Giles Coren is a columnist and the restaurant critic for The Times and the latest to feature in our series of snoops for Today’s Coolest Habitats. He lives in Kentish Town, London. He writes for many other publications, is a TV presenter and a novelist. He’s also pretty outspoken. And incredibly sarcastic (which comes across much better on-screen than it does written down. We did have to edit and now have our heads bowed ready to incur Mr Coren’s wrath. Eeek). Regardless, we can’t help but have a little bit of a crush.
Have you made this house a home?
This is my house. I bought it 14 years ago with a girl. We were planning to have children. She left within a week. I don’t know whether it was something I said. The next 6-7 years I was really just processing girlfriends; each one who moved in was basically jealous of the previous girlfriend and didn’t feel that she could make it a home. And then I met my wife who liked the house I think more than the man and set about turning it into a home.
What does it take to be a food critic?
People often want to know what does it takes to be a food critic or one of the great restaurant critics of our age. It’s really 3 things: you need to be articulate and have a good vocabulary so that you can describe food; you need to have been to a lot of restaurants – I’ve been to 10,000 restaurants in England so I can immediately rank it: this one is better than that one, not as good as that one; and you need to have an iron stomach.
What do you prefer Indian or Chinese?
Because Britain is not really, let’s face it, a sophisticated food nation, I’m most often asked which do you prefer: “Indian or Chinese?”. To which I would reply, “Chinese is one of the world’s great cuisines. There’s dozens and dozens of different regional ways of cooking in a vast country bigger than Europe and I love it.
Is your house a quiet or a sociable place?
I think it is probably neither. We can’t have been round – they get in Sam’s [Giles’ son] way. When I was single and childless my home was sometimes a social place, sometimes a quiet place. Now it’s neither.
So when you entertain do you feel the pressure to cook up a storm?
You know the great thing about being me is that when I entertain people here in my home for food I feel no pressure at all to cook up a storm, because, I’m the world’s leading food critic and if I put food in front of you it must be good.
What’s the best thing about the kitchen?
The best thing about this kitchen is obvious. I mean it’s great for cooking, it’s great for entertaining, it’s lovely with my kids. And we have a booze fridge.
Tell us about your most special possessions.
Marco Pierre White gave me a knife. He’s a very good cook, although not quite as good at spelling. This was given to me at a time when he was very, very famous doing Hell’s Kitchen and he just couldn’t stop signing things. He was signing shoes, hats, forks, knives. Almost everything I own.
Have there been any memorable responses to any of your reviews?
There have been all sorts of responses to negative reviews I’ve given. Chefs just come at you in the restaurants: “You were the one. It’s you. It’s you”. If I go to food festivals they loom out of the dark “You’re the one. You complained about my scallops!” When? I haven’t been here for 20 years! I think most recently it’s probably Portugal. I said Portuguese food was the worst in the world. I got a letter from the embassy. I got 3000 sort of death threats on Twitter and I’ve been banned from the country.
Do you find yourself pulling punches or feeling guilty?
I never pull punches or feel guilty. My job is to say what I really thought. I can’t pretend a restaurant is better than it was because you might go there because I said so and that would be doing nobody any favours.
So, you’ve had some infamous quotes. Are there any you would take back?
Nothing I’ve ever written for money would I take back. My job is to be honest and truthful and outspoken. Twitter is a different matter. I’ve done some terrible things on there and I wish I could wind the clock back. Twitter is not a good thing for people like me. There is no filter – there are no editors, sub-editors. No one to stop you and I’ve ended a lot of friendships and basically my neighbours don’t speak to me.
What did you hide before we got here?
There’s one thing I did hide. Super Ted and Gonk. I’m not ashamed of them but when I’m writing I like to have them on the desk to keep me real.
You explore very personal themes in your writing. How do you maintain privacy in a personal space?
In everything I write, everything I do, I explore very personal themes. I write truthfully about myself. People wonder how I maintain my privacy and the truth is I don’t. I don’t care. I think privacy is a bourgeois concept. It’s all net curtains and I don’t care. I put myself out there. Whichever way you look at it. If you want to watch me in the bath you can come.
How do you speak your mind so freely and get away with it
It’s because I’m so charming.
Talk us through your study
This is one of my many bookshelves. I have a lot of books because I’m a very well read chap. But I’ve also got meaningful things. I’ve got my Dad’s gun. He was a big fan of the Wild West and travelled in America a lot so I was very into cowboys.
The thing I was never allowed to touch was his gun or his Bowie Knife – a knife made famous by Jim Bowie at the Battle of the Alamo. After he [my Dad] died of course the first thing I did was go around to get his bonafide 19th Century hardcore weaponry. And I found out that they are basically plastic rubbish that he picked up in an airport somewhere.
What ingredient would you ban from all menus?
There’s one ingredient that I would ban from all menus and that’s sugar. People talk about tobacco, alcohol, hard drugs, sugar is killing far more people. It’s making us fat. It’s an easy way out for restaurant chefs – they can make things taste better with sugar because of the amazing visceral response you have to it. I don’t like it, and I don’t think it’s a good thing.
Do you consider yourself a voyeur?
I guess I am a bit of a voyeur although no more probably than the next person. I can’t help myself when it becomes winter and the lights go on in people’s houses and you walk past and you look in and you see the pretty chandeliers and the flicker of the TV and beautiful people drinking and laughing and having a lovely time and you think “Ooh, I wish my life was like that”. The truth is you walk down the street another minute and they’re probably having massive rows, smashing things up. The truth is a line Julian Barnes once wrote: “You should never make the mistake of comparing the inside of your life with the outside of someone else’s.
What was your first memory of Habitat?
My earliest memory of any kind of home decoration really does relate to Habitat because a Habitat opened on the Finchley Road, near my house, on the space of what used to be a department store in about 1981 or ’82, so I was about 13. You don’t think about home decorating before that, or even much then, but when you’re 14 or 15 you want to make your bedroom at home your own. I specifically remember round-based Habitat lamps and I remember a couple of cushions and things. It was also a big deal at Christmas. I specifically remember, maybe one of the first Christmas presents I ever bought for my parents was a Habitat potato baker [Ed: actually a chicken brick]. It was terracotta potted half and you put the potato in it and then closed the thing and put it on the hob for an hour and it baked a potato. I’ve no idea why you couldn’t just put it in the oven but still it was a very “Habitat” thing in the early 80’s. It was literally the first thing I bought my Mum.
What does Habitat mean to you?
A really major part of my growing up, which I didn’t realise until quite recently, was Habitat was all about duvets. It was overnight that our house went from sheets and blankets to duvets and that was because a Habitat opened up down the road. Habitat introduced the duvet and we had them. So for me Habitat will always mean to me duvets.
What Habitat piece do you love and why?
I’ve always loved and been surrounded by Habitat cushions and Sam is equally discerning.