Once, when he suffered a particularly bad spell, he was off primary school for nearly a month. To you and me, a lengthy period of leave from work might sound like a dream come true, but for children it is more like an extended jail sentence. Upon his return, his teacher opened the door and ushered him into the room, at which point his classmates burst into a spontaneous round of applause. As he stood there, slightly dumbfounded by this display of generosity, his teacher patted him on the shoulder, smiled warmly and welcomed him back. The other children continued to clap as he shyly made his way back to his seat.
Though this experience did not happen to me, though it might be third hand information, it has been rattling around inside my mind for a good few months now. In a slightly strange way, it is a story to which I can relate: you might find the analogy somewhat strained, but over the next few paragraphs allow me to explain how this connects to my life and a chain of events which kick-started some time ago.
The regular readers amongst you will already know that I have been writing a series of cookbooks. I’m nearing the end of that long, winding and mostly uphill road: books three and four, entitled veg. and cake. respectively, are in the can and due to be published in September, and I’m currently in the early stages of prepping number five. The thinking behind the series of four books was to create a set of pocket-sized, affordable guides which offered a range of quick and easy recipes for cooks of all abilities. Just because people have to tighten their belts financially does not mean they have to tighten their actual belts. Food might need to be cheap, but it does not have to be nasty.
When that idea first lit up like a cartoon light bulb above my head, little did I know that around a year later I would be standing on a stage in Paris, shaking hands with Edouard Cointreau, and receiving the award for the Best Series Cookbook In The World at the Gourmand Awards. The Gourmand seal of approval is a prestigious achievement in my line of work, so I can now be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of, amongst others, Heston Blumenthal and Harold McGee. To say that this is a big deal is not me blowing my own trumpet – or rather, twiddling my own whisk – to be completely frank, I can barely believe those words as I write them. Things like this shouldn’t happen to wee lads from Portadown, Northern Ireland. At school we were taught not to aim high, but rather to slip into comfortable mediocrity – particularly if you were like me, who had as much interest in sport as a rock does in pole vaulting, and was more intrigued by Home Economics and other equally unmanly activities.
If school allowed me to fall through the net, thankfully I had the support and encouragement of my family, as they gently nudged me along whichever path I chose. The same could be said for the team working behind the scenes at my company Whisk, and on the range of books which started with the germ of an idea that led to the publication of mix. in September 2008. When I travelled to France last week, I was accompanied by a party of fourteen from all over Europe. I would not have been able to climb my own personal mountain without these people, so I wanted them to be able to share in my proud moment. Originally, mix. Won the Best Cookbook Series In The UK award, which was an amazing accolade on its own, so I was all set to book my Eurostar to Paris to pick up that gong when I heard that I was being considered for the Best In World category. The noise of my jaw thudding against the floor was rivalled only by my heart thumping six beats faster.
At first I thought that it was a prank. Or perhaps some kind of mistake. However, standing nervously in the street, dolled up to the nines in a tuxedo in the blazing Parisian sunshine, it dawned on me that this was for real. While my friends were in a café eating lunch, I was outside, pacing anxiously, rehearsing my speech and trying to stop fidgeting. Calm down, James, I said. But James was not listening.
The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards took place at the Comédie Française, a beautiful theatre that has stood proudly for over three centuries. Grandiose is not strong enough a word. Upon entering, you feel as if you are royalty, as you are greeted by sweeping marble staircases and red carpets. The whole thing had a dreamlike quality to it: the sound of heels clipping the ornate floors and the excited chatter of the attendants got me right in the stomach. A strange mix of emotions washed over me which even now I find hard to mould into the correct words.
Monsieur Edouard Cointreau started proceedings with a typically fitting flourish. I should say that for someone with such a pedigree, he is one of the most down to earth, charming and friendly men that I have ever met. Receiving an award from him was an honour in more ways than one.
The Best Cookbook Series In World category was placed near the end of the ceremony, so I had an agonising wait, which mostly involved shifting in my chair, digging my nails into my palms and telling my mother not to worry. When I was called down from the balcony, I knew that I had won. My heart, by this stage in a severe state of exhaustion, began to pump faster again, and adrenalin burst forth like an uncorked bottle of champagne. As I approached the stage, Monsieur Cointreau spoke some very kind compliments about my book, and then I had half a minute to do my bit. Even if I could have expressed the jumble of feelings gurgling about in my stomach at that point, thirty seconds would barely have covered it.
My first instinct was to burst into tears, but mercifully, I made it to the end without embarrassing myself. If you want to check out my blethering for yourself, you can do so here. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGVB5X_Fzik]
It was not made any easier by the fact that there was a nine metres tall picture of mix. onscreen behind me. It was at that point that I was reminded afresh of my asthmatic friend of a friend. Some might find the comparison slightly crude, but making my entrance to the echo of applause, I felt as young and bashful as a primary pupil. More than that, after months of being unable to breathe, being weighed down by worry and fretful excitement, I was finally allowed to exhale. It felt, in short, wonderful.
The next hours passed in a blur. I can remember small snapshots, as if someone is holding up my own personal photograph album and quickly flicking the pages, but most details are lost to the buzz of nervous energy. That, and the abundance of Gosset Champagne, Frapin Cognac and canapés from Le Cordon Bleu cookery school on offer that night.
Now home in London, I’m back down to earth with a bump. Life goes on, normal service is resumed, and I might be able to get a proper night’s sleep for the first time in a long time. Here, however, I’m allowed much more than thirty seconds to articulate my thoughts and feelings. Now, with the benefit of distance and hindsight, I can say what I really wanted to say that night in Paris: thankyou.
Thankyou for reading, thankyou for your continued interest, thankyou for allowing me to be myself.
Thankyou. It means the world to me.