Monday 4 November 2019 5:00 pm

Chef's Table: Flor's James Lowe invites My Dad Wrote a Porno creator Alice Levine for lunch

The Lunch: Bread; Anchovy toast, lardo di colonnata, marjoram; Scarlet prawns, orange yuzu kosho; Palourde clam flatbread, spenwood, vin jaune, lautrec garlic; burrata, chestnut, pickled walnuts; Turbot, cultured butter, ‘les molates’ savagnin

Alice Levine: Thanks for having me James. I remember when we first met – it was when I was doing supper clubs and you told me a great location to go and forage. You drew a map. I don’t do the supper clubs anymore – I can’t really imagine cooking for 25 people now. I’m more of a home cook.

James Lowe: I find cooking at home quite difficult. I mess up the scaling and end up with absurd amounts of food, or not enough food. I can order the amount of fish I’ll need for two days in the restaurant, but if I try to cook for four people they’ll end up with half a prawn tail each. Where do you like to eat when you go out?

AL: I always have a great meal in Rochelle. I love the Towpath. I’ve never had a bad experience in either. Both have a great atmosphere and they’re nice and simple. Having said that, these prawns could do with a little cube of gelatinous something, and a lid that when you take it off, you get the smell of the rainforest, or your first boyfriend’s cologne. 


JL: You joke, but I’ve worked in those restaurants. I was at Heston’s when he was developing that dish Sound of the Sea, which came with an iPod to listen to as you ate it. It was so awful. We couldn’t believe he was serious about doing it. 

Scarlet prawns
Scarlet prawns at Flor

AL: I’ve eaten in places like that where I’ve been impressed but haven’t really enjoyed it. You can feel a bit out in the cold with that stuff, like if you don’t know the process you’re not getting the full experience.

JL: That almost makes it worse, like you’ve spent all this time making something and it’s not very good. I tend to stay away from fancy fine dining restaurants, because more often than not they’re disappointing, and they’re always really expensive. Good cooking is about having a real understanding of your product, rather than making it into a mousse and a gel and wrapping it in cucumber.

AL: Do you have any restaurant experiences that changed the way you thought about food?

JL: Fat Duck and St John were formative and I still love them both. We ate out really rarely when I was young – my parents were obsessed with buying trays that would fit over your lap so you could eat while you were watching Eastenders. Microwaves and telly trays. Even as a child I hated that and loved eating out. 

AL: We did it so rarely that it was a real occasion, although my mum was an amazing cook that it was often disappointing anyway. But the idea of choosing what you want from a menu felt so grown up.

The bijou dining room at Flor

JL: It’s nice to be looked after. I can’t tolerate bad service. People not saying goodbye as you leave is one of my pet hates. It makes me see red.


AL: Is there anything you don’t eat?

JL: I used to be proud of the fact that I would eat anything, but then I went to Taiwan and tried this thing called stinky tofu, which smells like a latrine. It’s disgusting. You’ll be walking through a market and all of a sudden it smells like someone’s crapped themselves. The first time I ate it, a load of people were watching – they were quite impressed because white people don’t usually try it. I had it two or three times and there was one that was particularly strong. I couldn’t do it again.

AL: I’ve had it. It’s intense. It’s challenging. But I didn’t gag. What’s your go-to chocolate bar?

JL: I’m going to sound really pretentious now. I only have good chocolate at home. I’ll take stuff from the restaurant. Really dark. I’ve hated fizzy drinks and Cadbury’s chocolate since I was a kid.

AL: Did you wear a monocle?

JL: Yes, and carried a tiny briefcase. I was a little snob. I don’t like sugar that much, although when I was at the Fat Duck I used to go through Haribo Tangfastics and cans of Red Bull like there was no tomorrow. There was a really crazy, abusive Scottish pastry chef and if he wasn’t looking I’d get my hand in and eat the chocolate he was making for desserts. 

James Lowe enjoys a glass of wine with Alice Levine
James Lowe enjoys a glass of wine with Alice Levine

AL: So what you’re telling me is that you’re basically a poncey thief? Is being a chef like being a really good musician, the way they can hear a tune and play it straight away – can you eat something and know straight away how to make it? 

