Cultivating Cuisine: Learning to Cook

Sunday Telegraph Magazine  London, 1984-2006, 2,000 words; extracts  

Elisabeth Russell taught me to cook. While we, the students, chopped and sliced and made béchamel, she would criticise, or praise, but above all talk about food. Her ideas have influenced not only what I cook but also what I write about food.

We are sitting at a large, bare table in the old-fashioned kitchen where Elisabeth Russell usually teaches, and we are talking, as usual, about food. She speaks with a French accent softened by over fifty years of English life. 

"The first golden rule," she pronounces with an authority that commands attention, "is that you must never cook to impress. You must have the freedom of spirit to think: 'I am right and I will do it my way whatever people say.' That is the key to cooking well."

Elisabeth Russell / ‘You must have the freedom of spirit to think, “I am right and I will do it my way whatever people say.“ That is the key to cooking well.’

For twenty-five years Elisabeth Russell has been running her cookery school. Now aged over seventy and confined to a wheelchair she teaches with the help of her daughter, Eve, and her granddaughter, Florence. The simple household kitchen in the leafy outskirts of London is resolutely low-tech. The airy pink room has a linoleum floor patterned like Provençal tiles. Clearly it is a work room - everything that is needed for cooking is kept out and easily to hand - but, significantly, there are few gadgets. At one end, near the sink and well-worn ovens - one gas and the other electric - stand pots and pans. Sieves, spoons and whisks hang on the walls. Mixing bowls, chopping boards and yoghurt pots used for measuring ingredients are stacked on traditional dressers. Somewhere, out of sight, there is apparently a food processor.

"That was acquired under pressure from my students," comments Russell tartly. "I use it very rarely and I certainly don't need it."

ATTITUDE OR SKILLS?

She is equally dismissive about what she calls "embassy or dinner party food" and is far more interested in l'art d'accomoder des restes, or using up leftovers. Like all necessities, she says, it is far more skilful and can be the mother of great invention.

Underneath this defiance lies a carefully considered personal philosophy. As Russell explains it, "When you are teaching cookery, you are not sharing skills but an attitude". For her, practical ability must be allied with an understanding of the way people choose to eat, something which can be learned only by much broader study. It says a lot that she reads few cookery books, but many memoirs, biographies, newspapers and novels.

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