Interview: Sam Stern, author and cook
POT NOODLES, jacket potatoes and beans on toast. You wouldn’t get this typical student fare if you shared digs with undergraduate Sam Stern, author of the new book Virgin to Veteran: How to Get Cooking with Confidence.
At only 21 years old, he might be described as a precociously talented cook (or a bit of a swot). Incredibly, this will be his sixth cookery book, published as he completes his third year of a Politics, Sociology and Business degree at Edinburgh University. Although he’s originally from Yorkshire, he spends term time in Scotland’s capital, where he shares a flat in the New Town.
His first read, Cooking up a Storm, was written and published in 2005, with the help of his mum, Susan, while he was only 14 years old and still doing his GCSEs. It’s now been translated into 14 languages, and has sold nearly 700,000 copies worldwide.
In the years since, there have been four more books in quick succession – Real Food, Real Fast in 2006; Get Cooking in 2007; Sam Stern’s Student Cookbook in 2008 and Eat Vegetarian in 2010, all of which, in their time, were designed for youngsters of around the same age as the author.
Contributors on sites such as Mumsnet and Netmums rave about Stern’s cookbooks, which seem to have encouraged a generation of teens to master kitchen basics. However, the books have grown up over the years, along with the author.
“My new one has a more adult appeal, but it’s still friendly to younger cooks,” explains Stern, who has just completed his last exam of the year.
Aimed at late teens to thirtysomethings, this is a smart, heavily designed book, with plenty of handy tips, reference charts and diagrams. Beyond the introduction and The Virgin Kitchen Set-up (info on pots, pans, tools, nutrition and temperatures), the remaining chapters are split into featured ingredients, such as Bread, Eggs and Dairy, or Vegetables.
And, while Cooking Up a Storm’s cover featured a baby-faced teenager, with pink cheeks and hair fluffed-up like a newborn chick, Virgin to Veteran boasts photographs of a youth who looks as if he might front an indie band, with his foppish hair and hipster cardigan.
Stern’s a bit more sophisticated these days – as are his recipes, which include lime, lemon and elderflower drizzle cake, soda bread, lamb skewers with beetroot tzatziki and cassoulet, as well as a few student-friendly basics.
As you’d expect from someone who is part of the Jamie Oliver generation, Virgin to Veteran is full of informal words such as bashing, banging, and chilling (the latter not in the culinary sense, of course).
Like Oliver, Stern is a big advocate of kids being able to get a basic culinary education. “There definitely should be more cooking lessons at school and they should be fun, so when you eventually have to look after yourself, you don’t end up shoving food in your mouth as fuel, rather than enjoying the experience of making a meal,” he says. “If you have someone by your side who knows a bit about cooking, then you’ll get into it if you start young.”
However, although this author is a fan of Oliver, and a couple of his books feature endorsements from this television chef, he has other culinary inspirations. When in Edinburgh, his favourite eateries are Maison Bleue, Escargot Bleu, and The Dogs, while he loves the work of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. Then there’s Keith Floyd.
“If you ask any chef or cook, they’d say that he is the godfather of it all,” says Stern. “His programmes are timeless and he’s hilarious.”
But you imagine that the author’s mum and collaborator, Susan, has probably had the biggest influence on him. After all, he started cooking as soon as could “stand on a chair to get up to a kitchen counter”, so you’d imagine that she was there to help him up.
“She taught me everything I knew up to a certain level,” explains Stern. “With the first book, she showed me all her recipes, because she cooks for me, my three sisters, my brother and my dad. Everything stemmed from her passion for good home-cooked meals. Her food is kind of rustic and rough around the edges, which is the charm of it. Now, we have different cooking styles and mine’s a bit more measured.”
Since then, it’s been a case of constant practice, as Stern is self-trained. “There’s nothing like experience, you make mistakes but learn from them,” he says.
Each of the 120 recipes in the book was devised after four months of cooking and tasting (unsurprisingly, he put on a few pounds) in his kitchen, from 7am until 7pm daily. This resulted in around five variations of each dish, which were then short-listed to the final cut. He admits that, after devising the Beef chapter in Virgin to Veteran, he couldn’t look at beef for a few months because he had overindulged. But at least his flatmates can hoover up any leftovers.
As far as post-graduation goes, you probably won’t ever see Stern donning a chef’s whites. He’s too canny for that. Instead, he’ll be building his empire, cookbook by cookbook.
“I’m not sure I could hack the intense lifestyle that chefs have, but I have the ultimate respect for it,” he explains. “I prefer hanging around in my kitchen at home. I think it’d be interesting to get into the restaurant business though, as a partner. We’ll see what the future holds, but I hope that it’ll be full of books”.
• Virgin to Veteran: How to Get Cooking with Confidence by Sam Stern, out now, £20 hardback, Quadrille.
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