JL: Sometimes, yeah. I think you do that with anything you’re passionate about. There was definitely a time when I’d go somewhere just to find out how things were made. But you can get too obsessed with technique. 

AL: I suppose I do the same with writing and comedy. When you see somebody doing your job well, you try to work out how the pieces fit together. Why does that joke work so well?

JL: How has making My Dad Wrote A Porno changed over the years?

AL: People are harder to shock now. Series one was just us going ‘ooh-err!’ But the three of us have always enjoyed making stuff together. Even if it hadn’t taken off we’d still have made it, although it’s obviously easier when people like it. It’s only 13 weeks of the year, like the school holidays. So we all sit in my dark spare room reading porn. People ask how Rocky – Jamie’s dad’s pen name – takes it, because we can be quite harsh, but he’s impervious to criticism. He’s such a wind-up merchant, loves the craic. It’s all family jibes.

JL: It’s amazing how much it’s taken off. Your download numbers are massive.

AL: I don’t pay attention to the figures – it’s 200m downloads by the way – but it’s funny, when you’re doing it, it feels like this really intimate thing – kind of like cooking I suppose – so when I hear about people in Australia listening to I’m always a bit shocked.

We did an episode where we talk to people who love Rocky’s writing and we met Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote Hamilton. He was filming something in Wales, so we went there and the weather was terrible. It was crazy seeing this broadway legend hiding under a tree outside John Lewis in Cardiff. What do you listen to in the kitchen?

Some of Flor's wine selection
Some of Flor’s wine selection

JL: Well, we have an open kitchen, so we just listen to the same music as the restaurant. But in the early days most kitchens were separate so you’d get this elevator jazz in the dining room and the chefs would be listening to System of a Down.

We have a baker who comes in at 3am and I saw her playlist the other night – it’s the middle of the night and she’s listening to Pantera and Metallica. But the bread is good, so go for it. Music in restaurants is really important. People think the music should reflect the mood of the room, but it’s the opposite – the music sets the mood of the room. 

AL: It’s a hard balance, it’s like how attentive waiting staff should be. Too little or too much can be terrible. There are parallels with what we do. When we have a guest we always want it to feel like a conversation, not like they are being interviewed. 

JL: How do you find people? 

AL: Mostly they get in touch with us…

JL: Do you make them beg? If they’re really keen do you keep them hanging? ‘Oh god, Cillian Murphy has emailed three times now!’

AL: Sometimes they will out themselves as pervs by following us on Twitter. Emma Thomson’s daughter let us know on the sly. The whole experience gets easier over time. We’ve crafted something that suits us all – we weren’t comedians or comedy writers and the boys didn’t do presenting, so we made something that was comedy by stealth. It’s a bit geeky and freaky so we have a kind of sci-fi crossover. People like it because it’s dorky and lame.

We’ve all done jobs that you can’t think about because it makes you feel so bad inside. But you get more confident in turning things down. I’m no good at standing next to a boy presenter and giggling at jokes. If that’s what you want, I’m not who you’re looking for.

We have a baker who comes in at 3am and I saw her playlist the other night – it’s the middle of the night and she’s listening to Pantera and Metallica

JL: I was really conscious of the fact I didn’t want Flor to be as difficult as Lyle’s. We lost money for a long time and it was really hard: ridiculous hours and loads of pressure, with loans it took us five years to repay. It was horrible having that hanging over us when we wanted to spend money on the restaurant. Industry friends were saying ’I hope you’re at least paying yourselves properly’ but we weren’t.

I was giving pay rises to members of staff who were earning more than I was. It makes you feel like a bit of a failure even though I knew the food was good. It just didn’t feel sustainable. People think restaurants make loads of money but we certainly didn’t. It sucked. So I don’t want to do that again, I’ve played that game. This opening was more successful and smoother because of how much of a disaster the last one was.

Alice has curated an aperitivo menu designed to complement the distinctive flavours of Peroni Libera 0.0%. You can try it at the Peroni Libera Terrazza at Selfridges London; Series 5 of My Dad Wrote a Porno is out now and will go on a world tour in the new year; To book a table at Flor go to florlondon.com, call 020 3319 8144 or visit the Borough Market restaurant at 1 Bedale St, SE1 9AL

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