John Gregory-Smith is the kind of person whose house you walk in to and immediately help yourself to something in the fridge. He has the familiarity of a distant relative, and the boisterous warmth of an old friend. “Thank God we pushed this back to 10am. There was a lot of wine last night.” He says as he opens the front door. He ushers us up to his kitchen, which is filled with the aroma of breakfast; baked Turkish eggs with rich, crimson tomatoes and crumbly Merguez sausage. There is a pillow of tearing bread on the table beside a bowl of harissa yogurt. “Eat, eat, eat!” He says from the stove, where he stirs a copper pot of Turkish coffee. As we tuck in, he regales us with stories of his family’s raucous dinner parties; 30-people-strong affairs with lashings of booze and tables groaning with food (and then there was that time he and his mum ended up pulling an all-nighter with Will Young). This probably explains his impeccable hosting skills – it feels like he’s been waiting for us all week.
John is a writer. He explores food culture in all corners of the world, from Berber fare in Morocco and dim sum in Hong Kong to the alleyway ciccetti bars of Venice. In 2005, he quit his job in sales (“I was just really bad at it.”) and began selling homemade spice pastes at markets. “The only thing I’d ever really liked was food.” He tells us, “But it always felt like a hobby. I never thought it could actually be anything.” After the recession hit, The Mighty Spice Company folded, leaving John, like so many, with a terrifyingly blank page before him. “So I did what everyone did.” He tells us, “I went travelling around Southeast Asia.”
John began collecting culinary titbits from his travels – tales of feasts with locals, native ingredients and traditional recipes. This became his first book, The Mighty Spice Cookbook, which journeys through Sri Lanka, Mexico, Thailand and India through recipes that use just five spices each. Mighty Spice Express followed soon after, exploring street food from across the globe. “Outside of Western Europe, food is so important.” He tells us, settling at the table with a fresh pot of coffee. “There are places where life is a little simpler, where life is all about family and food.”
Over the last few years, John has gained a reputation as an authority on Turkish food. He has won over Londoners with his regular pop-ups, where he invites guests to feast on home-style Turkish cooking. His love affair with this kaleidoscopic cuisine started when he met his Turkish ex-partner. Together, they travelled the lengths and breadths of the country, dining on charred kebabs in East Turkey and lavish breakfasts in Istanbul, and visiting rural areas where food is central to the everyday. “Murat introduced me to home cooked Turkish food.” John recalls. “We would visit his mum, who lived on the Black Sea. She used to just fill the table with food. In Turkey, everyone comes together for food. And everyone understands texture and flavour. They sit around eating slowly and carefully. It’s a real joy to be part of.”
Turkish Delights is John’s third book. It explores the rural, domestic side of Turkish cooking, as well as the traditions of the meyhane (old Turkish taverns). “There’s something amazing about going to a little village or someone’s home and eating unfamiliar food with people you’ve only just met.” He tells us, putting a plate of chewy almond cookies in front of us. “It’s thrilling, really. I always feel so lucky to get a snapshot of people’s worlds.”
Puzzlingly, Turkish food remains somewhat overlooked in England, still sparse on the restaurant scene and cloaked in mystery for the average home cook. But John is hoping to demystify this cuisine, unlocking its “mind-blowing” flavours. To him, learning about a culture’s cuisine and gathering people together to eat is the first step to understanding a place. And we couldn’t agree more. “What I like doing is going to a country and just losing myself.” He tells us. “I want to totally escape with nothing and no one, and lead from one thing to the next without really planning it. I wander round and try and find that one dish or ingredient that defines a country’s food culture. Food is always a way in.”
What was your family like growing up, food-wise?
