It all started with a walnut pesto sauce

The chef who sparked the gastropub boom talks about grandma, pigs and simple food

April Bloomfield looks like a cop. Her chin juts. Her eyes assess. She's quiet, short, compact, her manner direct and unfussy. Though there is a compelling argument that Bloomfield has done more in the past decade to change the way we eat than any other chef in this country, in person she is more serene, shy and no-nonsense than evangelical or dourly insistent; though she may have inadvertently inspired more urbane food trends than you could shake a hipster foodie at, she herself seems unassuming, even oblivious.

When I ask her about the pig on the cover of her new cookbook, "A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories," she says, "Oh, he came from my supplier." The pig is cute, pink and though it's nice to think he's sleeping, draped over her shoulders, he's dead. Did she eat him? "We all ate him. We try to treat things with respect. It was a fast photo shoot and we had a lot of food and those things can't sit on ice for too long, you know."

She says this with the air of someone who takes little for granted. Bloomfield is 38, grew up in working class Birmingham, England, and despite the casualness, in conversation you realize she also has the fidgety self-consciousness of a cop — indeed, she planned to be a policewoman and has retained a fondness for order, for things just so. In a 2010 New Yorker profile, her staff referred to her cooking style as "anal rustic."

You can see it in the burger she serves at the Spotted Pig, the gastropub on the West Side of Manhattan that made her famous — where the patties are big and thick and the Roquefort, her default cheese, gets smeared into corners of every bun, "pushed outward so you get a bit of cheese with every bite," she explains. You see it in the "thrice cooked chips" at the Breslin and in the perfect butteriness of the Parker House rolls at the John Dory Oyster Bar, her two restaurants that anchor the Ace Hotel on 29th Street.

Even if you've never eaten in an April Bloomfield restaurant, her influence and insistence on doing things a certain way has been so pervasive, you kind of will anyway: The Spotted Pig, which opened in 2004, wasn't the first bar-based restaurant in this country to serve great food, but it did popularize the gastropub in this country. It also helped popularize having a burger for dinner, ordering craft beer with artisan food, eating at a wooden table without a white table cloth, using every last piece of the pig, from snout to hoof — if nothing else Bloomfield deserves credit for pushing us toward a more comforting, evocative approach to the way we eat.

She was in Chicago the other day, to cook with Paul Virant at his Perennial Virant restaurant. We sat on a bench in Lincoln Park and talked.

Q: What were family dinners like for you while growing up?

A: Well, growing up those meals were at my grandmother's house. She was a great cook. She cooked amazing Sunday roasts. There was nothing better than going to her house for that. Or being there for the whole weekend and waking up in the morning and smelling porridge or a fry-up in the kitchen. Then you would go out and play and come back and get these piled-high plates — there was no space on the plate. I remember that distinctly. The rim of the plate might be a quarter of an inch around but every inch inside was covered with food. You couldn't see the surface. She would cook lots of steaming hot potatoes. Two kinds, mashed and roasted. Lots of peas and carrots and parsley and an onion gravy. At Christmas, she would make trifle, which took all day to set. Sausage rolls, pork pies. Growing up in the '70s, I also remember a lot of cheese and pineapple. My mom can cook but I prefer my grandmother's cooking. We weren't rich. We used to go to the pub for a lot of meals. Family occasions, we would get a big long table, right in the pub.

Q: What you're describing sounds a lot like eating at your restaurants.

A: I know. I like to cook in ways that make me happy. We do this Stilton pie at the Breslin that kind of hits the spot, you know? We do treacle pudding at John Dory. Food memories. The key is avoiding the kitsch.

Q: Chefs often talk about a specific meal that kind of crystallized their worldview.

A: I have one, definitely. When I was doing my two-week trial at the River Cafe (in London), they gave me a job, to make a walnut pasta, this tagliatelle with lovely fresh walnuts. You get the shell of the nuts, then crack it and what you're left with is the meat of the nut; then you blanch it in milk; then you peel the walnut skin from the walnut because you don't want that bitterness; then someone makes pasta, and the rest is super-simple. Eggs, olive oil, some water, bread. I had the responsibly of making the sauce. I would crush up the walnuts in a mortar and pestle, then add soaked bread; then crush garlic and basil into it; then a good olive oil thats spicy, from Tuscany; then you would just throw this over warm pasta and it kind of makes all this flavor — everything just pops. When I ate it the first time, I just kind of stood there a second. You know when you are moved when you eat? You nod or wiggle in your chair. It stops you in your tracks. I had that experience. I realized I didn't know what I had been doing for 10 years. This was what I want to cook.

Q: It's funny: Everything I've ever eaten in one of your restaurants, I've seen you cooking.

A: Why is that funny?

Q: I don't think people really expect big chefs to be standing over their own stoves much.

A: But I like what I do. I like to be present and keep busy. The kitchen is home for me. It's comfortable.

cborrelli@tribune.com
CHICAGO

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