My life in food: Tom Allen on sandwiches in Spain and the culinary highlights of his South London suburb
The comedian and TV presenter also talks about learning to bake, Danish fine dining and the Vietnamese food scene in Melbourne.
Suburban Bromley in the 1980s and ’90s wasn’t exactly a gastronomic hub. Growing up, we’d often have a Sunday roast and quite a lot of convenience food: crispy pancakes, potato waffles, oven chips — various things from the freezer, basically. And that was usually followed by an Angel Delight; sometimes strawberry, sometimes butterscotch.
Rotisserie chicken reminds me of childhood. We occasionally went on holiday to Spain, to a place called Javier, where they covered the chicken in local herbs. It was always so delicious. This was about 30 years ago, and I still think about that rotisserie chicken. And sándwich mixto, which is basically a toasted cheese and ham sandwich. We’d get it at the beach, and it was folded into triangles in greaseproof napkins. I thought it was an exquisite treat.
Salt Fat Acid Heat, by Samin Nosrat, is such a great book. I interviewed her for BBC Radio 4 and was so starstruck. For things like chicken, I really took a leaf out of her book. Not literally, it’s a really nice book. But her tips, like not being afraid to season food, salting a chicken in advance and adding herbs and flavourings early, make such a difference and give you crispy skin and a flavoursome chicken.
I got into baking because I was bored during the school holidays and my nan said, ‘Why don’t you make a cake?’ So I made a Victoria sandwich and it really opened the gates. My dad used to have a book club at work and he bought a Le Cordon Bleu cookbook. While my parents watched TV, I’d look through these impossibly extravagant recipes and dream of making them one day. Mousse- and meringue-based chocolate gateaux, for example — rich, very French patisserie deliciousness. I was always enthralled by that. But I didn’t have any money and had to use whatever was in the kitchen.
The Vietnamese food in Melbourne is amazing. There’s a big Vietnamese community there and that’s where I tried the food for the first time — things like pho and bánh mì sandwiches. In a way, they’re quite simple dishes but made with so much love. I love things like pho that are made over a long time.
I’ve never experienced a tasting menu like the one at Kong Hans Kælder in Copenhagen. Sandi Toksvig recommended it and said it’s the best food she’s ever had anywhere in the world. There were little morsels of things that were all wonderful. We had the most beautiful monkfish wellington, which they carved at the table. We also had really nice tortellini with porcini mushrooms, and an amazing lemon meringue pie.
I tried pork knuckle for the first time in Munich, and it was phenomenal. It was after a gig at a late-night underground restaurant, and it was very salty, slow-cooked pork with mashed potatoes and some sort of gravy. Very stodgy, which sounds terrible, but I loved it.
There’s something exciting about waiting for a moped to arrive with something delicious. Growing up, we didn’t have takeaways unless it was somebody’s birthday. Even now, I think of them as a treat. There’s a really great Indian chef called Atul Kochhar who has a restaurant [Indian Essence] down the road from me in Bromley, and the takeaways from there are always great. The Fireball Pizza Company [also in Bromley] is really great, too.
I’d invite Queen Elizabeth I to my dream dinner party, just to see what she wears. That would be fun, a bit of pageantry. I’d also invite Noël Coward and Elton John. I’ve always loved Elton John.
Tom is touring the UK in 2022/23. tomindeed.com
Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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