‘The best cup of coffee in Notting Hill!’—that’s how Rosie Kindersley and Eric Treuillé describe ‘Books For Cooks’, their bookshop at 4 Blenheim Crescent, in the heart of the fashionable London neighborhood, a stone’s throw from Portobello Road. ‘Books For Cooks’, in fact, is more than a mere bookshop. When you go through its red door, you enter a different world. You’re taken aback by the bookshelves, choc-a-bloc with books, that reach right up to the ceiling, and by the large wood tables at the center of the small shop, alongside a worn-looking leather sofa. But what captures your attention most is the kitchen at the back of the shop, whence aromas of coffee, muffins and focaccia waft This is the secret of the success of the shop, a place with a character all of its own that fills up on Saturday mornings not only with regular customers, but also with punters on their way to Portobello market. No one ever leaves disappointed.
Rosie and Eric took the shop over in 1994 after working for two years as cooks in the ‘experimental kitchen’. Previously the place had been owned by Heidi Lascelles, who first had the idea of opening a shop in which a love of food and a love of literature could meet and mix. In 1983, Heidi made her dream come true with ‘Books For Cooks’, a store comprising a fitted kitchen where she could ‘test the recipes contained in the books on the shelves and thus make them come to life ’. Since she didn’t possess a great deal of kitchen experience, she also had to hire cooks, some of whom were later to make a name for themselves in the world of gastronomy. One such was Annie Bell, the very first ‘Books For Cooks’ in-house cook, now a household name in Britain for her bestselling recipe books. One customer who worked on the other side of the counter for three years was Clarissa Dickson Wright, famous for her TV show Two Fat Ladies with Jennifer Paterson. Then, in 1992, Rosie arrived, followed a year later by Eric. Now Heidi has left ‘Books For Cooks’ and moved to Tuscany, where she has opened a cookery school, but she has passed on all her passion to Rosie and Eric.
The menu changes every day, as do the books from which Eric takes his recipes. In the morning you can enter the shop, browse through the books and breakfast on a cup a coffee or a slice of cake or a biscuit, while at lunchtime you can savor soup with homemade bread or Eric’s famous focaccia, or, if you prefer, a meat or chicken dish. One leitmotiv in the menu is Eric’s urge to experiment with unusual, unorthodox ingredients. A great deal of importance is also attached to the ‘traceability’ of the produce used: the poultry, meat and eggs, for example, come from Rosie’s parents’ organic farm (Sheepdrove Organic Farm: www.sheepdroveorganicfarm.com), spices from The Spice Shop (www.thespiceshop.co.uk), just opposite Books for Cooks, fruit and vegetables from Portobello Market, and the famed coffee (as well as the tea and chocolate) from The Tea and Coffee Plant (www.coffee.co.uk), at 170 Portobello Road.
Both Rosie and Eric are, justifiably, very satisfied with the work they do in the bookshop, which, they claim, is a good example of how theory can be turned into practice day by day. This is true not only of the experimental kitchen, where customers taste what Eric cooks, but also of the workshops that Books For Cooks has been organizing since 1995. At first lessons were held at the request of regular customers on Sundays, when the shop was closed. But as enrolments boomed, so Eric and Rosie were forced to set up a second experimental kitchen specifically for the purpose on the first floor of the building. Teachers include cooks not only from Britain, but also from Japan, Italy and the States. This fall’s workshops will include lectures on Provencal food and wine, and the cuisines of the South of Italy, Morocco, California and the Lebanon, among others. Workshops last about three hours and are now staged mornings and evenings two or three times a week. (For information about dates and enrolment, call Rosie on +44 (0) 20 7221 1992, write to [email protected], or visit the shop’s website www.booksforcooks.com)
The year they organized their first workshops, Rosie and Eric—again to meet customer demand— decided to collect their best recipes in a book. Hence the publication in 1995 of the first book in the Favourite Recipes from Book for Cooks series to which volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5 have since been added. The recipes described are carefully chosen by Eric and Rosie, who tested and transcribe them all one by one. The series has been an instant success with both customers and cooks alike. Not that the shelves at ‘Books For Cooks’ contain only recipe books. The shop also boasts over 8,000 works of fiction, history, art, chemistry, sociology and so on, all follow with the same guiding thread: a passion for food. No catalogue of titles available exists, partly because the shop’s shelves and tables are supplemented with the latest publications every week, and a book that was available until yesterday may often be no longer there today. For subjects of special interest, the best thing is to ask Rosie for advise, plus you can consult the volumes of the Favourite Recipes from Books for Cooks for a list of books recommended by the two owners and the cooks who run the workshops.
The small shop has managed to assert itself and achieve something that it would be over-simplistic to define as a specialized bar or bookshop. Precisely the ability to create such a brilliant, original combination of the two has contributed to the business’s success. Go to central London, to Piccadilly or Oxford Street, and you’ll find many a multistory mega-bookstore that sells books about everything under the sun, from gardening to metaphysics, where you can drink coffee and eat scones, anything but home-baked, sitting on the stools of the nondescript bar of some international chain or other as you look out over the shopping streets below. But that wasn’t the aim of either Heidi Lascelles or Eric and Rosie, who have succeeded in making culture meet pleasure in a pleasant, cozy ambience with a distinctly family atmosphere.
Silvia Monasterolo is the Slow Food Award secretary
Adapted by John Irving