Simon Says…

 TV producer Pete Lawrence caught up with Simon Rimmer and discussed all things food, guilty pleasures and how he started his career.

‘I’d wanted to work with Simon for over a decade. When we first met I was busy making a wealth of food shows for the BBC and Simon was presenting ‘Something for the Weekend’. I instantly liked him- he was a real person, not someone whose main desire was to be on TV. That makes such a difference to me, if I can engage with someone on a level beyond the bubble of television, I know I have a person I can not only work with but enjoy being with as well. When you spend weeks and weeks in an edit suite crafting a show , it really feels you are with the host all that time, so it’s vital to find a connection. Simon was also clearly a great chef and great fun – and although I knew I was in a long line of producers meeting him and his agent that day, I just sensed we would click.

It wasn’t to be. As events turned out, Simon took on a show at Channel Four and left the BBC and I remained. It meant we couldn’t work together. I spent a further 6 years at the BBC having a great time and making some fabulous shows and Simon’s TV career went from strength to strength, undoubtedly helped by his fantastic relaxed tone and personality on ‘Sunday Brunch’. I have remained a fan and I’m sure Simon has kept an eye on the programmes I have made.

I now run my own television production company, so when the opportunity arose to make a series with Simon for C4 I jumped at the chance and we met again. Simon is still a real person…TV hasn’t changed his personality: he is a proud dad, a passionate chef and a shrewd businessman. He loves being on TV but like me pinches himself every now and then. Real people do that, so they can be sure they exist beyond the screen and unreal world of celebrity and media. Simon, I have learned, is a man who never loses touch with reality.

Our new show (Eat The Week with Iceland) is on Channel 4 on Sunday lunchtimes. It is a format designed to help real families with the everyday food dilemmas they face. In fact the problems we all face. Are you stuck in a rut? Do you have picky eaters in the family? And is your cupboard full of seldom used spice jars? If so you need to watch, for no other reason than to realise that you are not alone! Of course Simon has also lived through these real life family dilemmas, so his solutions and suggestions are heart felt and dare I say, useful.

It’s been a long wait but as predicted an absolute pleasure working with Simon – he has a wealth of knowledge and his words are from the heart not TV waffle. You get what you see.

PL Were you interested in food as a child?

SR My dads family are Italian, great foodies all of them and my mum’s mum was also a great cook.… as a result my parents cooked well and we always sat down to eat as a family… so I was surrounded by tasty food- always.

PL You didn’t start a career in food though – what was your plan?

SR Well like most kids I wanted to be a footballer, but I ended up doing a degree in fashion and textiles…I was really good at design. I did do loads of jobs in the food industry as a student – mostly front of house but I kind of got the bug for it.

PL What made you change direction?

SR I was pretty successful as a designer and worked internationally but after 6 years I started to get a bit bored. I had some mates who worked in the food business and I was a bit envious…and I thought I need to do this.

PL So what did you do?

SR In 1990 I decided to open my own restaurant. I had no qualifications and just a couple of grand in my pocket – but I did it. I taught myself to cook and just made it happen.

PL Were you crazy?

SR Yep…and I probably wouldn’t get away with it now! At the time the industry wasn’t as sophisticated or as complicated as it is now and also … here’s the big difference.. at the time banks seemed prepared to lend money to anyone,so I just did it,and didn’t really think about failing or the consequences.

PL The British food scene has changed a lot in that time…why do you think that is?

SR I think we have finally got a bit of pride back – we seemed to live in the shadow of French or Spanish or Italian cuisine but in recent years we have learned to celebrate our local and regional foods. As soon as we started quoting where our food came from on menus, whether a farm in Lincolnshire or a fisherman in Cornwall, we made provenance an asset and as a result the British food scene is now thriving.

PL When did you realise you had made it as a chef?

SR In October 1992 the Guardian featured my vegetarian restaurant as a great place to eat – we were a 28 cover veggie restaurant in south Manchester but were getting national acclaim. I realised then that it was working.

PL You taught yourself to cook – do you ever stop learning?

SR Never – and that’s the day to give up! I learn now by finding flavour combinations or new techniques, often small things, like a new way to carve meat say. I still get excited by every new idea, it’s a genuine passion, it has to be.

PL What’s your guilty culinary secret?

SR Dairylea triangles, frozen roast dinners that you just have to heat up and when I’ve had a few beers a spicy Doner kebab. And I’m not ashamed of any of them!

PL So our series ‘Eat the week with Iceland’ you have to come up with ideas for families, was that strange or diffcult?

SR Not at all – because I wasn’t trained as a chef it has always been a challenge as to what to put on a plate and as a dad I don’t think there has been a challenge that I haven’t at some stage faced at home… picky eaters…stuck in a rut…wanting healthy food…what to cook when busy… Every home cook tries to deal with that. So coming up with ideas was pretty easy. But I’m also aware that people don’t want to spend a fortune and don’t want to be chained to the stove for hours so I had to come up with menus that are rooted in real life rather than TV chef world. These dishes had to talk to people in a way that made them absolutely believe they could make the dishes at home.

PL What is your aim?

SR I want people to watch it and then want to cook at home. To be inspired, I guess. They don’t even have to follow my recipes I just want then to watch and think, ‘I could have a go at (something like) that’. I also want to push a few boundaries, as it’s too easy to just keep cooking the same things

PL Ok then, what are your 5 go to recipes?

SR Now I’m going to sound like a chef…Salmon with spicy rice; Seabass with guacamole and salsa and beans; omelettes of every description, likewise salads and finally, battered lemon chicken with chargrilled broccoli.

PL What do you anticipate will be the next food trends?

SR Well times of austerity have made us conscious of cost and waste and now I think people turn to cheaper cuts through choice and because of flavour, which can only be good. I do think we are all thinking about what we eat much more these days and as a result not so obsessed with having protein. Vegetarian food is really exciting at the moment. Middle eastern food flavours are definitely here to stay and Korean too but I noticed on a recent trip to the US that classic French cuisine is being revisited…perhaps with a bit less butter and cream but the essence of the key dishes is really hitting the States right now and I’m sure will come here soon.’

Pete Lawrence (@digthisfood) runs Hungry Gap Productions.