Food critic Ton Parker Bowles talks to Gabrielle Fagan about facing up to plates of insects, his enduring love of his mom’s roast chicken, and how he hopes to teach his children-and the nation’s students-about the joys of cooking.
By Gabrielle Fagan
Press Association/The Interview People
Tom Parker Bowles, the celebrated foodie and restaurant critic, waxing lyrical about the delights of chips, curry sauce and kebabs? Surely there’s some mistake?
But no. It turns out that while the son of the Duchess of Cornwall is normally a fan of rather posher oysters and game in season, he still has nostalgic memories of the student “grub” of his Oxford University days.
“I shared a filthy kitchen with two inches of grime on everything, was hopeless at cooking and a classic student who lived off c**p,” he says cheerfully as he launches the Sacla’ Student Cookery School.
Sacla’, the sauce and Italian ingredients company, has organized for Italian mothers in university towns across the U.K. to give classes in their own homes, teaching students easy ways to cook nutritiously.
“It’s such a great idea as most students haven’t got a clue about cooking, and is certainly something I could have done with back then.
“I was lucky I did have a few friends who could cook. I also realized that a bottle of wine and a large bowl of spaghetti bolognese was delicious—and seemed to impress the girls. It got me thinking there might be something in the cooking malarkey.”
His instinct proved correct. Parker Bowles, 38, has since established a hugely successful career around food and cooking. His fourth book, “Let’s Eat: Recipes From My Kitchen Notebook” was published in 2012, he’s currently food editor at Esquire magazine, and he regularly appears on TV cookery shows. For three years, until 2010, he also co-presented “Market Kitchen” on the Good Food Channel, and this year he was a judge on ITV’s home-cooking show, “Food, Glorious Food.”
“I was fascinated by eating from a very young age,” he says.
“My mum’s a good cook, but it wasn’t about haute cuisine for her. It was just great, simple food using fresh ingredients, often from our garden, that she knew her children would like.
“She didn’t teach me to cook, but I watched her a lot. Like most mothers, when I asked her how she did something she’d just say ‘I put it in the oven.’ So I didn’t get many tips from that!”
What Parker Bowles did get, in later adult life, was public attention from his family connection to royalty, although this is something he seems chirpily philosophical about.
He refers to his stepfather as “sir,” but not out of deference or formality, but reportedly because it’s a nickname from when he was a child and his mother, then Camilla Parker Bowles, would refer to Prince Charles as “sir” whenever he was coming to visit.
“Of course, I get some attention because of my name and the connection, but I don’t find it irksome and certainly would never complain about it. In the lottery of life, I was born lucky and I’ve had it good,” says Parker Bowles, who grew up in Wiltshire and attended Eton College, before going to Oxford University.
“But I certainly don’t think of myself as a celebrity. The idea of that is absolutely horrible. It means people recognize you where you go, and if you do something antisocial like picking your nose or something, everyone knows about it. I’d never go on any of those celebrity style programs, either. That’s not for me,” he says firmly.
Back to what clearly is for him; his passion for food. Parker Bowles is an advocate of ethically grown and raised food, and he champions local British produce. Prince Charles’s role in spearheading the organic food revolution with his brand, Duchy Organics, is well known, but Parker Bowles doesn’t believe organic should rule to the exclusion of everything else.
“Organic farming is a sustainable system of farming where there’s humane animal practice and husbandry and a minimum amount of pesticides and fertilizers, and it’s great when it’s done well,” he says.
“But on the other hand, the idea that anything organic is good and anything non-organic is bad is inherently stupid. You can get wonderful food produced at a farm that just hasn’t got all the certification to say it’s organic.
“I’m not a fan of lazy labelling or slavishly following things. I think we should all think about taste and flavor, not the stamp on the package, and seek out food which makes the taste buds leap for joy and brings a warm glow to the heart.”
Making sure his children, Lola, 5, and Freddy, 3, experience that pleasure is a priority for him. Parker Bowles and his wife, fashion journalist, Sara Buys, live in West London, and Parker Bowles says he does most of the cooking at home.
“I truly believe mothers do most of the work bringing up children, but my area of specialization is food. I find cooking hugely relaxing and therapeutic, so I take charge of that,” he says.
He and his family regularly visit his mother, “She’s a fantastic grandmother,” and enjoy her signature dish, roast chicken.
“The way she does it is great, although I have gone on about it so much that my wife has threatened to stuff the recipe where the sun don’t shine if she hears about it again,” he roars with laughter.
“I’m obsessed with getting the kids to cook and being excited about food. We make pizzas together, and they choose ingredients for other meals. I’d love cookery in schools to get away from the dull home economics approach and be fun and thrilling instead.
“You can’t start early enough with cookery. If you did, students would know how to cook when they went to uni.”
He recalls how Delia Smith tried to tell people how to do the basics, and explained in one of her books how to boil an egg.
“It was quite right, but she was vilified as though she’d tried to burn the flag! How crazy—it’s exactly the simple steps people need to know.”
That being said, his own experience of food has been far from simple. For one of his books, “The Year of Eating Dangerously,” Parker Bowles explored the world by tasting a range of exotic dishes featuring ingredients such as dog meat and insects.
“I developed a real fondness for bee pupae and grasshoppers, and discovered wood lice really aren’t that far removed from prawns,” he says.
His build doesn’t reflect what seems to be a ceaseless merry-go-round of eating— he’s also a restaurant critic—but the mention of “exercise” is greeted with an expression most of us might adopt if presented with a plate of wood lice.
“I hate exercise with a passion, and to me the word ‘diet’ is a swear word,” he says with feeling.
“I’m the opposite of lean and mean. I do walk to work occasionally, but really I believe it’s far more vital to eat a balanced diet. So I never go near margarine, and there are certain ready meals I’d rather die than eat.”
Parker Bowles professes not to be troubled by any regrets, saying, “I’m not particularly introspective. At the end of the day, I think good food is the key to health and happiness. My other beliefs are staying positive and smiling even though the bad times, and having good manners.
“I can’t bear people who are rude to waiters for example. It’s despicable to be offhand and rude to people who can’t fight back. Treat people in the way you wish to be treated yourself, and you can’t go far wrong.”