Single-minded cook

Sam Stern was just 14 years old when he published his first cookbook. Ten years on he tells Sarah Freeman why he hopes his latest collection will re-invent cooking for one.

Sam Stern. PIC: James Hardisty

It’s barely past 11am, but Sam Stern already knows what he and his dad will be having for dinner. Come 6pm, he’ll be popping a rump of beef in the oven of the family home in York and blanching some Swiss chard to go alongside. It might sound a little indulgent for a Tuesday, but then the 24-year-old, who already has seven cookery books to his name and is convinced that all most of us need to liven up our repertoire is a little imagination and a soupçon of confidence, likes to practice what he preaches.

“Honestly, roasting a rump of beef is simple. People worry too much about overcooking or undercooking a joint like that, but they really shouldn’t.”

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Making cooking accessible has always been one of Sam’s aims and his latest book Too Good to Share is no different. It’s based on a two for one premise, with a single core ingredient used to make two separate meals, so a dinner of beer and orange chicken with noodles is transformed into a lunch of Asian chicken salad and with a few added spices, harissa pork with mango and coriander couscous becomes sweet chilli pork stir fry.

Sam tested out every single recipe on his dad, an antiquarian bookseller, and the family cat Mickey also muscled in on the tasting rota.

“During duck week, I think he thought he’d died and gone to heaven and when I moved on to the vegetarian dishes he wasn’t quite so enamoured. All the cookbooks I’ve written have reflected where I am in life at that particular point and this one is exactly same. Most people my age don’t have families to cook for and when you are on your own it’s often really easy to end up living off beans and toast and ready meals. I know there is something faintly depressing about the idea of cooking for one, but there shouldn’t be. The fact is that everyone is so busy these days that even in families people often end up eating on their own.”

Some of the dishes included in this latest collection are staple British fare like cottage pie, gammon steak and apple oat crumble, but over the 180-odd pages it is also something of a culinary world tour with a nod to Italian, Asian and North American influences.

“The real beauty of a book like this is breaking down those boundaries, so you can cook a great beef sandwich and then turn the leftovers into a Vietnamese style soup. I did do a lot of experimentation to make sure I got the combinations right. When you are trying to put together two dishes from one main ingredient it is a bit of a jigsaw, but a lot of fun. While some of the recipes are more involved than others, for most people none of them should take much longer than half an hour.

“When people are cooking just for themselves they worry about making far too much food. However, if you buy a small whole chicken, not only is it cheaper in the long-run than buying individual breasts, but it’s also easier to divide into a number of dishes. So not only do you get a great dinner, but at the same time you are halfway there to next day’s lunch. Plus when you are cooking for yourself, there is no one else to please.”

It’s something Sam is only too aware of. He grew up in a big family with three older sisters and a brother who at various times have been both vegan and vegetarian Add in six nieces and nephews and even the most basic Sunday dinner round the Stern house requires a dozen different dishes.

“The kitchen is definitely my domain. My brother is also a pretty good cook and there was a time when he was pretty competitive, but he ended up becoming a doctor so he now doesn’t have so much time to spare. Sharing great food around a big table is one of the joys of life. The only thing I ask is that when I’m cooking they leave me

“It’s great when everyone is together. Or it is as long as they leave me alone in the kitchen. It’s definitely true what they say about too many cooks spoiling the broth.”

Sam began his career as a cookery writer when he was just 14 years old. He honestly believed that his very first book, Cooking Up a Storm, which included his own take on lasagne and roast chicken, would sell a handful of copies. In fact it became an international bestseller and has since been translated into 16 languages.

“It was a bit of a fluke really. I’d written an idea for a cookbook on an A4 piece of paper and my mum passed it onto a couple of agents she knew. They contacted children’s publisher Walker Books – they hadn’t done a cookbook so they were really keen. It caught us all out by surprise as it really was just a bit of a pipedream.”

Sam’s mum was his biggest champion. It was her treacle loaf which first inspired him to cook and since her death 18 months ago from a brain tumour those family meals have become even more important as a way of sharing precious time together.

“Without mum, who knows whether I’d be doing what I do now, but for as long as I can remember I was stood with her in the kitchen sieving flour and making cakes. My other big inspiration was Keith Floyd. I had a box set of of his BBC series from when I was quite young and I never got tired of watching it. He was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

“He was chaotic, a bit anarchic, but he also made cooking seemed accessible. Prior to him, cooking programmes were pretty sedate, every ingredient had to be measured exactly and there often didn’t seem to be much room for fun.”

Despite having set his heart on a career in cooking, when he was 18, Sam left York for Edinburgh University to study politics, completing a very serious-sounding dissertation on how America and Europe co-ordinate security policy.

“I guess I had a choice. It was either stay at home and continue to cook or go to university and learn about the world. I chose to learn about the world. Cooking is all about experience and the time I had in Edinburgh really influenced what I have done since.

“Admittedly, I was probably one of the few students at Edinburgh who didn’t live on a diet of mince or cheap takeaways. I purposefully went into a self-catering flat as I didn’t fancy the food in halls. Funnily enough, a lot of people in that first year did give me a second look when we first met. They swore they knew me from somewhere and it turned out it was because they had been given my cookbook and my mac n’ cheese recipe became pretty legendary.

“For a lot of people that first time away from home is a bit of a baptism of fire and I did end up cooking for a lot of people, but I didn’t mind. It is what I love doing.”

While largely self-taught, Sam did complete a three-month stint at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in an effort to plug the gaps in his his knowledge. Based on a 100-acre organic farm near Cork, the school’s 12-week course takes students through everything from knife skills to menu planning and the French classics.

“It was very intense, but it was a fantastic experience and it definitely made me a much better cook.

“We would start by preparing a three course meal at 8am, sit down to eat it at lunch time and then in the afternoon we would watch the chefs cook another three course meal which we would then try to replicate the following day. Let’s just say that we all put on a few pounds and the before and after photographs weren’t flattering.”

Sam still has an ambition to set up his own cookery school, but even after seven successful cookbooks he is aware that food can be a fickle business.

“I’m still young and there’s lots of things on the to do list, but going bankrupt isn’t one of them.”

And with that he’s off to the gym, preparation for that rump of beef in a few hours time.

Turn to our special food and drink supplement to try out some of Sam Stern’s new recipes in Too Good To Share.