It was my three adult children who decided I had to do more in the kitchen but my wife Sara who influenced the idea — a year after she died.
She was remarkable, my Sarala for her love, encouragement to our family and the way she challenged the right of a terrible 10-year illness to destroy her — and after her recovery, she even had what she always said was a bonus of 20 more years of normality.
She was also the world’s greatest maker of chicken soup — and a dozen other things. There was a love that permeated everything she did, which is why perhaps I didn’t think I’d ever be able to take her place in the kitchen.
When she died, I was more than just bereft. More than just distraught. Even more than just hungry. I found things to eat — and accepted with alacrity the wonderful invitations that came from others for dinner, coffee (which was usually tea) and conviviality.
“Not good enough, dad,” said the younger members of the Freedland family. Not enough, agreed I, who had always been told by my mother to repay hospitality.
So I thought about taking lessons, which would have been the last thing I had in mind. I rang Mosimann’s and Jerome Henry — Anton Mosimann’s head chef — told me to come along. I thought he was going to say come for half a day. I stayed for three days of private tuition.
It was an education — not least in the cost of kosher meat.
First, I had to know how to hold a knife. I admit I never saw Sara use one like that, more or less sliding along the so-clean work surface. Even my beloved wife worked in what finished up looking as if a hurricane had struck.
Not in the Mosimann’s kitchen. All the ingredients for his minestrone were laid out neatly at the head of the table and picked up as if holding a human body part ready for transplant. Every bit left over, a bit of tomato, the top layer of a carrot, a shred of onion skin, was neatly stored in a bowl, ready to be made into stock.
“Chop,” Henry said, so I chopped. If he hadn’t been such a nice man, he would have chopped my fingers off. Instead he muttered something only when I attacked the parsnip with the severity of a man about to commit hari-kari as the colour of the vegetable changed from off-white to red.
We (and I emphasise the word “we”) made salmon in a way that I didn’t imagine it could be made — searing the fish then baking it with an avocado sauce. He used a thermometer, which seems to be as vital a piece of equipment as one of the lethal knives.
But the real joy was the apple tart. I actually found myself looking at my work with the kind of pride I usually hoped to have with the far easier task of writing a book — the pastry nicely rolled, the apple cut into attractive slices, the sugar sprinkled evenly.
Even if the pastry overhung the plate in a rather ungainly way, it was a triumph. Henry did most of it, of course, but he allowed me to take credit. And to take it home.
The following week was more of an eye opener. Henry went to a kosher butcher and bought a joint that cost an amount that if paid in tax would considerably help the national debt. Having said that, he was impressed.
“As good as anything that is not kosher,” he said. “It would perhaps have been a little better if it had been allowed to hang.”
Suggest that to a kosher butcher and he’d probably say that it was not the meat that needed to have been hung. But it looked great — and it tasted great, although the first taste was rather salty. He hadn’t realised that koshering the meat made it that way before it ever saw the oven. But that was just one slice. When it came to the dinner party, it was sensational.
As was the leek and potato soup — my daughter Fiona’s recipe this time. “The best I’ve ever tasted,” said one of my guests whom I don’t think was just trying to be kind.
Fiona’s a great cook, but the really brilliant chefs are my granddaughters Beth, now at Cambridge, and Ellie, still at school but moonlighting at a top restaurant. They know their onions — and their tomato soup and the fishcakes are the finest I’ve ever tasted.
They are also great teachers. If Henry ever decides to hang up his tall hat, Beth and Ellie would be worthy successors. As my own tomato soup and fishcakes proved.
This week, I was back where it all began — making chicken soup. I think Sara might have liked it.
As Henry said: “Cooking is for memories.”