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Leon Family and Friends is a substantial doorstop of a book, produced by the team behind the Leon restaurant chain known for “serving good fast food that does you good”.
Created by Kay Plunkett-Hogge and John Vincent, with a ladling of contributions from their friends and relatives, they enthusiastically share their inclusive philosophy of a (strictly non-snobby) love of food cementing family and community. The friendly, vaguely vintage-type, adorning the cover sets the tone of this heavily-illustrated and generously recipe-packed volume; the whole thing is infused with an atmosphere of joyful, food-stuffed celebration.
As I read through I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was staying with a kind, well-off family trying their best to make me feel welcome. It is a book that makes you feel at home wherever you are. An obvious effort has been made to craft a volume that is approachable, with a genial tone (very reminiscent of the “Innocent Smoothie” brand voice). This chattiness, although sometimes a little forced (I personally can do without being told to cook something “until it smells like good times”, but then maybe I have no joy in my soul) is nice, and means you really do feel like you are getting to know John and Kay. They wholeheartedly let you into their family lives, offering advice and tips on ingredients next to personal memories and decades-old photographs. However, despite being so down to earth, the book also quietly strives to be aspirational. In my experience all cook books have something of an otherworldly idealism about them, and this is no exception. Everything from the well-executed design, photos of happily-helpful children, to advice on keeping chickens radiates romanticism. It is comfortable, affable and unobtrusively beautiful; within its pages is a brightly-lit galaxy of food and idyllic family-life to nestle into.
Leon was originally set up with John’s interest in health and nutrition in mind, so it’s unsurprising that Family and Friends has a similar focus. Unfortunately for me the word “nutrition” never fails to conjure the loose-skinned spectre of Gillian MacKeith and her stool-prying fingers in my brain, but this book may have gone a long way to readjust my thinking on the idea. Here the food looks wonderful, colourful, varied, and in some cases truly indulgent. I cannot argue with anything that has a page of hot chocolate ideas and chapters devoted to suitably decadent Christmas and party food. There’s also useful advice and thoughtfully re-imagined recipes designed to take dietary needs into account, such as many wheat and gluten-free options. Furthermore, as a maybe-one-day vegetarian (otherwise known as a meat-lusting failure) I was pleased to notice a large proportion of meat-free recipes.
Leon Family and Friends reflects the realities of a family kitchen in the disparate nature of its recipes. This is no bad thing; myriad influences place ‘Quick guay tiew nam moo’ in the same book as cottage pie, Jamaican curried lamb shares a binding with jacket potatoes, and, whilst Kay’s childhood in Thailand holds the most sway, there are few cuisines that aren’t referenced here. The Thai inspiration does lead to some very chilli-heavy meals. In the case of a recipe using 4-6 bird’s eye chillies, the writers perhaps thought it would be patronising (they could well be right) to point out that the dish could end up hotter than the churning mantle of the earth, but I would have mentioned it just in case anyone was unfamiliar.
Pockets of food trivia are tucked away in these pages too; a page of honey facts for example… and I’ll be forever grateful to the Leon team for confirming the fact that mushrooms are 90% water. This, to me, proves that something I had always resentfully suspected was “mushroom juice”, which habitually drowns everything in the pan, actually exists.
The small illustrations are lovely too, I was particularly charmed by an angel-winged chicken adorning the “Grilled Chicken Angelus” recipe. The book is ambitious; it is positively crammed with everything you could think of in regards to feeding a family. It is, importantly, genuinely useful too. It’s not a book to idly flick through before giving up and sticking some chips on in frustration; I’m sure anyone would be able to find something satisfying to cook in here. I get the feeling that Leon Family and Friends has been created to be used often: to have a lasting place on the bookshelf, with an eye to expanding the diets of those who use it, whilst also improving them and feeding all the little ones, the big ones, the mums, the dads and all the family’s friends for years down the line.
See more at www.leonrestaurants.co.uk
words Holly Emma Ashby