Books for Cooks is the smallest of London’s big cultural institutions and has been bringing quality food writing and mouth-watering workshops to the city’s foodie crowd since the early eighties.
Thousands of references line the walls of the space-challenged shop and you can have a delicious and great value lunch every day from the tiny open plan kitchen.
When I discovered it some years ago, tucked away from Portobello market, I could not quite believe my eyes: A whole bookshop dedicated to cooking?! When England’s restaurateurs were still offering bland, ersatz food and the British culinary scene was a no man’s land… Coming from France, as Eric did then, to join a cook’s bookshop in run-down Notting Hill took quite a bit of guts – and plenty of foresight!
We both agree that if London had no food worth talking about back then, it had great atmosphere, brilliant live music and an exciting, promising outlook! But I remember becoming so obsessed in my first college exchanges that I spent an awful lot of my free time translating cookery books found on my English family’s bookshelf. They were dusty, had drab technicolor pictures and it was clear from their covers that they had never been used… But they suggested to me a wealth of local culinary tradition that was so achingly absent from my visits…
Here the books are fingered, glanced through and read by lots of customers, either lounging on the sofa or just standing in the aisle.
If elsewhere in the UK newspapers claim that three independent bookstores are going under every week, Eric thinks the future of the book is bright! His confident smile and charming restaurant trained manners are clearly a hoot with the local Notting Hill clients – but when some Spanish tourists arrive for lunch he greets them with a few words in their mother tongue and they are beaming in seconds.
“Sure, less people are buying books but they are buying more books and quite rightly because the offer now is sensational: The books are getting better each time with incredible photography and the recipes themselves are better written, better designed”.
He does not get involved in Supermarket style price war: “Pleasure before profit!”, he muses. Neither does he worry too much about the competition from the Web: “People might grab a recipe off the Internet but they won’t cook from the Net, they’ll still want a book : they want the whole story!”
We sit down to have a cup of tea near the kitchen where the cook is busy putting the last touches on today’s dishes. Two books have been chosen this morning, Eric or his team then go and buy the ingredients from the beautiful fresh stalls of Portobello market right next door and the menu is worked out around what is in season. The wine is organic and comes from Eric and Rosie’s own vineyards, the meat is sourced from their parents organic farm in England and all the rest is fresh from the market stalls. By now, two beautiful homemade cakes already adorn the counter, waiting for the first punters.
– What are the new trends? I ask. Are cupcakes really out?!
– Yes, comes the reply: People are into macaroons right now and not just eating them but making them!
Eric clearly enjoys buying books: a big part of his selection is chosen from publishing houses abroad and some are even on sale in the Spanish or French original version. He sources books out of the beaten track and sometimes picks self-published authors who come to him with a new concept or attractive recipes. This is part of Books for Cooks’ appeal and he is proud of his eclectic tastes.
Eric recommended new books are: Ottolenghi’s “Plenty”- the delicatessen itself is just 10 minutes walk away – and “Meals in Heels” by Jennifer Joyce ; Donna Hay and Skye Gillenghal are both firm favourites too. But his secret love is for a 70s series by Richard Olney called “Time Life, The good cook”: That he is also a book collector comes as no surprise to me! I myself would probably want to own a copy of each book on offer before selling any…
Spending your time surrounded by books and gorgeous food is certainly a dream job and Eric looks like a very happy and contented shop owner: The fact he has just recently become a dad for the second time can only add to his glow! No bleary eyes for lack of sleep there as Baby is already having full nights- I told you some have all the luck!
If I had myself some childless time in London this July I would love to join some of the workshops on offer: Summer entertaining, Flavours of Tuscany or Big flavour barbecue food are on the menu for this month. The upstairs workshop cum kitchen is famous for its great roll of chefs and food writers.
Before leaving, I ask Eric for his favourite addresses in the area:
The spice shop, 1 Blenheim Crescent
Mr Christians’, 11 Elgin Crescent
Ottolenghi, 63 Ledbury road
R Garcia and Sons, 246-250 Portobello road
– I love it too and go for the churros con chocolate on Friday mornings…
Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill W11 1NN
Tues to sat, 10am to 6pm.