For a lot of people in the world of fashion a good time at a restaurant has less to do with the chef in the kitchen than with the crowd in the banquettes. While food isn't completely irrelevant, what's on the plate often matters a lot less than who's wearing the latest peasant blouse from Louis Vuitton or toting the precious Mombasa bag from Yves Saint Laurent.
Which makes the British designer Paul Smith a bit of an anomaly: He knows how to enjoy a good meal. Though he created a name (and a multimillion-dollar fortune) for himself with boundary-crossing ideas like lining skinny Savile Row-style suits with zingy striped silk, he's applied his quirky design eye to everything from women's and men's clothing to furniture and even plates. He loves food so much, in fact, that while on a trip to Florence to oversee a new women's-wear collection, he'll make a detour to pick up a bushel of tomatoes from a friend's garden in the countryside to bring home.
Having never learned to fend for himself--I went from my mum's home cooking to my wife Pauline's when I was 21," Smith says with a grin--he has relied on relatives and friends to fix what he calls "normal guy food," such as a good steak with fresh tomatoes and a pile of arugula. Thus it was serendipitous that 20 years ago in a restaurant around the corner from his second shop in London, Smith crossed paths with Nigel Slater, today a columnist for The Observer, the host of the BBC television show Real Food and the author of eight cookbooks (his most recent, Appetite, will be published in America next month). At the time, Slater was just starting as a chef in a Duke Street café called Justin De Blank. De Blank was one of the pioneers in England of fresh, seasonal British food done in an accessible, affordable way. In addition to his classic English breakfast complete with homemade sausage, De Blank was known for dishes like turkey potpie and fruit brûlée.
"I would go in there after spending two weeks in Japan eating nothing but raw fish," remembers Smith. "I'd see Nigel and say, I need a cheese sandwich!' In those days it was not so easy to get a good cup of coffee or a fresh salad. We immediately hit it off because we both liked good grub done in quite a chic, laid-back way."
The two men are friends to this day and have a similar philosophy: Just as Smith favors classic fashion with idiosyncratic details--a formal, double-cuffed men's dress shirt printed with pale pink rosebuds, for example--Slater encourages people to make changes to recipes to suit their tastes. Slater's approach to cooking, like that of his colleagues Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver, is neither prescriptive nor focused on technique. His recipe measurements are often deliberately imprecise (Slater uses terms like a fistful and a glass), and he urges his readers to improvise--all with a chatty, get-to-work tone of encouragement. In Appetite, he reassures reluctant cooks, saying, "The shopping list is short, the method is straightforward, undemanding." Or he'll add friendly suggestions like "French bread for mopping your plate might be good here." Few of his recipes--whether flounder fillets baked with Parmesan bread crumbs or creamy, mustardy scalloped potatoes with smoked mackerel--use more than five ingredients, mostly common pantry items, or take more than 30 minutes to make from start to finish.
Recently, Smith and Slater hooked up at Slater's house in Highbury, near Islington, to cook steak sandwiches together--sort of--and talk about their love of no-frills food and fashion. Not to be outdone by the guy in the kitchen, Smith showed up with a bottle of his own olive oil (pressed from 500 trees in a friend's orchard in Tuscany and available at his Westbourne House shop in Notting Hill), a bundle of striped notebooks and a pile of his new china plates--creamy white with a single, hand-painted stripe of color around the rim.
"Now these are very flattering to food," Slater says, bounding out of the kitchen to greet Smith with a platter of warm new-potato salad layered with Taleggio and arugula. "They're real china, so they have that glow, and the color of course is essential," Slater adds, slyly referring to Smith's signature stripes, which show up on everything from shirts to shopping bags to teacups. The new plates, which Smith designed for the English china company Thomas Goode, are a simplified version of his classic multistripe pattern.
Slater's place--a Georgian row house with a lush kitchen garden in the back--is as unassuming and uncluttered as his recipes. There's a recycling bin filled with old wine bottles on the front stoop (a sure sign of a good cook) and, inside, a row of makeshift industrial shelving lining one kitchen wall. Slater moved in about two years ago but has yet to remodel or even fix up the unfinished efforts of the previous owners--swatches of paint on the kitchen walls, the ghostly outline of a staircase runner that's been pulled up. The rough-hewn authenticity resonates with what Slater calls his "wobbly cooking." "I believe the less you do to food, the better it is," he says. So steak with salt and pepper instead of a fancy sauce that's "arguing with it for attention" is pure Slater, as is pasta with crumbled sausage, basil and cream--recipes that, as Slater says, you can cook for yourself at the end of the day after fighting your way home on public transportation.
Even though Smith will probably never cook one of Slater's recipes himself (or use public transportation, for that matter; he prefers his bike), he's adamant about fresh ingredients--or as he likes to say, the right food at the right time. "I don't want daffodils at Christmas!" Smith declares, mockingly slamming his fist down on the table and upsetting a stack of his plates. "Food is like fashion in the way that it's become so available globally. Since you can have tomatoes in February, just like you can buy any major fashion brand in any city in the world, to find something special is very hard."
For now, a juicy Nigel Slater steak sandwich on a baguette slathered with garlic and butter might just do.
Kate Betts writes often on fashion and style for the New York Times.