In The Kitchen with Sybil Kapoor

Before I arrive to interview a cookery book writer or chef, I always try to imagine what their kitchen is going to be like. I look through their past books or magazine articles, their website, blog and Twitter stream, trying to sneak a peek at their photographs to see what may await me when I get there. In the case of my interview with Sybil Kapoor, at her home in central London, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Her private life is kept private and she does not court the media publicity that many of her contemporaries covet.

“I suppose everyone wants to become a star these days,” she tells me, as I am sitting on her kitchen stool, making a mess of pain au chocolat crumbs in her immaculate Bulthaup kitchen. Runs of stainless steel cupboards, uncluttered, scrubbed surfaces and spotless white walls are testimony to her erstwhile profession. She has created an ergonomic, professional kitchen with homely twists here and there, equipment neatly packed away in cupboards but vases of flowers out on display to make the room feel cosy. Sybil looks as neat as the environment she lives in, her shortly cropped hair, svelte figure and minimilist black clothes indicative of a woman for whom fuss and embellishment are de trop.

Many of her fans may know Sybil Kapoor mainly as a cookery book author and Waitrose magazine writer, but in fact she started her career as a sous chef in Jam’s restaurant in New York in 1985: “It was so famous in its heyday. Jacqueline Onassis and Woody Allen came to eat there, and I remember hiding out the back eating pizza in between shifts,” she told me.

She moved back to London, with her neurologist husband Dr. Raj Kapoor, who she met thirty four years ago, to be Head Chef at Clarke’s in Kensington and thereafter at Café Kensington. In 1991 she embarked on a second career as a food writer, and five cookery books, many commissions from national newspapers and glossy magazines, radio and TV programmes and prestigious awards later, she inhabits the top echelon of sought after food writers. Yet you really would not know it because she chats and makes coffee as if you were the really important person in the room. Gravitas goes out the window and we soon start gossiping.

Brought up in rural Surrey, love for the countryside remained with her despite many years of living in an urban environment. “What you grow up with stays with you,” she told me. Yet the craft of being a professional food writer precludes too great a distance from interesting delis, food markets, restaurants, shops and publishers, and in this central location she is well placed, and her contacts are many and varied.

I ask her whether she thinks she could ever go back to professional cookery, now that she has been out of the kitchen brigade firing frontline for over two decades.

“No, I think when you get older being on your feet all day long, doing mise en place and doing service, is just not feasible. When you are a professional chef you have split shifts, you are working long hours with little daylight and it is a very tough life physically, you need loads of energy. I really could not go back to it now that I have been away from it for so long.”

While Sybil was working her chef shifts in the restaurant she dreamed of writing for Bon Appetit Magazine. Many years later her writing dreams turned to reality quite by chance, through a series of acquaintances and fortunate correspondence, and after attending a lecture on recipe writing by Katie Stewart at Leith’s Cookery School, she began writing for Taste magazine, then edited by Drew Smith. Her years and experience of toiling at the coal face came to good use as she knew instinctively how to write the sorts of recipes that her readership wanted to read and cook from.

Then came book publishing and after completing “Modern British Food” {Penguin, 1996}, “Simply British” {Penguin, 1999}, “Taste: a new way to cook” {Mitchell Beazley, 2003}, “London: authentic recipes celebrating the foods of the world” {Oxmoor House, 2005} and “Citrus and Spice: a year in flavour” {Simon and Schuster, 2008}, a hiatus of four years ensued when she wrote mainly pieces for magazines and newspapers.

“I am not one of those authors that publish a new book every single year. I have always been in consecutive work since 1978, I was at Food Illustrated magazine for eight years in total for example. But I only take on work and projects that I think I will want to develop. I am fortunate because I know lots of editors and writers in the food world. It does make it a bit easier when I want to pitch articles or when I enter the room at a book launch. But I don’t necessarily seek a high profile.”

She has known many celebrity chefs and food writers who have taken the television series career route and she feels that, for some of them, it has taken its toll. As the series progress, she believes many of them become caricatures of their own personalities. When she goes to the few book launches she attends, she frequently looks out across the sea of faces and it is not necessarily the most well-known ones who are smiling.

Although the world of food writing is now more overcrowded than ever, she has arrived at a good place, both in her writing and her personal life. She works from home, in a beautiful terraced house a stone’s throw from Marylebone Lane, and some of London’s best food shops and restaurants. She researches and writes in a sun lit office that is flanked by wall-to-wall cookery books. You could be forgiven for feeling envious, but stopping jealousy in its tracks is her telling of how hard circumstances really were at the very beginning of her career.

