In conversation with

Rosie Birkett

Food writer, author, food stylist

rosie with cyril

Introduction

Introduction

Rosie Birkett’s kitchen is full of joyful things – like batches of kombucha fermenting, piles of ceramic plates and a whippet (Cyril) sleeping in the corner. The author, food writer and stylist first began sharing snippets from her culinary world through her blog, then called A Lot on Her Plate, as well as through magazines like the Guardian’s Feast supplement. Two cookbooks, countless columns and a bunch of food programmes, Rosie is at the front of all that’s exciting about London’s culinary scene. Today, she’s a contributing editor to BBC Good Food and sometime roving reporter for Saturday Kitchen.

Her next book (out next May) is called The Joyful Home Cook. “The title says it all really,” says Rosie. “It’s about joy and getting creative and knowing that things don’t have to be perfect, but if you put a bit of love and thought into something it always tastes better”. We went to find out what’s brewing.

Question and Answer

Which fictional books do you love for their depictions of food?

I love the snippets of food in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend novels – some moments that stick in my head are the pizzas they share as teenagers going out into town for the first time, and the fritters the protagonist eats with her lover, his wife and their children. Significant moments in these books seem to play out around food and mealtimes, which isn’t surprising given that her books are concerned with the complexities of human relationships and family.

In terms of non fiction, I really enjoyed Dolly Alderton’s recipes and recollections about food in her brilliant book Everything I Know About Love – there is such warmth and familiarity in the way she writes and this comes through beautifully in her descriptions of cooking and eating.

"I love the snippets of food in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend novels"

Could you tell us a little bit about your blog, A Lot on Her Plate. What was the concept behind it and would you still recommend blogging as a way into food journalism?

I think the best way to get a start in journalism is still to do some work experience at a student or local paper, magazine or large website as nothing beats on-the-job experience and watching and learning from professionals, but starting a blog is still a fantastic way of finding your voice as a writer and sharing content. I would encourage anyone interested in writing to start a blog, and write to find your voice and gain confidence. But try to wear an editor’s hat too and make sure that what you’re writing is something you and your audience would want to read. My blog grew out of my work as a freelance journalist – it was a platform for me to share extra edits or interviews from my commissioned work, and then once I began cooking and sharing recipes it really took on a life of its own. It’s actually relaunched this year as rosiebirkett.com with a new lifestyle section including travel and interiors.

rosie and cyril

If you could give aspiring food writers one piece of advice, what would it be?

Find a specialism that you can carve a niche out with. Whether it’s cookery, pastry, a regional cuisine, it always helps to have a niche that sets you apart. If you’re going to critique or write recipes, I would encourage training in cookery, so you really know your (excuse the pun) onions.

What about food stylists?

Be ready for long days! And train in cookery. Your job is to visually represent different recipes on a day-to-day basis and make the best looking version of it. It can be incredibly challenging, so having an understanding of cookery techniques is crucial.

rosie birkett kitchen sink
rosie birkett ivy

What were some of the most interesting stories you got to tell with your book, East London Food?

One of my favourites is the story of ‘John The Poacher’, a longtime Hackney resident and neighbour of mine who scours the nearby marshes and parkland for delicious wild ingredients and sells them to chefs, restaurants and food producers. John collects everything from wild garlic and hen of the woods to gorse flowers and wild Asian pears. His chapter in the book is a story of old East London meets trendy new East London and John is a real character.

I also love the chapter about “Growing Communities”, a local organic patchwork farm which is run by volunteers who grow wonderful produce for the social enterprise’s salad bag scheme. Their plot is at the top of Springfield Park and I’ve volunteered there a few times – it’s a place where you find people of all different backgrounds coming together to

a lot on her plate

What can we expect from The Joyful Home Cook?

My hope is that it’s a book that will inspire people to get cooking – and to enjoy it! There is so much pleasure to be taken from cooking up delicious things at home, and this book will arm readers with new and exciting ideas for seasonal dishes. I honestly believe that good food and cooking are achievable for everyone in their own kitchens at home and I’m really passionate about communicating that.

During my decade as a food writer, I’ve had the privilege of eating some absolutely incredible food all over the world in many different scenarios, from fine dining restaurants, to at the side of the road and round people’s kitchen tables, and I’ve found that the elements that usually make something really delicious are both simple and universal. It all comes down to a little thought about ingredients, care in preparation and love in the execution. It doesn’t have to be mega complicated, or look perfect, it doesn’t have to be the domain of the trained chef, and in fact more often than not my favourite meals have been cooked by self taught chefs or home cooks. One of the best things I ever put in my mouth was a broth made from prawn shells and chillies that was served to me in a plastic cup from a van at the side of a busy main road in Mexico.

There are plenty of simple, quick ideas in there but it’s also about slowing down and enjoying the enriching and meditative process of making something from scratch – whether it’s the simple sourdough or a ricotta filled, herb-flecked pasta or beautifully made cake.

“"I think food and travel are my favourite sorts of food shows, I like to follow the adventure and learn about other cultures"”

You’ve presented programmes including Saturday Kitchen and Masterchef. What makes a really good cooking show?

My all time faves are Floyd and Rick Stein, because they get to the emotion of it all and have a knack for going to places you want to experience and finding foods you want to eat, with people who are soulful and passionate. I think food and travel are my favourite sorts of food shows, I like to follow the adventure and learn about other cultures and find the staged, studio set up of lots of cookery shows pretty dull. I’ve seen it a million times. Anthony Bourdain’s shows were always great for this reason too, he really liked getting under the skin of a food culture and destination, and that really appeals to me. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m super keen on watching Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat programme on Netflix.

rosie birkett shelves
rosie birkett magazines

Who is your favourite food writer and can you name a specific book that really inspires you?

Anthony Bourdain is definitely up there. I also really love Gabrielle Hamilton and her book Blood, Bones and Butter is one of my all-time faves. The way she describes the revelation of learning to cook properly is one of the biggest things that has inspired me as a cook. I really enjoy Rachel Roddy’s writing and the way she depicts her life in Rome and the traditions of the local cuisine, she has an astute and subtle humour and a gentle way of writing that’s incredibly engaging. Also Felicity Cloake is just brilliant and I can read her over and over again, she’s very witty and relatable, but also thorough and very knowledgeable.

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