Happy Birthday

Sir Terence Conran, the Blueprint Café’s original begetter, was there, as were D&D, the present owners. There was a fair sprinkling of senior chefs and restaurateurs – the Hendersons, Fergus and Margot, Bruce Poole, Richard Corrigan, the Clarks (Sam and Sam), Henry Harris, Alastair Little – and writers – Fuchsia Dunlop, Simon Hopkinson, Lindsay Bareham, Tom Parker Bowles, Anissa Helou, Chris Hirst – and loads of other distinguished folk, too. It all got a bit hazy after a while, to be honest, but that’s no surprise. We were all there to celebrate the 21st birthday of the Blueprint Café, and its much-loved chef, the one, the only, the gregarious, hospitable, generous, delight-inducing, all-round good egg, Jeremy Lee.

For those who haven’t been there (and I strongly recommend putting that right as soon as possible), the Blueprint Café sits above the Design Museum in Shad Thames, at the far end of Butler’s Wharf, overlooking the Thames below Tower Bridge. The title “café” is a bit misleading in the sense that the Blueprint is a model of what a riverside restaurant should be – light, sunny and smart, or alternatively light, dramatic and smart if the sun isn’t out. The thing is that it has a very fine view, which it makes the most of. “Café” is right, however, for capturing the cheery, affable style of the place. The front-of-house are engaging, youthful and, rarest of rare experiences, give the appearance of actually enjoying their jobs.

Good though these things are, it’s still Jeremy Lee’s menus that lure consumers in their numbers over Tower Bridge, and that have made the Blueprint a place of regular pilgrimage for those people mentioned in the first paragraph. Neither Jeremy nor his approach to food have changed in all the years I’ve known him, which are even more than the 15 years he’s been at the Blueprint. He’s a true original, tall, kindly, theatrical of gesture and speech, fluently funny, a social exuberance masking natural shyness, and passionate, absolutely passionate, and serious about the food he serves.

He has never fitted tidily into the corporate structures of which the Blueprint Café has always been a part, because he has insisted in running his own show. Primarily that means sourcing his own ingredients. To say that Jeremy is a stickler about ingredients is like saying that Lewis Hamilton is keen on driving cars. Unlike many chefs, he actually spends time hunting down produce, actually talks to producers, actually understands the different qualities of different varieties and breeds, and actually cooks by the seasons.

There’s a deceptive simplicity about his dishes, but I’d say that he’s one of the very few chefs I’ve come across who has perfect pitch. I never find myself wondering about the style of a Jeremy Lee dish, or asking why he’s put a particular element on the plate along with another. Each plateful of his food always make sense. There is something of European rusticity by way of E David and J Grigson about his cooking. Nevertheless, the result is very British, in its range of effects, in the purity of its flavours, in its structure and in its heart.

What did we eat? A Lee classic, beetroot salad with mustard, horseradish and soft-boiled egg; cold grilled pork with asparagus and watercress; lemon posset with rhubarb and/or the season’s first strawberries with thick, unpasteurised Jersey cream. There was nothing fancy about any of it. Just beautiful ingredients, beautifully cooked, and beautiful to eat. A celebration of the season, in other words. I’d expected nothing else.

PS Incidentally, the Blueprint Café is running a 21st anniversary set menu at £21 for 3 courses plus a glass of champagne

The Blueprint Café, Butlers Wharf, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD, 020 7378 7031, www.blueprintcafe.co.uk/

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