Cultivating Cuisine: Learning to Cook

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


By this time Elisabeth was living safely in London, having married a young English historian, and she was learning to cook under the challenge of wartime rationing. But the family paid for Gilbert's activities. Her mother and five sisters were kept in solitary confinement, a brother and uncle died in concentration camps and a cousin was shot.

Elisabeth Russell / ‘There are three essential cooks’ notebooks – a book of menus, a book of wine, and a book of what you’ve thrown in the dustbin.’

It is with this strict sense of choices, values and priorities that she talks about food, cooking and teaching. "As children, if we refused to eat our vegetables, our grandmother would make us get up well before breakfast to watch our neighbours - including children - working in the fields. 'Look,' she would say. 'What would they feel if they knew you leave the vegetables they work so hard to plant?'"

. . . .

Russell runs her classes like a restaurant in which each student is cook and guest. All work together as team members, but each has a deliberately small, even tiny, delineated area of the large, bare table on which to work. The pace is cracking and set by lunchtime. Everything has to be finished to be eaten, whether it has finished or not, and whether it has risen or flopped. Success or failure face you as you sit down to eat: I remember the thrill of cutting open a layered chicken galantine and the horror of a flopped sponge-cake.


Alongside this sharing of skills in a family atmosphere Russell has a rare philosophical twist - what Roden called her "eye for the essence of things". Every student emerges with various aphorisms lodged in his or her memory while boning a chicken or reducing a stock. Here's a sampling. 

On the art of cooking: "It's not an art, it's a talent, but really it's what in France we call science menagère."

On running a good kitchen: "There are three essential cook's notebooks - a book of menus, a book of wine, and a book of what you've thrown in the dustbin." 

On errors: "The common ones are the simplest ones, like using the wrong-sized pan or draining vegetables badly." 

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