Chef Florence Cornish talks her new book ‘Made in the USA’, the Sunshine State and Dolly Parton.
‘I don’t like ‘no reservation’ restaurants, I don’t like being forced to share a table and I hate natural wine.’ It seems that Florence Cornish and I share a least three things in common. While organising when to meet in Brixton on a Friday night for our interview, we took a punt on 6pm to avoid conducting it in a standing position, at the back of a queue or on the pavement – I practically ran from work to bag a table. But bar our mutual frustrations at London’s expanding restaurant scene we both share something else: a love of Florida.
Florence spent part of her early childhood in Sarasota (her dad worked for Tropicana Orange Juice) and moved back when she was older to work in Orlando at Disney World, selling Star Wars merchandise. ‘I remember having such an easy life. It has so much more to offer than people give it credit for.’ It undoubtedly sparked her love for all things American, and the recipes in her debut cookbook ‘Made in the USA’ provide a whistle-stop tour of the food influences that make America’s culinary scene so vibrant.
Dishes such as Old-fashion Waffles with Maple Bacon, are matched with Memphis Dry-Rub Baby Back Ribs, San Francisco Spaghetti with Clams and Blackened Cajun Snapper. Florence cooked my first Hushpuppy – a revelation – at a supper club that celebrated the release of her book, and the S’mores Cheesecake finale was the clinching dish for instigating this interview…that and the prospect of writing a cooking pun about the Florida Panhandle. It’s safe to say though that Florence won’t be breaking cornbread with any Drumpf supporters any time soon. ‘Yeah, Florida and I are on a bit of a break at the moment. I’ve never felt so upset about a decision I’m not involved in. I’ve been fighting for Florida’s reputation for years now and it felt like a kick in the teeth.’
So, where did it all begin? ‘It sounds like a very cheesy rom com. Since I was about 14 I always wanted to work on fashion magazines. In summer breaks and at university I did some internships but quickly realised there are very few jobs, and a bad experience meant I fell out of love with the industry – I love clothes but I also want a normal life.’ Having stumbled across the River Cottage Rising Star competition on Twitter, Florence entered and made it all the way to the finals, securing herself a place at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, an institution known for turning out some of the UK’s most exciting talent. ‘It was the best start to my career I could’ve had. I came out of it knowing I could cook pretty much everything. Oh, and I also met my boyfriend there (Warren cooks at Fitzrovia’s Portland Restaurant). It’s nice to have our careers running in parallel.’
A combined love of writing and food: surely, a book deal was the next obvious step? ‘It was actually a bit of an accident. I’d sent my writing and CV out when I was planning on what to do when I got back from travelling in Thailand and an agent mistook it for a book proposal. Next thing I knew I had a book deal and only four months to recipe test while working a full-time job. I remember it being quite a worrying time – the fear of being dropped was the source of a lot of anxiety.’ She needn’t have worried: walk into Waterstones and you’ll find Florence’s book in the company of the likes of Dan Doherty, Nigella and José Pizarro. BBC Good Food magazine even included it in its rundown of ‘Books for Cooks’ last Christmas.
When she’s not writing books, watching box sets – she’s currently binging on Homeland – or travelling, Florence works at catering company Ginger Jar. ‘We’re in the middle of Christmas chaos at the moment so there have been quite a few long days with all of the events we’re involved in. I have to be honest though, it’s a really cushti job. There isn’t the same kind of hierarchy as working in a restaurant so it feels much more collaborative.’ It doesn’t come without its challenges though. ‘I remember once having to try and set yellow Sauternes jelly on chicken liver parfait, in an outdoor kitchen, in December – that was a challenge. Oh, that and the stripy pancakes…I do think though that if you’re going to do something like that, you either get it done properly or you don’t do it at all.’
It comes as no surprise that Florence turns to strong women for her inspiration. ‘I love Caitlin Moran – she doesn’t write ‘properly’ but I like that she’s formed her own voice. From a cooking perspective, I really admire Thomasina Miers. She’s so successful and has brought her passion for Mexican food to the masses – I respect someone who stays true to what they love.’ There is one surprise though. ‘I love Dolly Parton. I can’t even remember when my obsession started but I do remember when me and my best friend were at school we’d talk about how we would go to Dollywood. We planned exactly how to get there, so it was quite surreal when during a road trip to the States together we rocked up at the gates in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.’
With such an apparent delectation for the ‘land of opportunity’, I’m intrigued to know what London-based Florence will do next. ‘I’m really happy at Ginger Jar – it’s like being a part of a family. Perhaps I’ll do some writing? This industry is so flexible that chefs are doing more than just cooking…I’m not sure.’ What I’m sure of is that Florence will stay true to her down-to-earth approach to food, a refreshing attribute in this city of ours. ‘I’m not a huge fan of fancy food – I’ve been known to indulge in a Maccy D breakfast. I respect it but it’s not for me. There’s a quote from James Beard that really resonates with me: ‘Too few people understand a really good sandwich.’ Having made her Crab Cake Po’ Boy, I couldn’t agree more.
Words By Millie Milliken