Time's Table with Theo Randall - lamb, peas and potatoes, asparagus risotto and wood-fired fish

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Every now and then a meal becomes more than just a meal. It could be innovative and exciting – the kind that shapes your cooking going forward. But there’s something equally magic about the dish your mum used to cook you growing up, or even the reliable weekly staple you knock together on repeat.

In this new series, Time’s Table, we chat to people about the food that has left an impact on a time in their life – be it their past, present or future. Trust us, you can learn a lot about someone through what’s on their plate. 

Time’s Table with… Theo Randall

Theo Randall is one of the ultimate Kings of the Italian food scene in London. 

He cut his teeth in the world of fine dining, starting out as a waiter (then, very swiftly an apprentice) at the acclaimed French restaurant Chez Max, before joining River Cafe and climbing the ranks. 

Having won a Michelin star in 1997 as head chef at the Thames-side institution, his MO is rustic, seasonal, Italian fare, but executed flawlessly. Now heading up his own equally upmarket restaurant, Theo Randall at the InterContinental Hotel, you might envision a menu full of foams and micro-greens, but what he offers is actually much more personal.

Theo Randall is head chef at the InterContinental (Credit: Supplied)

Yep, there’s a reason Jay Rayner once dubbed a meal at Theo’s restaurant the best he’d eaten ‘all year’. Inspired by memories of trips to Italy and France as a kid, and equally by his late mother’s love of fresh vegetables from the garden, his recipes are as full of heart as they are with skill and knowledge. 

Now an author of six cookbooks - including his newest, Verdura, which offers 100 ways to cook 10 vegetables - Theo unashamedly heroes plants in all of his cooking, and has that understanding of how to get the most out of fresh ingredients that is integral to Italian cookery. 

But if he could only pick one, what is the nostalgic dish that has informed his cooking today? What’s a present staple when he’s home-cooking, and what’s a dish he’s eaten recently that’ll inspire future culinary endeavours? 

We chatted exclusively to Theo for our series, Time’s Table, to dig a little more into the meals that maketh the chef…

Past - Lamb and peas with jacket potatoes

“I’ve always had a love of the home-cooking style, and my cooking is very much about seasonality and real food.

“I was born in Kingston, but we moved into this Victorian house in Hampton Court which had this incredible garden when I was about eight years old. 

“My mum was a brilliant cook. She was Scottish, and she was very frugal, which is [how I run] our kitchen in the restaurant today.  

“I mention the house because it had so many fruit trees and there was also this enormous walnut tree in the garden, and she would preserve absolutely everything. 

“She would make jams out of every kind of fruit possible and she’d make these green walnut pickles to go with cheese. I grew up with all these amazing jars everywhere and was fortunate enough to think this was quite normal. 

“She’d also bake all the time and I baked with her, and that's how I started cooking from a very early age. I’d go to school with homemade bread and Gorgonzola sandwiches, and a couple of windfall apples, and at the time I thought I was such a weirdo! Sometimes on the way I’d buy a packet of crisps so I could fit in a bit better.

“In hindsight, I was so fortunate to have that kind of upbringing because it just really made me realise what good food was.

“My mum passed away a couple of years ago, but I always think of her. If I had to pick one nostalgic dish she cooked it would be her lamb and peas. 

Theo Randall's mum used to make lamb, peas and potatoes (Credit: Getty)

“It was really, really simple – basically just lamb neck or shoulder, cooked slowly for a really long time so you got this lovely soft meat. It's got rosemary in it; probably a little bit of wine and garlic, but nothing fancy.

“Then she’d make peas from the garden, and she used to do these baked potatoes where she’d put them in the oven on a skewer and then cook them on salt, sometimes with a bay leaf.

“Me and my sisters would get the potatoes and cut them up, then add as much butter as we could possibly get in there, until mum said, ‘Stop, that’s too much!’

“I remember mashing up the potato with all that rich juice from the lamb… I’m salivating!

Theo remembers dousing his potato in butter (Credit: Getty)

“That was a really lovely experience, and I can just taste that dish now. Fresh, sweet peas, succulent, slow-cooked lamb, and buttery potatoes….

“We just ate really seasonal foods like that growing up, and that’s definitely [true of] how I cook today, too.”

Present - Asparagus risotto

“Even if I’m not working, I’m always cooking. People ask, ‘Why are you cooking?’, but I actually love it, because it’s a time where I can really relax. 

“Really, it’s Italian food I love making all the time. There’s 20 different regions of Italy, and the food is so particular from each region, it’s fascinating. 

“If I had to pick one present staple it would probably be a risotto. I always have a big bag of risotto rice in the cupboard, and I find the process of making it quite soothing. 

Asparagus risotto is a staple in Theo Randall's home (Credit: Getty)

“It’s English asparagus season, so I’d probably make an asparagus risotto, blanch the tips, keep them separate, make vegetable stock (just because it's so easy to make), and then I’d just make a very, very nice risotto.

“I like to puree half of the asparagus and then mix it in the risotto with some fresh herbs and some butter and Parmesan, and then fry the leftover asparagus at the end, so it’s kind of a bit of a biter.

“Getting risotto perfect takes a bit of time and effort and you can just sort of get lost in it sometimes. Getting that perfect bite on the rice, making sure it’s really creamy, making sure the stock is seasoned and your asparagus puree is seasoned and cooked just right…

“Like most Italian food, I think you've got to stick to the rules. It's all about simplicity and not mucking things around; making things taste good and using ingredients that make sense rather than overcomplicating it. 

“Plus, it’s just a very nice thing to eat. I think a really good risotto is hard to beat, particularly during the week, if you just fancy something warm and comforting.”

Future - Wood-fired fish

“I just came back from Tulum, Mexico, and having had some of the food there, what was inspiring was the fact that they were cooking all local.

“We went to this place called Hartwood, which changes its menu every day. They forage all the ingredients – and when they say they forage, they have people catching fish and things.

“It was just so good. They had this great big wood-burning stove, and everything was cooked on it. 

“There was one dish, which was just this whole fish that they’d opened up and almost spatchcocked – so, they took the middle bone out – then marinated.

Theo was inspired by the freshly caught fish in Mexico (Credit: Getty - Stock Image)

“They put all these incredible spices and herbs on it, put it into a red hot pan and popped it in the oven. I saw it being cooked and it literally took about five minutes because the oven was like a furnace. 

“The vegetable that came with it was just a whole roasted beetroot, served with coconut yoghurt and salted sunflower seeds of some sort. They just cut this beetroot up and you had it with this fish.

"There was no olive oil, no lemon. It was just brilliant, and the flavour was wonderful. 

“We had a few amazing meals like that in Mexico. There was Bluefin Tuna that you could just tell had just been caught, sliced, and put on a plate with a taco – nothing on it really but it was just the most amazing tuna. 

“We also had soft shell crab as you could see the soft shell crabs on the beach, running around. Most of the soft shell crabs people get are frozen and when you taste a fresh one you're like ‘Oh my god’. 

"You can feel when the person cooking is really thinking about the ingredients, and they were cooking with their heart. It was all about what comes out of the sea and what grows on the land, which I think is so important when you go to a restaurant.”

Featured image: Getty/ Supplied