Fresh-as-a-daisy food has always been the central ingredient in Jack Baker’s cookery.
From his early childhood, sizzling seafood on the barbecue at his family’s beach hut in West Mersea, Essex, to his stint in North America’s Chesapeake Bay, where he’d join the 5am fishing trip to catch shellfish for the Inn at Perry Cabin hotel kitchen, seasonal ingredients have been his bread and butter.
Today, at Smith & Baker (formerly Relish) – the Ecclesall Road restaurant he runs with Richard Smith, as part of the Brewkitchen group – this philosophy is stronger than ever.
Their menu changes daily, with the chefs challenged to come up with fresh ideas from seasonal ingredients dished up each morning by their suppliers.
“We only order in small amounts of what we’re going to use that day and once it’s gone, it’s gone,” says Jack, who trained at the Colchester Institute.
“In this way, we’re totally in tune with what’s good to eat now.”
Since he returned from the US to the UK 12 years ago, Jack has worked for Smith at establishments including the Cricket Inn and The Beauchief, but loves the fact he can now be his own boss.
“It’s exciting and challenging to be able to put what I want on the menu,” he says.
“Sometimes it can be a whole venison, another day a whole side of beef, and we butcher it all here.”
Jack has always had a head for high pressure. During his training at Colchester Institute, he was apprenticed to the head chef at Windsor Castle, creating 8,000 canapés for a royal party.
“I stayed in one of the turrets in the castle that overlooked the garden and could see the Queen riding her horse,” he recalls.
“We also used to cook food for her corgis!”
During his time in the US, he also cooked for Congress, as members met to talk about the looming Afghanistan war.
“They bomb-checked all our cars when we arrived and everywhere I turned, there were six armed guards behind me!” he says.
On that occasion the added pressure took its toll: “We cooked up a tray of lamb shanks ready for their meal, then the head chef dropped them all over the floor so we had to start over!”
His signature dish at Smith & Baker – twice-baked soufflé – is also considered a challenge but Baker says the trick is in the whipping.
“Soufflé is rich, creamy and versatile and not as hard to make as people think,” he says.
“You just need to ensure you whip the whites properly and don’t leave them to stand around. Keep it fresh and once you’ve mastered it, you’ll never look back!”
Recipe by Jack Baker
15g plain flour
85g semi-skimmed milk
50g sliced leeks, cooked
2 large egg yolks
45g grated Lincolnshire Poacher cheese and a little extra to complete the dish
4 large egg whites
50ml double cream
You will also need 6 x 6oz ramekin dishes
1. Melt butter in a saucepan, add flour and cook for 1 minute stirring constantly
2. Gradually add the milk (stirring constantly) until you have a smooth sauce
3. Bring sauce to boil, then immediately take off heat and add the cooked leeks and egg yolks, followed by the grated cheese
4. Pour all the mixture out into a bowl
5. Place the egg whites in a clean bowl and whisk to a soft peak
6. Add 1/3 of the egg whites to cooked sauce, fold in until smooth
7. Continue to add remainder of whisked egg whites and fold in until smooth – be careful not to over-mix or you will lose the air from the egg whites
8. Pour mixture into six butter and flour-lined ramekin dishes
9. Half fill a roasting tray with hot water, and gently place the ramekins into the water. Cook at 150ºC for 15 minutes until risen and golden
10. Carefully remove soufflés from oven and turn them out upside down on to an ovenproof serving dish
11. At this stage the soufflés can be allowed to cool ready to be reheated just before you eat them.
12. Cover soufflés with 50ml double cream and an extra helping of grated cheese
13. Place in a hot oven for 5 minutes at 200ºC
14. Remove from the oven and serve immediately with some nice crusty, warm wholegrain bread