认识Coco和是因为她和她的妈妈吴洁来看我的艺术项目，当时我和吴洁聊得热络，Coco偶尔说句话，自在寡言。没多久，我们一起去了CASS雕塑公园看展览，回到伦敦Coco带我们去了东伦敦的一家餐厅St. John Bread and Wine。平常不太讲话的Coco突然变作主角，说起这家以一头趴着的猪为标志的餐厅可以把一头猪从猪鼻子到猪尾巴全部入菜，难得对食材珍惜而无偏见。我们蘸着加了海盐粒的橄榄油嚼着切片面包，等菜时嘴巴里慢慢就生出了一些甘甜。我第一次吃到了烤牛骨髓（后来学会了从Waitrose买来自己烤），配一小撮欧芹菜，动物油膏的滑腻被植物的清脆中和，留下一阵馥郁香气。甜品里有一道伏特加酒浇在水果冰沙（Sorbet）上，吃到饭晕时被这一勺辛辣冰凉浇醒过来。我头一回觉得（混了法式的）英国菜不是炸鱼薯条那么简单，当然，印象最深的，是Coco说一般人我可不会带出来到这儿吃饭。而另一个印象深刻的，是吴洁担心Coco吃不胖。
可以说我是在朋友们的启发和熏陶之中，在不断回到她的餐厅的过程里，重新发现了Coco的食物。我记得在她家吃的第一顿饭，她喜欢做肉菜，但不是红烧肉或者炖鸡汤这样的菜式，而是烤鹌鹑、蒸一种我没见过的粉红色的鱼，几盘小碟腌菜里有小萝卜（radish）和黄瓜。她的菜里有对故乡广东和祖父母的思念，也有少年之后在英国寻得的慰藉，但最后是她对此时此地的食物的理解，像她从前的Instagram的签名，“Cantonese Root, British Leaves”。到后来，我和朋友们总能吃到她最近的试验——或许是她自己灌的香肠（结果被狐狸叼走了），再是自己腌的咸鸭蛋，慢慢可以观察到她在菜式上越来越有自己的风格。她的菜里带着食材的本味，依靠搭配制造出丰富的口感，并不会浓酱重彩，也并不震慑或惊艳，但微妙、暖和、惬意又自在，会让人想聆听、体味、给予时间。我记得有配了黑芝麻糊的南瓜汤，新鲜的鱼生和花生碎，还有一道清蒸大葱（Leek，不辣且可以当菜吃的葱）和海米。作为山东人，我吃惊的尝了尝，结果发现特别清甜。
Coco used to be very skinny and afraid of the cold, we were always the first group of people in London to put on long Johns. But her first job after graduation was to help at a fishmonger near her home. The sun comes late in winter, so she had to go to work early in the dark. To keep the fish fresh they were all kept in the ice, the floor and the air were freezing, and her hands were always red because of the freeze. It is hard to imagine a skinny person like her moving heavy boxes loaded with seafood.
When she told us that she got this job a rare grin appeared on her slim face. She graduated from Central Saint Martins majoring in Textile Design in winter 2016. But she only wanted to be a cook. Without any background in the catering industry, she was content to just stay where she feels most comfortable – she started a supper club named New Gate Studio at her own place. Even a single customer willing to come would bring her enormous excitement. Many of the ways of hospitality today existed of that time: writing today’s menu with a black pen on warm-coloured newspaper, with some drawings of fruits, vegetables, cups, and plates, occasionally there will be a figure in a large robe, sitting alone or smoking. These are her illustrations, slim, even clumsy, from which the neat brushwork needed for design can be found, just like that of Cy Twombly. These pictures turned warm because of the kitchen and food.
I was not a foodie before I met Coco. Boarded from high school to university, I never got tired of the cafeteria. After moving to London, I normally ate noodles and frozen dumplings. Because of my occasional hypoglycemia , I often rush into one shop and just gobble some chocolate and bread. Food for me is and only is a life necessity. Once on my way home after class, I was going to pass by Coco’s. I messaged her two or three hours ahead to ask if we could meet up and have a meal at her place – by which I was thinking maybe bring some noodles or a sandwich. But Coco was annoyed, she said there would be no time for her to prepare, I should tell her in advance because she will never treat a friend to such a simple dish in her kitchen. Then I realized how Coco values her food as her work, no, even more cherished than that because good ingredients are difficult to find and are short-lived. Cooking for her is not something as perfunctory as it is for me; eating is not just a necessity - for Coco, cooking is about one’s mind and spirit.
