For Dave Myers and Si King, aka The Hairy Bikers, the global pursuit of food perfection hasn’t come about through any normal means. These are, after all, two guys who met over an American pool table in a British pub, and bonded over an Indian tikka masala.
What has developed from that chance meeting is a hearty approach to food that, while bold, brash and occasionally peppered with the scent of motorbike oil, is draped in craft, creation and imagination; and because of that, food lovers across Europe, and beyond, have taken this most unconventional of culinary characters to heart.
What surely endears us most though is the bikers’ honest, all-encompassing approach to food. They embrace different cultures, celebrate vegetarianism and have even spoken at about their own battles with weight loss (and gain!).
Theirs is an appreciation for cuisine a world away from cordon bleu cooking, from the Michelin stars and gastronomic excess, but it is one to be celebrated.
“I’ll tell you one thing, and it’s this – don’t get stuck in your ways,” begins Dave Myers with typical, punchy aplomb. Myers, 61, is the slightly shorter, slightly less hairy of the Hairy Bikers. “My dad did 45 years working at a paper mill… 45 years! He had two wives; the first died and he looked after her for 25 years. He then cared for my mum until she too died. He was in the same place for 45 years. He said to me ‘just give stuff a go’.
“I look at the way he kept his own life almost imprisoned, and I know I don’t want to be like that. Now, almost every day of the week, I tell my stepchildren to go out and explore. The fact is, you never know, this all might come to an end tomorrow. Don’t take knock-backs too personally but if you have an idea, you never know – it might just work.”
While in his mantra for life Myers has obviously extended his thinking beyond the basics of food and into television presenting, interviews and guest appearances, at the heart of the Bikers’ craft is always what made them famous – the food.
“Being experimental with food really gave me the belief I could do it in other areas of my life totally outside the kitchen,” he says, reinforcing that fact. “But it all came from the food.”
Myers’ turning point for when he began to appreciate the majestic detail of what we put on our plates he can trackback to a lump of parmesan cheese. “I was always a pie and chips guy,” he admits. “Food was bulky, stodgy and rustic, and that was the way I liked it.
“Then one day I was working on a television shoot as a make-up artist somewhere in Italy. I looked around and realised that all the British blokes present were all quite porky, yet the Italians were all in good shape, even though they ate more than we did.
“Someone explained to me the fact the Italians won’t eat fat that doesn’t run off your plate. Italians use very little butter and they don’t have vast quantities of cheese. Yes, they have parmesan shavings but not a cheese sandwich like others would. And that was a real defining money in terms of me beginning to understand some of the subtle complexities of food… how you can enjoy and sample something without it dripping in stuff that’s not good for you.
“I think a lot of what we term ‘luxury’ with food is, ultimately, bad for us – it’s going to contain a lot of fat or be rich in sugar or salt. What I quickly became keen to explore were ways of giving very subtle elements of all those things we would call ‘treats’, yet on a basis of good food.”
On the subject of craft, Myers’ stable mate Si King is equally enthused. “I love the idea that In Japan you must always have five colours on your plate,” he begins. “In a funny sort of way if you see a colourful plate you’ve got your dietary requirements. I think replacing dairy with spices and flavours and herbs goes a long way, and while improving the healthy outlook of a dish, none of this affects the creativity… in fact you might say it only improves it.”
Although not a vegetarian himself, King often surrounds himself with non-meat-eaters, and from an initial point of trepidation admits now he loves the challenge of cooking for specific dietary groups.
“I found quite quickly that having too many food options actually becomes a bit of a challenge,” he says. “When you have vegetables, carbs, meat, sauces, pastry, it can be overwhelming as a chef.
“I think the real imagination comes about when you limit yourself to a certain area of food, or at very least remove something from the ingredients, such as meat.
“My big thing for vegetarian cooking at the moment is to go down the Middle Eastern route,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of Yotam Ottolenghi. I would make a mezze, or an aubergine bake topped with mozzarella – if you don’t have vegetarian mozzarella then you could leave that out. And I’ve been using a lot of kamut grain, it’s the oldest wheat. Even a simple salad for myself and my wife came with a Japanese salad dressing – yuzu juice and soy and ginger, garlic and a bit of chilli, then I dressed it with kamut to give it some substance.
“I enjoy so much more the rewards from being challenged in food.”
Asked to name where culinary prowess best shows itself, Myers is quick with his answer. “South India, without a doubt. The curries, the finesse with people using herbs and spices for thousands of years, just makes for amazing food – there is so much texture in their cuisine.
“Cuisine in that region has got a huge heritage, although great food craft doesn’t just have to come from something that has a lot of history. Consider tofu,” he continues, “a foodstuff most of us would turn our noses up at. Well, the world capital of tofu is Kyoto, in Japan; it’s their main food product and core ingredient. You go to a market there and it’s their protein, and it’s incredible, versatile and tasty; but you have to work with it… you have to use your imagination.”
King interjects: “The point is, there is the ability to create all around us and we don’t have to limit ourselves to preconceptions, nor believe that to be creative we must embrace very complex or very luxurious things.
“If you have textures, variety, colour, perhaps a bit of salt and pepper, some herbs and spices, and a good core of base ingredients, then you pretty much have everything you need. Variety is the key.”
Myers concludes. “The realisation is that times have changed – the way we work, the way we eat… our fathers survived daily on meat and potato pies every day, washed down with loads of beer. That was an artform in that itself, but as generations evolve it seems people are much more interested in flavour now than bulk. It is a great time to be in the kitchen!”