

Dawson: When I was sixteen, my father told me, get a summer job. So I spent the summer cooking food. Really enjoyed it. At the end of it, the chef said to me, what are you gonna do with the rest of your life? I said, yeah, I’m gonna do my A-levels. I had planned to become a policeman. He said, look, you should really be a chef. He said, look, I’ll offer you an apprenticeship with me, but I can get you a really good job if you’re keen. So I went from literally spending six weeks in a summer job to being offered an amazing apprenticeship with probably one of Europe’s best training courses, the Roux Brothers; I spent three years as an apprentice. And from there I went to the best restaurants in London, Michelin-starred. And so from 16 to 22, I had no real concept of any other plans. I was cooking so much, and I got so drawn into it, that I kind of, I guess, lost myself in food. Kitchens are wonderful places. .  . not to hide in . . . but places where you can. . . put everything aside. Because they consume all of your time, all of your passion, all of your energy.

You didn’t go back to school.

I didn’t go back to school. I went to catering school but it was one day a week. And that one day—I was working so hard the other six days, I ended up practically asleep in the classroom.

Really I was caught and bitten by the food bug at a very early age. And I spent the next ten years doing very French, very strict, kind of masochistic type cooking where the attitude is very much—the chef is the be-all-and-end-all on the planet, so if you don’t do what the chef says you’re gonna get beaten up. I mean it was really just shit stuff. This was 1986 or ’87. It wasn’t trendy to be a chef. It wasn’t cool to be a chef. It was a job. So that was the first ten years, and then slowly but surely I started to realize that French cuisine wasn’t much for me; it was very restrictive. There were barriers.

It was too traditional?

Yeah and you get the veal stocks, you get all these styles of French food, and then I realized that all the styles being cooked at the time were just a regurgitation of the same stuff. And a chef—a good chef—knows how to break the rules. No—a great chef knows how to break the rules.

Got it.

But a good chef will just copy and become a facsimile of the chef he worked with before. I hate that—basically you’re just a donkey. You’re just replicating someone else’s food. So I broke away from that and then I went and lived in Australia and New Zealand and came back and went to Spain and Italy took a job there in England at the River Café, which is Italian. So I shifted from French to Italian and Italian food is much freer. It doesn’t hold the same structures as the French do. It’s still quite regimented and it’s provincial stuff and you’ve got the same rules . .  .  And the job I took—I really had only worked with male chefs . . .  And I had become an arrogant, uptight chef.

And you think this was the influence of being around male chefs?

Yeah, absolutely. I then shifted to a female-run kitchen, these two ladies Rose and Ruthie. They took about four years to beat this out of me and turn me into—they feminized me. They showed me a little more of a worldly attitude towards food much more seasonal and far more practical, more pragmatic. And in that there was this growing up procedure, with me realizing this French background was great for the economy, the structure of the kitchen, for understanding how to keep things regimented. But then the Italian style gave a lot of freedom for being able to do whatever you wanted to. And just have fun with it. So I worked four or five years with them. And then I moved on. I’ve been cooking for twenty-five years now, and I like to think that actually, that was my apprenticeship. Twenty-five years of solid learning, of mega-restaurants, of global travel, and actually now I’ve come to realize well okay that’s what my style is now. In twenty-five years’ time, I’ll be sixty-five, and only then will I be able to properly teach and properly cook. That’s fifty years of food. When I was twenty-six, I was in a hurry. I wanted to be the next best thing, I wanted a Michelin star, I wanted to be on the tele, lalala. But food’s not like that. Food is a real demanding mistress. She won’t let you take her for granted. She’ll take your time, your love, your effort. And for all that she’ll give you so much in return. You know, I got lucky and I found something I do passionately at a very young age. And here I am still cooking.

Arthur Potts Dawson: "Vegetables need to become a bigger part of your diet."

Green Rabbits Events: This Sunday at New Amsterdam Market, Signing of Arthur Potts Dawson's New Cookbook