Chef Life: Claire Thomson on Family and Food

She’s a Bristol-based chef, Guardian food columnist, author of The Five O’Clock Apron cookbook – based on her daily 5pm dinner recipe tweets – and co-creater of an immersive foodie theatre show. Here, mother-of-three Claire Thomson discusses her culinary life…

Claire Thomson lives with her husband and their three daughters: Grace, eight, Ivy, five and Dorothy, two, in Bristol

“Mine is a tale of three childhoods: birth-eight years in Zimbabwe and Botswana, eight–ten in Islington, London and aged 10–18 in deepest darkest Shropshire. It was a great childhood.

My father worked abroad a lot so we spent the first part in Africa, which I loved – barefoot, eating fruit from the trees and watching comets hurtle across the desert sky on carefree camping trips in the back of a 4×4.

London was great, but very different and my memory of that time is walking home after school in the afternoon, already dark and with piles of autumn leaves underfoot or roller-skating in Waterlow Park on Highgate Hill.

Shropshire, again, was very different to London and I enjoyed the freedom of playing out in the fields, building dens and damns in the river. My teenage years were on the wild(ish) side and I used to rue the day we ever left London for the countryside – you certainly had to work hard to find suitably rebellious activities aged 14, 15, 16 in the middle of nowhere. No matter, university beckoned!

My early food memories include biltong, guavas and endless BBQs in Africa, baked potatoes in the 80s in London and my mum’s vegetable garden in Shropshire as a teenager. I’ve always loved cooking. My mum has been instrumental in teaching me to cook. Soups first, then moving on to macaroni cheese, lasagna and the like.

Claire Thomson - bread - theearlyhour.com

My husband and I bought our first home just over a year ago. Up until then we were renting and most often they were flats on the tiny side of reasonably sized. It is such a relief to have now cobbled enough cash together to buy our house.

It’s perfectly sized for the five of us, with a garden to grow vegetables and most importantly, a bright kitchen with a big wooden table where we can all gather for meals, homework, mass colouring-in sessions and so on.

With three kids aged eight and under, not a day passes without a toy/book/skipping rope left on the stairs. I always thought I wouldn’t be one of those parents who piled up various objects on the staircase to be taken upstairs in dribs and drabs throughout the day, but I so am and my kids surely know it with all three getting the “take that upstairs as you go” rant.

I firmly believe good food needn’t be all that time consuming to make

Both my husband and I are chefs. We literally spend all our time in the kitchen. It helps that my eight-year-old is keen, the five-year-old is handy with a veg peeler and the two-year-old is very good at licking the bowls of any cakes being made. We like cooking together.

Sunday lunch is my favourite with friends and family… You know the sort of lunch, the one that merges from an already late lunch to an even later supper. The one where, if you’re really lucky, you somehow manage to bath the kids, pop them in bed, and continue the ‘lunch’ with just the grown ups, feeling woozy.

We’ve got a couple of friends who own a restaurant here in Bristol and that’s where we’ll head given the option of eating out. But truth be told, if we are in Bristol, I’d rather head to the pub or the cinema on a night out with my husband and friends.

I love going to London to eat as the scene there is so vibrant and exciting, be it street food or a more traditional restaurant setting. I love living in Bristol (it really is a great city) but enjoy the fact London is one hour 40 minutes away on a train as we’re also keen theatre-goers.

In fact, I’m co-founder of The Table of Delights: a theatrical tasting for children in five acts, and the show will be on at The Print Room in Notting Hill from 23rd November to 13th December after two sellout years at Bristol’s Old Vic and Bath’s The Theatre Royal.

My husband and I are friends with a theatre couple. Our children are all friends at school. They are theatre and we are food, so we thought it would be fab to bring the two together and create something unique for our kids and also a wider audience.

It’s bonkers and brilliant; Roald Dahl meets Monty Python meets love struck beetroots, eggs cannons and the history of spice. It’s for four to 12-year-olds and you get to watch them eat at a giant 10-metre table. With the table as the stage and the audience as diners, it is an unforgettable experience.

