Sam Stern published his first book, Cooking Up A Storm, at the tender age of 14 — and he has been rustling up mouth-watering dishes ever since.
Now 27, he’s still on a mission to instil everyone he meets with a love of food. While a number of his cookbooks have catered to a younger audience, including Sam Stern’s Student Cookbook, he wants people of all generations to gain joy from cooking. “I just think there’s only a limited amount of meals that you’re going to have in your life,” he says, “and every one should be special and enjoyable.”
Sam came of age as a celebrity chef at an interesting time, in between the reign of the traditional TV and book crowd (your Delia Smiths and Jamie Olivers) and newer, tech-savvy influencers like Deliciously Ella. “I’ve been cooking for as long as I can remember,” he says. “My first book came out when I was 14; this was back in the days of MySpace and Bebo.”
Twelve years and six books later, the industry has changed, with social media playing a much bigger role both in how chefs share their work, and how readers engage with recipes. Sam personally loves Instagram, as he feels it’s the most creative network and he likes to see people cooking and enjoying his recipes. And he’s fascinated by the new cabal of chefs and food writers who have emerged from these online communities.
“Social media has borne a wide range of characters now, who might not have necessarily had that career beforehand,” he says. “Instagram tends to have these niches within it, whether it’s the health or fitness stuff, and people aspiring to be more than they are, and these bloggers are helping them to do it.”
Does this mean that anybody with a camera and a blog can call themselves a food writer, or a chef? And if anybody can do it, where is the benchmark for quality?
Regardless of your situation and budget, you can make something that tastes really good; it’s all about the confidence and skills you have to do that.
“The thing about the journey that these people are on is that they’re improving constantly while they’re doing it,” he says. “So they might not be great to start with, but as they experience different things and pick up stuff from other people, they can learn to be better.
“You don’t necessarily have to go on a proper photography course, you can just pick up tips from your peers, and you can evolve into something better. Sure, some accounts are better than others, but each one has value to its readers, whether it’s sharing personal stories, or the quality of the food.
“Everybody’s got to learn, and I think it will give way to the rise of some great food writers. I hold journalists, newspapers and especially food critics in a higher regard than people on social media. But for the new generation, their first port of call will be those people on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, for their information.”
He admits, though, that social media can be helpful when it comes to forming an opinion: “How I like to approach restaurants is to look at their Instagram, and see what people have put up about them, look online at TripAdvisor etc, and get a really good feel for how a restaurant runs day to day, whereas a review might be biased in some form.”
Sam also acknowledges that there can be a degree of snobbery in the food world, which can make it feel inaccessible; bloggers can now often simply bypass the old-school gatekeepers. A desire to break down those barriers was at the heart of his last book, Sam Stern’s Cookery Course.
“Instead of spending loads of money on cookery schools, why can’t you learn these skills in a book? I wanted to provide people with the knowledge to do that. Regardless of your situation and budget, you can make something that tastes really good; it’s all about the confidence and skills you have to do that.”
The themes of his books have always mirrored what’s going on in his life at that time. Most recently, Too Good To Share was inspired by living in London with a flatmate; a situation quite different to the big family dining that many recipes tend to favour. Sam realised there are plenty of people in the same boat, cooking for themselves, often wasting ingredients — so he decided to write a book all about the pleasures of solo cooking.
“I wanted it to be economical in time and budget,” he says. “Simple recipes, with affordable, easy to find ingredients. What you’ll get is a lovely dinner, and then the leftovers, whether that’s the main dish itself, or an ingredient, to make lunch the next day – two meals for the price of one.” Having to think about producing two dishes from each set of ingredients made writing this book more of a challenge, but it was one he savoured. “It was like a puzzle,” he says. “It’s a really interesting process, it forces you to be creative.”
While the continually evolving themes of the books are a reflection of how both Sam and his readership have matured, when it comes to developing the recipes themselves, he takes his cues from all over the world. He loves the classic French, Italian and Spanish styles of cooking, and one of his favourite challenges was reverse-engineering a traditional devilled curry he tasted while in Sri Lanka.
“Inspiration comes in bits and pieces from everywhere, from everyday life. In downtime between books, I’m constantly cooking just to see what I can come up with.”
And when he’s not busy writing or experimenting with new ingredients? What does a standard Sam Stern meal look like? “You can’t beat a Sunday roast!”