I once met Coco when she and her mother Wu Jie came to see my art project. She was at ease while her mother and I were talking fervently. Coco took us toSt. John Bread and Wine in East London after we went to the exhibition in CASS Sculpture Park together. Coco, who usually doesn’t talk very much, suddenly became the protagonist of that dinner. She told us how this restaurant with a lying pig as their logo can use a pig from its nose to its tail as their ingredients. This kind of unprejudiced way of cherishing food is very rare. We chewed some sliced bread served with olive oil and sea salt. A sweetness grew in our mouth as we waited for other dishes. That was the first time I ate roasted beef marrow – which I have since learned to cook myself – with a pinch of parsley, the smoothness of animal fat and the crispness of the parsley melted with each other, producing a rich aroma. For the dessert we had a vodka poured on sorbet, awakening us with its spicy and icy taste when we were dizzy from too much food. For the first time, I felt that British cuisine is not just about fish and chips. Surely, the most impressive thing is that Coco said she would not introduce everyone to this place. Another thing is how Wu Jie was worried that Coco would never put on weight.
Coco’s sincerity and respect for food result in her being picky and stubborn about cooking. St. John is the only London restaurant that she would return to repeatedly . She rarely buys instant food and is unwilling to pay for those trendy restaurants on social-media. She would rather buy a coffee and jump on the bus home to cook when she feels hungry. During her time at Central Saint Martins she was only willing to have a pot of yoghurt for lunch and went home as soon as she was off work. Perhaps because of this pickiness, she was too skinny for a person who aspires to become a chef. Also an international student, I was extremely indiscriminative and was never picky on food compared to Coco–as long as I have something to eat–so I often eat at her place. At the very beginning, I was forbidden to talk at the dining table because Coco was always appalled by my astonishing comments , and she would roll her eyes around a lot. While another friend, Mr Jin, was always able to distinguish the condiments and ingredients used and was always appreciated. Then I realised that I actually lacked even the common knowledge of food and cooking, so it was hard for me to detect the chef’s ingenuity. Now that I think about it, it was actually quite rare for us to develop this lasting friendship considering the disparity in our knowledge about food.
It was in the process of returning to her supper club continually, of being inspired and influenced by friends that I finally rediscovered Coco’s dishes. I still remember the first meal I had at her place. She likes to cook meat dishes, but instead of braised pork or stewed chicken soup she made grilled quails and steamed a pink fish that I had never seen before., as well as small plates of pickled radish and cucumbers. In her cooking , there is a yearning for her hometown Guangdong and her grandparents, and the solace she was able to find in the UK after her adolescence, but ultimately, it is combined with her understanding of food for here and now, just like what was once written on her Instagram page– Cantonese Root, British Leaves. As time went by me and other friends could always get to try Coco’s latest experiments – her handmade sausages that were later snuffled by a fox, or homemade salted duck eggs. Gradually, she developed her own style – humble dishes with rich tastes made by resonant ingredients while not losing their original taste . They are subtle, warm, and comfy, letting people listen, feel, and appreciate. I remember once I had squash soup with black sesame paste, fresh sashimi with chopped peanuts, as well as steamed leeks with dried shrimps. As a native of Shandong, I tried with surprise and found it particularly luscious.
Maybe I shouldn’t talk too much about food because I will flub. There must be some mistakes in my recollections of the dishes I mentioned above, but these were the exact moments when an unprofessional diner’s body was lightened by food. And by writing them down I hope to introduce you to the first chef I encountered in my life. The memories of sharing meals with Coco always feel homey even though her house was not well-heated during winter. Seeing Coco stewing food on a small stove always reminds me of an old Japanese craftsman or a granny who has been cooking throughout her life - always smoking calmly while her mind was constantly tied to the food. This kind of mature feeling beyond her age makes people believe in her works. In the past two years, she started to work as an assistant chef at St. John, went to the cooking school and was admired by more diners . Perhaps it is because she started cooking in other people’s kitchens, perhaps she met more like minded friends, or she started becoming more active on Instagram. A while ago I went to Café Meletius where she undertook her residency during the weekend. I saw her wearing a headscarf and apron, unfolding her knife bag on the workbench, with her cheeks slightly chubbier than before. After she finished cooking, she went outside smoking and watched us eat. Her eyes filled with satisfaction and imperiousness, reminding me of Kimura Takuya in Grand Mansion Tokyo. After these five years, she finally stood firmly in front of everyone and proudly declared ‘I am the chef’. As for why she was willing to cook for me from the beginning, maybe it is for the same reason why I am willing to write this piece for her, we are both looking after each other in our own ways. As I ate more and more of her food, I thought maybe I got to understand them a little bit better.