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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

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Lotte Duncan at Lotte’s Kitchen

chef interviews Lotte Duncan displays the same personality behind the counter in her tea shop, Lotte’s Kitchen, as she does presenting and cooking on TV networks across the globe. She is blonde and pastel-coloured, although she has been seen sporting a sexy vamp-red dress when hosting a Valentine’s special. Dipping strawberries into melted chocolate can perhaps be described as the culinary equivalent of that celebrated ‘Cadbury’s Flake’ advert. Yes, many a man has his head turned by womanly Lotte.

There is humour in Lotte’s programmes and indeed in real life, but she is a consummate professional and skilled cook. Her passion started in childhood. “I’ve always wanted to cook – always, always, there was never a question – so I used to cook in the kitchen at home, pretending I was doing it to camera because I loved the ‘Galloping Gourmet’ and I wanted to be the girl that he picked from the audience to join him on stage! I was only 5 or 6 years old, but I knew that I would be doing it in front of a camera. I cooked all the way through school, and then I went to a Cordon Bleu cookery school when I was 17, and worked in a restaurant.”

chef interviews Lotte has her focus on English cooking and baking, but she is far from just an enthusiastic amateur. That cookery school training has served her well. “I worked in Oxford, and decided not to cook but to go waitressing, which I did in several restaurants, and had a great time. So I’ve seen both sides now.” Everything she learnt about cooking she uses in the TV or café kitchen, and her experience working as a waitress has honed her communication skills, which are evident both in studio demonstrations and those which she holds at Lotte’s Kitchen.

“Then I decided to go to Los Angeles, because I had some friends going over there – rented out my flat, sold my car and used that money to go over. I had no idea what I was going to do. I worked in a great retro 50s diner, which was brilliant. I came back and thought, ‘I should open a 50s diner in Oxford!’ and I think if I had done that then, I would be on a tropical island now soaking up the sun having a very nice time, because I would have made a fortune! But I didn’t...”

chef interviews Lotte is frank about her struggles. She is a single mum who has worked in the world of food out of necessity, rather than in a search for fame on the small screen. “I got pregnant with my daughter Daisy, and when she was about 18 months old I started up a catering company with a friend, to earn some money, and then I went into teaching – adult education, presenting my own cooking courses, which I did for quite a few years. Then a friend of mine whose mother had a big house, and who knew I needed the money, said, ‘Why don’t you come and give cookery demonstrations? You can have the house for a day, invite people in, and you can demonstrate them lunch.’ I built that up, and eventually, at my Dad’s suggestion [he is cartoonist Robert Duncan] I wrote to all the local houses in the Yellow Book (the guide to the National Gardens Scheme, the so-called ‘bible’ of garden visiting), offering cookery demonstrations, and the guests could then look around the house and gardens.

“Many people said ‘Yes.’ The first to take up my idea was Lady Tomkins at Winslow Hall, a beautiful Christopher Wren house in Buckinghamshire. Her husband was Sir Edward Tomkins, British Ambassador in The Hague and in Paris. The business built up until I had quite a few houses in a brochure each year, and I ran that for 8 – 10 years. It was hard work, as I had to take my entire kitchen with me to each venue, so in 2006 I extended my own kitchen and ran the demonstrations there.”

chef interviews I asked Lotte, over a pot of tea, a pile of sandwiches and cakes for which to die, how the TV appearances came about. “Around 13 years ago I thought that it was about time I told people that I’d like to cook on telly. I did a video of me cooking, made by my Dad, and I sent it to a load of producers. In those days there were not many cookery programmes on television, and it was possible to talk to them directly, so I phoned different producers every week. I was given a chance to appear in a series of 12 shows called Ideal Home Cooks, made by Carlton Food Network, with an ‘English Food Revisited’ slot. ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ followed after that, and then I appeared several times on Gloria Hunniford’s show on Channel 5, and lots of other shows came along.

“After I moved into my new cottage, Nick Thorogood and Elaine Bancroft were putting together a show for the UKTV Food Channel. I did the show for 5 years; they did some filming in my garden and I took it round the country, interviewing, reporting, cooking live, and I anchored the show when Jenny Barnett wasn’t there. I’ve also worked with ITV and BBC. Food Network asked me if I’d like to take part in ‘Chopped’ in the USA. I loved the show and agreed. I worked with Jun Tanaka, Tristan Welch and Andy Bates in New York and had five brilliant days. The company said it was one of the best shows they had done, because of the camaraderie.”

If you are more a reader than TV viewer you will likely own a copy of Lotte’s highly acclaimed cookbook, Lotte’s Country Kitchen. Those recipes are a paper representation of Lotte. It’s pink and flowery with cottagey pictures taken once again in Lotte's garden, which has unsurprisingly featured in lifestyle magazines. “I got the book deal for Lotte’s Country Kitchen and I wrote the book from the heart. I realised that I quite liked writing.” Read a review here

chef interviews Lotte’s home kitchen is the picture-postcard-pretty one in her equally beautiful cottage not far from the tea shop. When I visited, Lotte demonstrated her signature pink meringues decorated with a dusting of glitter. The Aga was warming, and a cat resembling a fluffy beer barrel lounged. There might not be an Aga in this new café kitchen but it offers Lotte’s trademark pastel colours and traditional comfort. “People say I have dropped my cottage in here, but this does at least have straight walls and high ceilings!”

“I had always wanted a café, and I eventually found these premises. Sue joined me, and we started it in March 2011. We worked very hard to get it ready, there was nothing really planned, and a friend Jamie helped with the interior. Everything here has come from the tip or has been given to us: the dresser, the painted chairs. It’s eclectic, a mix of food and lifestyle goods. We had Christmas Shopping Nights, which we will do again this year,” and it’s no surprise that Lotte had a big pink Christmas tree!

“The day before we opened we were still, at midnight, putting out the stock. We had no idea about pricing – ‘What would you pay for this?’ The builder made himself indispensible ironing the bunting. Daisy was here, and there was just a moment when Sue went outside and looked through a little hole in the Windolene, saw the whole thing set up, and said, ‘Yeah, we’re ready!’ But we weren’t! The next morning we got here at 6:30, Sue learned how to work the till about 10 minutes before opening, we hadn’t numbered the tables, there was a queue out the door, and we had no system set up. We just didn’t stop all day! In the evening, when we all sat down with a glass of fizz, it suddenly occurred to me, ‘Wow, we’re going to have to do this every day!’ Now, it’s really weird to think that we wouldn’t be here. We now have such a lovely customer base of locals. On our first anniversary we were crammed again.”

chef interviews Lotte says, “I hate being described as a ‘celebrity chef’, because I’m not – I cook on telly,” and it’s that natural and honest approach that has endeared her to us, we who would really like to be able to cook. She has been a persuasive brand ambassador for Cuisinart and, yes, I can vouch for the fact that she does indeed use their robust and iconic appliances at home, to make the recipes in her book and for the café. It was actually Lotte who taught this writer how to make butter. She creates everything, from the most rustic of slow-cooked casseroles to the lightest of sponges, and encourages her viewers and readers to do the same. She has a “you can do it” approach that has enticed many a lazy behind off the sofa and into the kitchen, even if it’s only to ice a cupcake with pink icing and to sprinkle a little of that glitter.

Visit Lotte Duncan here

Lotte's Kitchen
2 Keen's Lane, Chinnor,
OX39 4PF

[This venue is now closed]

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