Joe Hurd – Blue Collar Cook
4th December 2015
“Oh – you are a chef?!”
“No, I’m a cook”
“Oh wow, that’s so cool, what’s your favourite meal?”
“Pasta with tomato or french fries with American mustard”
“Yes really. If I had a day to live, this is what I would eat – and when I’d finished eating, I would use the remaining hours to smash up every ballotine of this, assiete of that and tian of the other, in every Michelin starred, fine dining establishment in the city. Then, I would mount a brief, but hopefully effective campaign, against the health food sector/cabal who make it their lives work to sap the joy out of food ” ”
Hi I am Joe Hurd, and I just answered the first question on most peoples lips when they meet me…
Just with a little more vitriol than usual.
A few years ago, I would say something else. I’d probably give a safe answer in every single respect.
Favourite food: Mums Parmigiana (I know you read this Sue, there is NOTHING wrong with it, however we have tomato sauce issues and, in recent years, the absence of Mortadella has been a bone of contention)
Favourite restaurant: L’anima (Yes! Your tortellini stuffed with Burrata was magical and made me weep, we shared great mornings in the bakery, however I just couldn’t hack working to Simply Red, 24/7… It got worse when Mick Hucknall started to become a regular)
I have come a long way since then. I’ve worked, sweated and, when I didn’t pay attention, bled in the world of food. It’s shaped me, my food and my views, into the man I am today. My take on food is that it should be simple, cheap, accessible to all and not come with a big side-serving of smugness or vanity.
Working in the kitchen is tough – real tough and, to be honest, it was something I did for two years, but after that I’d had enough! It’s hard labour and, sometimes, the end result gets confused with art. For me, the beauty and art is in the labour, so I hate the word chef – its too poncy – and I hate white jackets, torques and the michelin guide. It’s just not me!
I am a blue collar cook.
To give you a bit of background, because I think it explains a lot about me, I grew up in Hull. My mums’ dad was an Italian builder and my dads’ dad was a Sailor & Lumper (hull expression for some one that takes the fish off a trawler) My parents both were hard workers, Gaz a sailor and Sue a teacher.
I am an only child, but luckily was born into a big Catholic family, which meant it was almost impossible for me to embrace some of the worst aspects of not having brothers or sisters. Because my dad was at sea a fair bit and my mum worked a lot, I pretty much grew up with my three cousins at our grandparents’ ram shackled little terrace, which in many ways, was like a small holding. Grandpa was a man of the land, and the back garden was full of tomatoes, parsley, fruit bushes and trees. Not too far away was his allotments, where all year long he would grow the most amazing vegetables which would be the bulk of most of our meals.
Cooking and eating was our life and, it went hand in hand with proper old fashioned hard work. This is something I still go for today. A meal always tastes best when you have had to sweat to pay for it and cook it.
We made pasta, we made sugos and broths, we ate a lot of vegetables dug from the allotment. Grandpa would spend a lot of time driving around the council estates in Hull looking for the best, yet cheapest tomato passata he could find. Netto 14p (based on East Yorks. Prices circa. 1993)
Frugality was key. We weren’t a rich family but we always ate better than anyone I knew. Pasta soups with spinach and chicken broth, aubergine parmigiana, pastachina, cotoletta and then, sometimes, the english specials made an appearance. Boiled veg and roast lamb never floated my battleship. We always ate together, at a table.
I was a sportsman in my early years – cricket, football, tennis, shooting, anything. I was always active and always ate a couple of bowls of pasta afterwards. When I went to Leeds in 2005 to study history, I kept eating the pasta and gave up the sport, so my body decided to get pretty fat.
I didn’t want to be huge, and I didn’t like the way the totally hot student doctor looked at me as she called me “clinically obese” so I changed the way I ate.
I ate like a Calabrese peasant would do back in the 1900’s, just before they all got fed up of having nothing to eat and went to America so they could eat provalone and salami all day long.
It wasn’t a conscious thing, it was just natural, what my body felt like it needed rather than what my chubby little brain desired. I didn’t go out and buy a pack of quinoa and I didn’t get rid of Carbs. I also kept eating meat, because quite frankly we are meant to (look at them little sharp teeth in your gob, thats not meant for tofu), even the cheap stuff you get in the chiller cabinet at a roadside Spar.
I walked, ate less, drank spirits more. Everything I did would be to the benefit of mind, body or soul.
I am still a fat man in an average build body. And sometimes the fat guy wins. Good days.
This reconnection with food led me to Studentcooking.TV. I realised how much I loved food again. How much I loved having slightly off vegetables, a miserable looking cupboard, a few pence to spend, and making something awesome from it. They liked it too and, for the next 5 years I travelled around the whole country, pretty much continuously, presenting, cooking and producing videos about food, shopping and lifestyle. It was a real apprenticeship.
Eventually I became more office based as the company grew. I didn’t look like a student anymore, didn’t understand Instagram and wore a suit to travel to meetings. It was like getting fat – I had to change big time and embrace a more ascetic approach to life, reconnect with the struggle I still, to this day, get a kick out of.
After a conversation with Francesco Mazzei and Seamus Geoghegan of Delicious magazine, I left Leeds pretty much overnight to go to London, sleep on sofas and work for free at L’anima and Delicious. I loved it, it was long days, little pay and rough nights, but that kind of life makes you think a bit more – about everything. Sometimes having nothing can be a great big advantage.
I put my degree to good work, I researched and read everything I could between shifts. Eventually, I got the chance to work on Heston’s Great British feasts, writing and, then a real kind person gave me the chance to do a pilot for C4 and introduced me too my first agent. Alongside the TV work I have worked with some of the top Italian food brands and chefs in the world and had the chance to do a fair bit more food writing and recipe development.
In addition to this I still help out in restaurants now and again, occasionally getting back into the kitchen with some of my old crew, doing pop ups and dinner parties. This is the cooking I love, no more beholden to the whistles, bells and fast paced way of the professional kitchen, but cooking the food I want to cook, to people who want to eat it.
I approach my food like I approach my life, keep it simple, keep it pure and do what you want. Don’t over complicate, don’t over fuss, don’t worry. Less just might be more.
So you can really keep your flax seeds, cocoa nibs, meat free, carb free, sugar free, fads, flavours of the month and chefs of the week. I am not bowled over by podgy, made up middle aged men banging on about their expensive motors and lavish lifestyle, whilst chowing down on a sickly, enriched pastry dish. All your fine dining, silver service and french terminology for just about everything cooking related? Stick it in a box and throw it over a bridge.
The only Michelin this or that I want in my life is probably rubber and wrapped round the wheel of a truck.
Joe Hurd – The Blue Collar Cook!