What’s cooking? Calum Franklin, The Pie Room
Fresh from the launch of his mouth-watering new cookbook, we caught up with the London Pie King himself to talk Scotch eggs, the Breville toastie masker and cooking for Axl Rose.
What was your first job in a kitchen?
I started off washing dishes as a kitchen porter aged 16 in south east London. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at school, so I ended up taking the job just to earn some weekend money, and from the first day I knew it was an environment I wanted to work in – the kitchen, not the washing up! It was a real ‘stars aligning’ moment for me.
Did you have much experience with food at this point?
Not really. I wasn’t like those Great British Bake Off contestants you see who’ve been baking bread since they were three – that just wasn’t me. It was more the fast-paced, creative environment of the kitchen that appealed.
What’s been your career highlight to date?
Cooking in Copenhagen last summer with Magnus Nilsson, Christian Puglisi and Daniela Soto-Innes. They’re some of the biggest chefs in the world and I was invited to cook with them at a festival on a farm in the middle of nowhere. I had to pinch myself, it was so bizarre.
Were you a bit star struck?
Absolutely. My wife (who’s not in the food industry) came with me, and she was sat next to Magnus Nilsson at lunch. She didn’t know who he was, so she was telling him he needed to cut his hair and invest in nicer clothes. Afterwards I told her, “That’s the biggest chef in the world, darling,” and she said, “I don’t care – if he needs to cut his hair, he needs to cut his hair!” They ended up as really good friends, which was amazing.
Most memorable moment at work?
Probably sharing the cookbook with my senior chefs for the first time. They were all very much a part of that book and the process of it, so it was very rewarding for me. And surprisingly emotional for tough chefs – there were a few tears.
Ever cooked for anyone famous?
A couple of times a week at the restaurant, but I can’t name names. Although when I was about 20, I was working at The Ivy, and we were closing down one night and Axl Rose came down into the kitchen asking for French fries. I grew up listening to Guns N’ Roses, so I was like, “Yeah, no worries!” and he just sat at the kitchen bench while we cooked them up. That was very cool for me personally.
You’re tired, starving and impatient: what do you cook for dinner?
A constant in my life is the Breville toastie maker. I adore it. I just get some smoked ham, pretty rubbish cheese and English mustard on really terrible sliced white bread and that’s me sorted. The bread has to be rubbish though – if it’s good bread it doesn’t work.
What would you cook to impress a date?
People always assume I make pies for people when I’m trying to impress them, but you don’t want to be one dimensional. When my wife and I were first dating, I cooked ossobuco [a veal stew], a classic Italian dish. Pair with a perfect saffron risotto and a gremolata [green herb sauce] and it’s like a hug on a plate.
Who is your favourite chef?
One person consistently putting out inspiring stuff is Josh Niland in Australia. He’s revolutionised the way we look at fish cookery, and he’s an absolute master of his craft, all while being a very humble and quiet guy.
What about a favourite cookbook?
Any of Sophie Grigson’s books. They’re great – I still refer to them all the time. They’re filled with hearty and quite often challenging food, with no pretence.
Favourite type of cuisine to eat?
I love Szechuan – it’s like a party in your mouth. There are so many layers of complexity to the flavours, and lots of unusual cuts of meat. I’m lucky to have a great place called Jin Jiang quite close to where I live in Deptford, and I get more adventurous every time I go. One of the first dishes I ever tried there was a water boiled beef, which sounds bland but it’s the opposite. I ended up lying on the carpet sweating afterwards!
Favourite kitchen gadget?
The KitchenAid is probably my most-used item – professionally and at home. We use it for everything, it’s a beautiful bit of kit. I wanted one at home my whole life, and we finally got one last year.
Favourite local markets and suppliers?
There’s a little row of shops on Royal Hill in Greenwich with a florist, a butcher, a cheese shop and fishmonger right next to each other. The butcher is called Drings and we built a good relationship through a project we did together over lockdown for the NHS. Their meat is great quality, the team is lovely and the cheese shop is just excellent. Not just cheese, either – they sell the best butter you’ll ever get your hands on! The fishmonger around the corner is great too.
Favourite local restaurant?
I love Sparrow in Lewisham. It’s a super simple restaurant that serves up stunning curry. All the people who work there are lovely, and you never feel uncomfortable or out of place. I’d probably go every weekend if I could.
Do you have a favourite hotel?
I don’t really stay in hotels in London, but my favourite hotel in the world is either The Upper House in Hong Kong, or the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende in Mexico (above). It’s so magical, it honestly feels like you’re on a film set. We did three weeks travelling in Mexico for our honeymoon and it was a great choice – if I could, I’d go back every year.
Brockley Market is very close to me and that’s a really nice market. I’m looking forward to seeing that open up again to its full potential after lockdown.
Favourite ingredient and why?
Leaf lard – not the sexiest of ingredients! It’s the fat from around the kidneys of a pig, and it’s incredible for making pastry. Not many people use it, but if you render it down, it’s absolutely fantastic, and very pure – like me! (That was a joke.)
Most over-rated ingredient?
I think certain foraged ingredients should be left in the forest – there’s a reason people don’t generally eat them! For me, I’m not a fan of sea buckthorn. There was a period where everyone was using it; sea buckthorn panna cotta, sea buckthorn sauces. It’s just not for me.
The dish you’re most proud of creating?
Our Scotch egg here. It’s one of our simplest dishes, but we won the Scotch Egg Challenge with it years back and it gave us a load of press. It won because it was so simple and had clean flavours – nothing whacky. It’s been on the menu ever since.
Tell us your best ever cooking tip?
For home cooking, keep it simple. People get nervous cooking for me, which I hate, because I love being cooked for. People will often try to go with super extravagant stuff, but just give me a perfect beef stew and I’m happy. Focus on simple flavours and great ingredients.
Three dishes every home cook should master?
Cacio e pepe – it’s a fairly humble dish and you don’t need super expensive ingredients (although good cheese is a bonus), but it’s so delicious. Once you know it, it’s super easy.
Steak and kidney pudding – a British classic. When people come to visit from overseas and they want something traditionally British, they’re thinking fish and chips or a roast, but steak and kidney pudding is such an unusual dish if you’ve never had it before. I don’t adore kidneys by themselves, but when it’s done well, this is such a good dish.
Apple tarte tatin – it doesn’t matter how badly the rest of the meal has gone; if you serve a really good tarte tatin at the end, all is forgiven. I love it. (See the recipe for Calum’s Apple Tarte Tatin here.)
The Pie Room by Calum Franklin (Bloomsbury Absolute, £26) is out now. Photography by John Carey.