Photo credit Maria Bell
Meet Claire Thomson, food writer and chef who is on a mission to shake up the way we eat and redefine the recipe classics for a generation.
I first met Claire in a drafty Dorset country house, at which I’d arrived late for a weekend conference. Seeing no means of easily breaching the heavily fastened front door, I stuck my head through an open window into the ground floor kitchen. There at the hob and looking at me curiously stood Claire, stirring the pots as she catered for her household of food writers. “Can I help you?” she asked. As I explained my predicament, she ushered me into the lounge. “Everyone wants to visit the kitchen,” sighed Claire and I thought, isn’t that just so true in life? The kitchen is where the action happens – bustling, creative and full of life, much like Claire herself.
Claire has managed to combine her love of cooking with both writing and parenthood and at one point with a young family of three all under the age of eight years.
Born in Africa, Claire arrived in London as a young child. She describes how she began cooking for her family when she was just nine years old and has never really stopped. With a background in food spanning two continents, it is easy to see where her eclectic love of ‘plundering the world for recipes’ comes from.
Claire’s keen to rewrite our cookery books. Think spaghetti bolognaise but made with a lamb ragu, green lentils and nduja sausage. “I want to offer this generation a new arsenal of recipes that they can call their own,” says Claire, “I take an interesting ingredient such as miso paste and use it as a star turn in a simple recipe.”
When we catch up, Claire is at a cafe in London, celebrating the launch of her latest cookery book with her pencil primed for a day ahead of book signing. Marking her fourth publication, clearly her ambitions are well in their stride.
‘If you want to cook well, read well.’
Like many women in food, Claire came to her trade later in life, initially graduating with a degree in journalism. A trip to Australia during her early twenties ignited a desire to cook for a living, “I caught the cooking bug in Sydney,” says Claire, “And when I returned home, I spent most of my twenties cooking in restaurants.” Claire’s career at the stove face culminated in co-founding Flinty Red, a restaurant in Bristol which she ran with her husband for seven years. Unfazed by the demands of the job, Claire says, “I loved the machismo of working long hours and I thrived on having double shifts in a row.” Claire drew inspiration from her time working for Barny Haughton in Bristol at Quartier Vert, “I remember Barny saying to me, ‘if you want to cook well, you must read well,’ so I immersed myself in reading the greats, like Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David and Simon Hopkinson.”
Claire’s launch into writing cookery books came with the onset of parenthood and the daily routine of cooking for her young family. “I began tweeting each day at 5pm to describe what I was cooking for my family and became known as The Five O’ Clock Apron,” says Claire. Championing the importance of families eating together, Claire showcased tasty, nutritious food enjoyed by both children and adults alike, “I like to cook with affection and an eye for sustenance” says Claire. From the tweet came a blog which eventually led to a book deal. “My first book was written in cafes,” laughs Claire, “I’d be breastfeeding whilst typing one-handed.”
Summing up her ethos, Claire says, “I write realistic recipes for family food so that people are encouraged to get back to basics and up their culinary game. The term ‘foodie’ has such negative connotations here in the UK. I feel we fetishize food too much and need to be more practical about it.” Not long back from a trip to Africa, Claire describes the experience of cooking for 160 children at a small school in Kenya, “The children all lined up, ate the same food and washed their dishes afterwards. In so many ways, we’re spoilt for choice here at home and are creating fussy kids.”
“Work hard and you’ll be unstoppable”
For those keen to get on board and embark on a career in food, Claire says, “Get involved on the front line of food and find a job in a restaurant. Cookery school isn’t an essential, instead learn from other chefs and be around creative and hardworking people. There is a restaurant crisis in the UK at the moment and employers are crying out for good people who want to learn. Be that person. Work hard and you’ll be unstoppable.”
The Big Twelve Quick Fire!
1. Who inspired you to become a chef?
Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat was the 1 st cookery book I bought with my own money, Jamie
Oliver was on the TV at the time, I’d spent some time in Italy, I couldn’t get enough of
reading the newly launched OFM magazine in the Sunday Observer. Uni was finished, I’d
got the bug, and I was hooked.
- What did you have for dinner last night?
Manic night, home from swimming lessons with the kids – speed is of the essence. Cheong
Fun (fried Chinese rice roll) and a mountain of steamed broccoli with seasame, soy and
black vinegar dipping sauce. 6 minutes all up, tops.
3. Your favourite sports team
My husband is a Kiwi, our children are forced to appreciate the All Blacks. Greatest rugby team, ever, in the world. You get the picture.
4. The best book you’ve ever read
Rose Tremain Music and Silence
5. Your favourite chef
6. Have you ever dated a chef? How did it end or are you still together?
Yes. And yes
7. Your favourite meal to cook for yourself
Omelette for one. There’s not many things you can make quite so good in under 2 minutes.
8. How many hours sleep do you get?
I have 3 young-ish children. Sleep is truncated, always. Dot wakes in the night, and Ivy
wakes early. Grace (the oldest) sleeps like a baby, thank goodness. 6 at most.
9. Your best meal ever
Linguine vongole cooked by a Napolese grandmother who could eat you for breakfast.
10. Your favourite clothes to cook in
A good skirt made of thick material, always always A good apron, t shirt and hate to say it, birkenstocks. Can’t tolerate hot feet in the kitchen!
11. Your most treasured kitchen tool
Sharp knife. Razor sharp.
12. What would your superpower be?
To help in some way with climate change, for the sake of my children.