Last year, Loyle Carner made headlines when he released the first single from his second studio album, ‘Not Waving, But Drowning,’ which is released tomorrow. ‘Ottolenghi,’ a brilliant, melodic oscillation between dream and reality, chronicles a train journey — at the start of the second verse, a family asks Carner ‘about the bible I was reading.’
“I was reading Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem on the train,” Carner says. “And this guy says — kind of, what with all the talk of anti-Semitism at the moment — ‘what book is that, why you reading that, you could get beat up right now,’ and I was like, woah, chill, it’s a cookbook. He got kinda agitated, and I found it quite funny, but also quite sad.”
Although the record is named for the famous TV chef and cookbook author, beyond one line and a cameo from Yotam Ottolenghi himself in the promo video, it has remained something of a mystery as to why one of Britain’s hottest young hip hop artists apparently dedicated his first record in over a year to a chef.
After getting off the train, Carner called the singer Jordan Rakei, who is featured in the song. “That was the story I told. I’d already been writing it in my head. But at the start that’s all it was about. It wasn’t about Ottolenghi, but it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t existed and made that book.”
“So.. I reached out to [Ottolenghi]... and said, ‘here’s the tune.’ And he got back and was like, ‘yeah, I love it.’ I was like woooooaaaahhhh. So I [asked] him to be in the video. He said yeah, he came down. We hung out, really got on.”
During filming, a five-hour power cut meant that Carner and Ottolenghi had time to play chess and chat. “So we were forced to hang out. And now... I dunno, we just text. Quite a lot.”
“I used to cook everything from [Ottolenghi’s] books,” Carner admits before laughing and saying he should probably focus on Simple, the newest book, which “he needs to sell.” “The recipes are fucking wicked ... “There’s a roast chicken... preserved lemon, thyme, butter, salt — that’s it. Whizz up, make an aromatic rub. Preserved lemon, it’s kind of Lebanese, I love it.”
“There’s this fish cake recipe as well — in like a red, tomato, white wine sauce ... Crazy like a cod cake. It’s my missus’ favourite which I make if I’m in trouble or if I’ve got a whole day to make something... Those are my go-tos... harissa carrots, as well. To go with the chicken. Wicked.”
Carner’s enthusiasm when discussing food is definitely in excess of the respite he, as a musician, is getting from doing back-to-back interviews about his music. He talks quickly, eloquently, and passionately, about how much he likes Lardo in Hackney and Murger Han in Euston. Whether or not one might feasibly draw observations about the comparative novelty of chefs as celebrities vis-a-vis a famous musician, Carner — whose natural charisma and curiosity are balanced by genuine modesty — is deferential in the company of cooks.
Last weekend when he appeared on Saturday Kitchen, he was overcome by emotion, in awe of Rick Stein who — posing as “Rick from Padstow” — phoned in to jokingly ask what Carner would cook for his dream dinner party guest. This is a musician who, between talking about texting Heston Blumenthal, — “He’s my guy!” — attributes a profound significance to food, who credits cooking if not for guaranteeing his survival, then preserving his sanity.
“Cooking... it was a big part of my life as a kid,” he says. His grandparents had owned a hotel in Scotland and when they moved to London, Carner — then Benjamin Gerard Coyle-Larner — would cook with them. His first food memory is “being ridiculed for eating tomato rice” that his grandad would cook. In the Navy, he worked in kitchens; Carner understands that one of his fellow chefs was Nigerian, and “for some reason, he took all this stuff on.”
“I was eating all this [West] African food without knowing it was African... I thought it was it was Scottish, because my grandad was Scottish, so I’m at school with my tomato rice ... and I go to my friends’ house, ‘do you want some Jollof rice. I’m like ‘this is my grandad’s tomato rice.’ They’re like, ‘no, this is Jollof rice. Very traditional African cuisine!’
His mum — with whom Carner has always been extremely close, and who was the subject of ‘Sun of Jean’, on Carner’s first album — identified cooking as a potential remedy for her child’s anxieties. “My mum knew I had ADHD and was like ‘cooking might be really good for you and your kinetic energy so let’s try it.’ And it used to really calm me down, it was the only place where I found this real peace — and I always dreamed of being a chef. Being in the kitchen, hours would go by and I wouldn’t be anxious or stressed or angry, I’d just be getting on with it. And my brain wouldn’t be empty but would be full of food, as opposed to being full of everything.”
That was the seed that became a cookery school in 2015. Carner is not just a keen cook, but the founder of Chilli Con Carner, designed for 14 to 16 year olds with ADHD. The school has been running for four years, Carner teaching the kids himself. But he invites guest teachers as well, one in particular. “Ottolenghi is coming down this year. We tried to get Heston Blumenthal ... he’s gone AWOL.
“I figured if it could work for me then it could work for kids in a similar situation,” Carner says, before lamenting those who afforded him no such reprieve as a school kid.
“When I was at school I was always told that I was shit at everything. I knew I wasn’t shit at everything but I wasn’t able to go, ‘but I’ve written this poem, check this out’ or ‘hey, I’ve just made this food, check this out.’ Yeah when I do maths like this, I am shit, or when I have to annotate a Shakespearean text, I am shit. So I’m putting these kids in this situation where, nine times out of 10, they’re gonna be wicked at it. So I can say ‘you’re wicked’ but they know it themselves.
“They cook, they taste it, it tastes great, they’re like ‘I made this, fuck, I’m great.’ It’s a self-esteem thing, if nothing else.”
“We have school trips, so we go to beekeeper sanctuaries, or Yard Sale pizza, or Homeslice, places where they can be in kitchens and see [a] professional working environment,” he says before pointing to the project’s nascent success. “Something crazy like 80 percent of the kids who’ve come through have got jobs as actual chefs, which is cool. Because I’m not a qualified chef, I’m just putting my love of cooking into them. It works for them, and they start to chill out.”
Second album out, Carner will next month turn his attention to the side of him that remains more elusive. His father is from Guyana, but the closeness with his mother that fostered his love of cooking is yet to find its counterpart. “I was never close to my dad’s side, so I never got that insight,” he says, revealing that he is soon to visit for the first time. He is interested in Guyana as a south American country, but also in where and how the colonial Portuguese, Dutch, French have its culture. In visiting, Carner continues his journey, curious to understand how food can further shape a person that credits it for giving him a purpose — and a hit single.