A Stranger in my Mother’s Kitchen

This is the name of a distinctively different way of publishing a book about food by Celine Marchbank, daughter of chef Sue Miles. Celine is a photographer and she celebrates her mother’s kitchen in this delightful yet heart-breaking book of reminiscences, photos and recipes. The design cleverly incorporates copies of some of Sue’s hand-written and typed recipes with photos of the well-worn paperbacks that inspired her. Late in 2009 Sue was diagnosed with lung cancer and a brain tumour and almost a year later, on 8 October 2010, aged 66, Sue died. The book is a sequel to Tulip, the story of the last year of Sue’s life published in 2016 by Dewi Lewis Publishing. As Jonathon Green wrote in his touching Guardian obituary, ‘She would have scorned the idea of ‘struggle’; she simply had the necessary treatments but they wouldn’t take.’ 

I first met Sue when we both worked at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane in the late sixties. Sue ran the café and I was Jim Haynes so-called secretary, actually more of a companion. She was an imposing figure who looked like a female Mick Jagger, dressed stylishly, sort of bo-ho chic, and spoke in a loud transatlantic drawl. She had a contagious dirty laugh and a scurrilous, cynical take on life and didn’t suffer fools. In the early seventies Sue and I briefly shared a room upstairs at Time Out’s cramped, shambollic Kings Cross offices. Sue hated it and didn’t know what she should be doing in an office, it was totally alien to her. One day, I remember, she’d just taken delivery of some fabulous custom-made navy blue boots (from Gohils, a state of the art Camden Town cobbler) stitched with large Mr Freedom-style silver stars and proceeded to pick the stars off. Another time she’d had her long, wild hair tamed into a relatively neat bob and spent the afternoon messing it up with her impatient artistic hands.

     Brought up in the States, where her father (Lionel Crane known as ‘the man with a passport to the world) was chief Hollywood correspondent for the Mirror,she went to art school in Cheltenham and together with husband Barry Miles (who ran Indica bookshop and gallery in Mason’s Yard off Duke Street in St James’s), became a pivotal figure in sixties London counter-culture. Sue knew everyone from Paul McCartney to the best plumber in the West End and had a canny knack for cutting the crap and getting things done. If you wanted an emergency locksmith or needed to know where to buy decent olives – not easy at the time – Sue had the answers. She was one of the first people to own a Filofax, the sixties ring-binder iPhone equivalent we later all owned, rivalling Jim Haynes who at the time I worked for him, had 39.

     Sue was an accomplished self-taught cook with an enviable batterie de cuisine of professional pots and pans, knives, Le Creuset casserole and terrine dishes and enough white china to open a restaurant. Her cooking was grounded in Elizabeth David, relying on good ingredients cooked simply but with verve. Her first foray into cooking professionally (the Lab didn’t count) was blagging a job at Food For Thought, an exciting vegetarian café in Covent Garden. From there, far more ambitiously, she ran Didier in Little Venice with her friend Pagan Gregory and started to get good reviews. By now she had married Pearce Marchbank, Time Out’s art director and they had two children, Otis and Celine. Before long, Sue was at the vanguard of the eighties restaurant revival, first at L’Escargot and later at Soho Brasserie, on the way nurturing or working with now familiar chefs Alastair Little, Rowley Leigh, Adam Robinson, Juliet Peston and Angela Dwyer. She turned down the opportunity to join Rose Gray, once Time Out’s children’s editor, at the River Café. Sue decamped to Rome for a time to run a stunningly housed McDonald’s where she introduced salad to the menu but not before winking at me from the kitchen of Sonny’s in Barnes as I scribbled notes in my restaurant reviewing days. Later she ran the Jazz Café in Camden Town for the Mean Fiddler group before eventually moving to Suffolk where she ran the kitchen of the Crown Hotel at Southwold for Adnams and finally the nearby Thorpeness Brasserie.

     In this original book, Celine remembers her mother through the food she cooked, collating a series of touching photos of Sue’s kitchen kit, of flowers and plants she tended with vignettes of the empty family home. It is a very touching reflection. Amongst the handful of recipes included, there is one – grav lax (marinated salmon)- in another hand I recognise. It’s Alastair Little’s recipe. Turns out Celine had been trying to get in touch with Alastair to ask his permission to include it in her book. I had the unpleasant task of telling her that Alastair had just died from Covid complications. Two stunningly talented chefs gone too soon. More about and from Celine on www.celinemarchbank.com

A Stranger in My Mother’s Kitchen published 9 September, more info and to order a pre-sale copy go to www.celinemarchbank.com.