“When Raj and I first moved to New York, in 1985, he was doing research work, and we had to calculate and decide whether to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. We had very little money, there was a housing boom and nearly all our income had to go on renting a flat. We were counting every single penny, but when you are young and you believe in yourself, you believe that you will get there. I suppose that period taught me to work hard and it also made me aware of frugal cooking and not wasting. I have also always cooked in the sort of kitchen that my readers cook in – I never buy equipment or ingredients which they or their budget cannot relate to. I have never had a big kitchen, the sort of kitchen where you have a great big table for rolling pastry or making pasta.”

Albeit sleek and perfect, her kitchen is compact and utilitarian, with few gadgets and accessories. Her treasure trove drawer is filled with French heavy duty Bourgeat pans, there are some Alessi mugs and glasses on an open shelf, a mix of jars containing dried herbs and spices and a very big stainless steel sink with a surgeon-style tap that can be turned on with a swivel of the elbow (envy!). Everything in the kitchen is spotlessly clean, thought out and uncluttered, as is the whole of her house. Sybil and her husband have no children and no pets, so I do not feel quite so guilty about my “lived in” interior design look, as I have both.

Both Sybil and Raj are avid bibliophiles: they could open a second hand book shop. Her study is where all her thoughts and ideas are created and she then takes them into the kitchen to be tried and tested before being committed on paper and checked. Shelves are stacked according to methodology, geography and nationality, history, skills, chefs, reference and travel. For her, simplicity is the holy grail.

“I am a self-taught cook, and I do believe that it is possible to create really delicious food very simply. My role in writing includes making sure the recipe works and that the results the reader has at home are exactly the same as if I had cooked the meal myself. I am both ideas and recipe led. Ideas are equally important to me, in particular in trying to understand our relationship with food, from its most basic characteristics, like taste and smell, to memories, identity and cultural history. I have used my books to explore many of these issues, so although on one level they can be used as a recipe book, on another, I hope they add a further insight into cooking and give readers greater pleasure in general.”

The major influences in Sybil’s life have come from the orient, both Japanese and Chinese fresh and clear textures and flavours being the touchstones from which she has drawn inspiration in her own writing. Having worked in New York and London, both melting pots of international cultures, she has always analysed the interplay of the culinary history of a nation and the ingredients it uses.

“Even in modern British cookery we are always looking back. Throughout the spread of the Empire the British were very good at interpreting and assimilating from other cultures across all disciplines. It is a misconception to consider certain foods British or not British, because we have eaten foods like pasta, for example, since the Middle Ages, and in a “Forme of Cury” (c.1390) there is a recipe for ‘macrows’ strewn with butter and served with grated cheese.”

In creating her own website and Blog, in which she shares her thoughts and recipes, she is tuning in to the modern zeitgeist of sharing and connecting.

“I do think that it is important to stay broadminded and open to new ideas. I am intrinsically quite a private person, so I do find the blogging difficult, but I read other food writers’ blogs to stay in touch. I think that the art of blog writing is fascinating because it is immediate and short in format. The Internet is exciting, it is a window to the world, and I really enjoy browsing it.”

She is currently working on a new baking book in collaboration with the National Trust and the publishers Anova. Cynthia Ions is the food stylist, Bridget Sargeant the home economist, Nicky Collins the book designer and Karen Thomas the photographer. I am straining my neck to see the paper proofs on her desk, and all I can see are beautiful photographs, an attractive font in brown and another one in blue and the kind of styling and composition which one would expect in a golden triangle on whose corners sit Sybil Kapoor, the National Trust and Cathy Gosling, commissioning editor of Anova.

“What I love about this project is how committed the National Trust is to engaging people and reconnecting them with the soil, through their “My farm” initiative, land stewardship and allotment schemes. I am looking at baking from a different perspective, using a light touch, trying to engage people in the same way.”

She is hesitant to tell me too much information because the book is not due to be published until September 2012 and there is still a while to go before it is finished. There are many more things in the pipeline after the book: she is going to be doing more travel writing, she is plotting another book and pitching more article ideas. It seems to me, though, that for Sybil the joy and delight of food writing is in the journey and not necessarily in the completion or accolades. She is a cook, yes, but first and foremost an information hungry scholar, who delights in the written work, the serendipity of discovery and the human connection between lovers of food and culture.

As we chat through her library she exclaims “Look at what I found!” proudly opening a signed copy of a Margaret Costa cookbook, the top right hand corner displaying a small “£15” price scribbled in pencil from the charity shop from where it came. Her slim fingers turn the pages slowly, her eyes alighting on the chapter headings, the compulsion to keep learning from the writers that came before her still lively and curious. And that, in a nutshell, is most probably, the key to her success and the longevity of her career. As well as a burning desire to de-clutter my life, I also walk away with this lesson in my mind.

Further reading

Sybil Kapoor :

Follow Sybil on Twitter: @SybilKapoor

Anova Books:

Follow Anova on Twitter: @AnovaBooks

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