Claire Thomson - Tables of Delights - theearlyhour.com

I started the Twitter account The 5 O’Clock Apron to practise what I preach. I like that I can be held accountable for what I am cooking for the kids, day in day out. It’s very honest. I’m not just writing recipes with masses of ingredients and using a flash oven/prep kitchen. I’m in an apron, in my kitchen, cooking honest achievable family food for all.

These days my Instagram feed is where I post the pictures at 5pm or thereabouts then looping into Twitter. My kids think it’s very funny that people are interested in what they are eating come 5pm. As they grow older and eat at a later time, it might have to shift a few hours? For the time being, they get home from school tired and hungry and want fuel/feeding asap. I’m not keen on them filling up with too many snacks, I’d far rather a proper meal in front of them.

I firmly believe good food needn’t be all that time consuming to make. There are days when I get home late and kids are hungry and I know I just need to feed them there and then… a good pasta dish with plenty of vegetables can literally take the time it takes for the pasta to cook, 10–12 minutes tops.

Weekends are more leisurely and more tricksy lengthier dishes can be tackled if desired. A good soup can be made, stored in the fridge and served in minutes at the drop of a hat. I know I find the task of making food an easy one because of my cheffing skills – that said, I am more than keen to demonstrate the task doesn’t necessarily have to be an onerous or costly one…

It goes without saying that if my children help to make a meal from scratch they are more inclined to eat it

I think the crucial thing about feeding kids is to have the attitude of it is just food after all and we all need to eat. I have a very relaxed attitude to food. I’ve cooked it, I’d like them to eat it and they can’t say they don’t like it if they don’t try it. Chances are, for I seldom go about making food that doesn’t taste nice, they’ll like it.

They aren’t saints and I’m no dragon, there are certain ingredients that just don’t pass muster (yet!) with my three… mushrooms are a good example. The key to family food is to plunder from a wide range ingredients from early on and keep them interested and adventurous with flavour.

A good example is the supper I’ve just this minute cooked for all three home from swimming lessons. I know they like lemon, so I’ve braised chicken thighs with thyme and shallots, made orzo pasta and a pile of lemony olive oil cabbage and put it all together in the one bowl as a chicken soup type of meal. Clean plates all round.

I love it when my daughters help in the kitchen. I made a byriani the other day with my eight-year-old stood beside me using her own chopping board and little knife, making a fresh mango chutney to go with it. Perfect. That said, there are times when I want free reign and no squabbles over who gets to do what. It goes without saying if my children help to make a meal from scratch they are more inclined to eat it.

Monday to Friday, we might have muesli, bircher muesli, porridge or toast for breakfast, a packed lunch with a sandwich, popcorn, a piece of fruit, an oat or rice cake and a quick fire broccoli ‘pesto’ pasta, pilaf, baked potato skins with slaw, or pasta/rice dish for dinner.

At the weekend, we’ll have something like avocado on toast, boiled sweetcorn, French toast, savoury muffins, Turkish baked eggs or croque monsieur for lunch.

Lunch might be chicken roasted over rice with cinnamon (a winning recipe from my friend Jemma Kirby), paella, or sausage and cauliflower bake like the one I made on Saturday Kitchen last month.

I cook with salt but don’t tend to rely on many processed foods at home so I’m happy with the salt intake of my family. Likewise sugar, a piece of cake on a Sunday after lunch is fine with me… I’m not giving them cake day in, day out. Cutting out fruit juice/cordial is a good way to reduce the sugar your child has access to. I just offer the children water at home and they are all fine with this.

As for the future, I’m pretty thrilled to be working with the National Trust from 2016 as an ambassador for family food. Watch this space. Book two is in the midst and the Table of Delights website is due to launch in the spring. Busy, happy and always, always cooking.”

Tomorrow, we’ll be posting one of Claire Thomson’s brilliant recipes for a simple, tasty family meal…

Follow Claire Thomson on Instagram and Twitter; read more about Table of Delights here; buy tickets for the London show here

All images by Mike Lusmore