Mad. I have a huge family, who are the best, and we still see each other loads. In fact, they are the most fun people in my life. Growing up, we always gathered around food; a birthday, Sunday roast, BBQ, engagement, birth etc. and everyone would muck in, help with the cooking and get the table ready. The wine would flow and we would settle into a long lunch or supper. As I am the youngest, I had to muscle in to get what I wanted, which in part is why I started cooking. I realised if I made the food, I got higher up the pecking order. Food was always fun and something to be shared. And that’s exactly what it should be.
When did you fall in love with eating?
Oh god, I don’t ever remember not being obsessed with food. From a young age I loved pasta (still do – hangover guilty pleasure, butter and lashings of cheese!), snails with garlic, creamy curries and fried fish fingers. These are some of my earliest food memories, and all with my family. We were very lucky and travelled loads when I was younger. I remember being taken to different countries and having food epiphanies, discovering something new that I had never eaten.
Where was the first place you went that made you want to delve in to the local food culture?
As an adult it was Thailand. I went there when I was 16 (so adult in the loosest sense of the word). It was amazing. I remember eating tom yum goong and being blown away by the heat, the fresh-sour flavours and incredible fishiness. I had simply never eaten anything that interesting. I went to a few islands and Bangkok on that trip and went food mad. We would eat on the street or the beach and it was rocking – that was the answer and I have not looked back since.
What country/city do you think is evolving most when it comes to food?
I think our very own London is on fire at the moment and has been for some time. I was born in LDN and I bloody love it. But there was a time when the dining scene was very limited. Posh and dull or just crap. Now we have so much choice. Street food boomed and reminded us how good some of the basics can be. Fine dining is no longer dull and like eating in a hushed library and we have chefs from all over the world coming to London to open up. It’s incredible.
Tell us about your first experience of Turkey. What was one meal that stood out?
The first time I went to Turkey was with my dad. We travelled to Istanbul together. We wandered around, taking in the sites and eating masses. I had read about a place called Ciya, on the Asia side, and we went over and had one of the best meals I have ever eaten. We ate spiced lamb kebabs with labna, clay baked chicken pilav, stewed beans and Turkish soup. That’s when I thought to myself, JGS how the hell have you been missing out on this?! We also got drunk and tried to get into a helicopter…but that’s a story for another time. I still have the photo banked for an occasion. I need to bribe my dad.
When you arrive in a place, how do you get a sense of the food culture?
I am quite good at it now. Obviously I do my homework and speak to people before I go anywhere, checking hashtags, reading blogs and articles and speaking to local chefs. I generally head to a food market, first thing, as this is a snapshot into what’s in season and any street food stalls will give an indication of what is hot right now. But most of the countries I go to, it’s all about home cooking. For that you have to be ballsy, ask everyone and turn on the charm!
What does sharing food with locals mean to you?
Everything. When I travel for work and get to eat this amazing nosh I have to pinch myself that it is really happening – food nerd heaven. And when you are eating amazing food, you need to share it with people to get the full experience, the background stories, the different twists on each dish and the passion people have for their food. This can transform a dish and bring something to life. It also reminds me of my family, so I love being with a big surrogate one wherever I go.
Do you take notes when you travel, and compile recipes? Or does that come when you get home.
Yes, notes are everywhere. I have my mobile for thoughts and pictures to go with them, and loads of video to help me with different techniques. But I carry a pad and pen and write down recipes, flavours, ingredients as I go, so that when I get back home I can go though everything and work it all up in my kitchen. There is something terribly satisfying about a battered, grease covered notebook, full of exciting new recipes from somewhere fabulous.
What's next for you?
At the moment I am just coming to the end of the research for my new cookbook Orange Blossom and Honey – it’s all about off the beaten track Moroccan food, and fuck me it’s amazing. I have travelled from the Sahara to the Mediterranean Sea, and been hanging out with the most amazing people along the way, who have taught me about real Moroccan food. It’s going to be a snapshot of what I have seen, with some things given a cheeky spin as well. But there will be no pictures of Jamaa el-Fnaa, snake charmers or chicken and lemon tagines! The book is out next year so getting this perfect is top of my list.