You might recognize Simon Majumdar as a judge on some of the Food Network's most popular cooking shows, including Beat Bobby Flay, The Next Iron Chef and Cutthroat Kitchen. Well guess what ... as part of Simon's East Coast Tour - #GiveUsABedIllCookYouDinner - he and his wife are coming to stay in Ithaca, NY at Firelight Camps! On May 17th, Simon and Firelight's Co-Founder, Emma Frisch, will prepare a fireside dinner with Finger Lakes ingredients (you can book tickets here). In anticipation of Simon's arrival, we wanted to get to know a bit more about his fascinating culinary adventures and cooking chops.
Can you tell me about your #GiveUsABedIllCookYouDinner campaign?
This is an ongoing journey that my wife and I add to every year, where we travel around the country and have people share their lives with us through their food experiences. It was prompted by the nature of my travel for my most recent book Fed, White and Blue, where I attempted to discover what it means to become an American through the prism of its food. It was such a powerful adventure that it seemed silly to stop it just because the book is now published. We go wherever we are invited and cook meals in return for a place to lay our heads. It has been an extraordinary adventure so far.
Have you ever been camping? How about glamping?
I have only been camping on a couple of occasions. Far too much like hard work for my liking. Glamping, however is another matter. I love it and can recall two or three experiences, the most recent being in Chilean Patagonia.
Can you describe the most spectacular outdoor meal you’ve cooked or eaten?
There are too many to select one, but on the promotional tour for Fed, White and Blue we found ourselves on a pig farm in Mississippi cooking with a couple of local chefs and we ended up having a wonderful time smoking catfish, roasting chickens and making cobblers all at the side of the most beautiful lake. It turned into a dinner for about 30 people and lasted until the small hours.
What is your favorite dish to cook outdoors?
I don’t really think there is too much difference between cooking outside and inside, but being outdoors does tend to bring out the more primal elements in my character and I find myself drawn towards roasting large chunks of meat. I love making porchetta on the grill or smoker.
What is the one piece of kitchen equipment you could not live without?
My cast iron skillet and my knives.
I’m inspired that as self-taught chef you’re judging alongside some of America’s most accomplished, trained chefs on Next Iron Chef America, Extreme Chef, Beat Bobby Flay and Cutthroat Kitchen. The majority of the finalists on each show have also been through culinary school. How does being a self-taught chef give you a unique perspective?
Well, that’s a great question. First of all, I never call myself a chef. That’s a title that is earned by working the line, which I have never done for a living (although I have spent many, many hours in professional kitchens now alongside some of the most famous chefs in the world). I am a good cook however, and if the following wind is good, I can be a great cook. I think the reason the chefs I work with respect me is because of my inquisitive nature when it comes to matters culinary. I am always on the road (I’ve visited over 70 countries and every state in the USA) and everywhere I visit my main way of exploring their culture is through their food. That gives me a unique global perspective when I am judging their food, which I think the chefs appreciate.
You’ve just finished your book Fed, White & Blue (which by the way, draws chuckles every time I mention the title to someone new). In doing the research for this book, what was the biggest insight you gained about American cuisine?
There are really two big insights I drew from my journey. The first is that American Cuisine is very, very hard to define and is constantly changing. It is so regional and has far more depth than what some of our international friends might think. I also think that we are on the edge of a true golden age of American cuisine, fueled by the growth of craft products (cheese, beer, spirits) the spread of amazing food outside of the big cities and the influence of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants who want to bring their heritage to bear on classic American flavors.
I love how you believe the best way to understand a person and a culture is through food. You've traveled the country and the world eating in people's homes, and often cooking for your hosts. What was one of the most interesting things you learned about food during a homestay?
What always amazes me about food is its ability to bring people of different races, religions and political persuasions together. We may all be very different, sometimes to the point of getting into conflicts, but we all have to eat. I have used food and our travels to give me the opportunity to meet people far removed from my own middle class, English, Church of England and very liberal outlook and found that in the end, when you break bread with people, you really are not that different.
At what age did you start cooking, and what first inspired you?
I first started cooking when I was 8 or 9 and have been cooking as often as possible ever since. My sources of inspiration were my interesting heritage of being half Indian and half Welsh.
As a British mutt myself, I’m quite familiar with the negative connotation British food often carries. You also wrote the book Eating for Britain. What is the most important thing you want the world to know about British cuisine?
Most people who are critical about British food have either never been there or certainly not for a very long time. The food scene in the UK is rather amazing right now and London would certainly be in the top five food cities in the world in my opinion (for the record, Madrid, New York, Tokyo and Mumbai would be the others). I love to tell people about the history of British food and how it speaks to Britain’s past as a global superpower and a place that was tolerant of everybody. Fish and chips, for example was created by fleeing immigrant Jews from Portugal (who knew how to fry fish in oil) and fleeing Huguenots from Belgium (who knew how to fry potatoes in horse fat). Both groups settled in London and intermarried, the end result being Britain’s national dish.
Greasy fish and chips loaded with malt vinegar - that’s probably my favorite British staple. What’s your favorite British dish?
Not sure about the “greasy”, but yes, fish and chips would probably be my last meal, along with a proper pint of British bitter.