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His Fast Food Philosophy

Co-founder of the Leon chain of healthy fast food restaurants describes his growth as a chef through books, from Orwell to Jacques Pépin

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    Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence
    by H G Alexander (editor)

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    Down and Out in Paris and London
    by George Orwell

  • la technique


    La Technique
    by Jacques Pépin

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    On Food and Cooking
    by Harold McGee

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    In Defense of Food
    by Michael Pollan

Henry Dimbleby

Henry Dimbleby studied Physics and Philosophy at Oxford and started his working life as a chef under Bruno Loubet at the Michelin-starred Four Seasons Inn on the Park. Subsequently, he worked for several years as a business consultant at Bain & Company, before co-founding the Leon chain of fast food restaurants in 2003. Giles Coren, food critic for the London Times, claims that ‘Leon is the future’. Leon restaurants Henry Dimbleby’s writing and recipes at The Guardian

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Henry Dimbleby

Henry Dimbleby studied Physics and Philosophy at Oxford and started his working life as a chef under Bruno Loubet at the Michelin-starred Four Seasons Inn on the Park. Subsequently, he worked for several years as a business consultant at Bain & Company, before co-founding the Leon chain of fast food restaurants in 2003. Giles Coren, food critic for the London Times, claims that ‘Leon is the future’. Leon restaurants Henry Dimbleby’s writing and recipes at The Guardian

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Your books take us from physics to fast food. Why this progression in particular?

Well, there are two camps of people when it comes to creating really great food. There are those who see the whole experience as a mystical one; they think that if you question it too much, then you’ll pop the bubble that’s making the food special. Then there’s another school that sees it scientifically; these are cooks who see food as a series of chemical reactions. That second approach doesn’t mean it’s not emotional. It’s about how you create emotion and experiences around food using a more scientific approach, which is what we’re doing in our [Leon] restaurants. Because when you’re serving 60,000 people a week, you have to understand the science of  food in order to make it good every time.

Your first book documents a debate between Leibniz and Clarke – not the most obvious chef’s primer!

This book’s about the death of mysticism, and it was the book that killed anything like that in me. I’m an atheist; I don’t believe in star signs or luck.

What form does the book take?

It’s a discussion between Leibniz, who was a philosopher and mathematician, and Samuel Clarke, the philosopher, scientist and champion of Isaac Newton. Leibniz was defending a position that suggested we had no free will at all. He was trying to reconcile the experience we have of free will with God’s omnipotence, and in order to do it he suggested that we have no ability to test our own experience, that we exist in complete isolation from each other and the world. Clarke just comes back very pragmatically: common sense questions, and I found that every time Clarke was talking I was going, ‘absolutely right, quite right’. And I ended up feeling that while there was fun to be had in the Leibnizian point of view, life is just too short…

Back to food.

People will talk about flavours relating to one another according to season or whatever, but I want to ask, if lemon juice, from a summer fruit, is doing a particular job, supplying a bit of bite, a bit of acid in a dish, can I do that with something else, like vinegar? What’s wrong with that? Another chemical that has the same effect?  I don’t say conventional wisdom’s all bad; there’s plenty of good eating advice in the Bible. But you should be able to unpack it, question it and push the boundaries a bit further.

Let’s move on to your second book.

This is the one that first got me really excited about food: Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell. It’s meant to be the book that shows you everything that’s wrong in hotels and restaurants. A young Orwell goes to a hotel and then, I think, a Russian restaurant in Paris, and works like a slave. It’s the most chaotic, poorly paid job, with people living to drink their wages at the weekend, but it was the first thing that really excited me: the idea of the production of restaurants, the front and the back.

Like a theatre?

Yes – you’re putting on a show every day. Every service is a show. And I like the idea of the back of house, the machinery, making this whole thing work for the front of house. My first job was as a chef in a hotel restaurant on London’s Park Lane, and it was incredibly grand. But you went back of house and between your shifts you’d go down to the staff room in the basement with no natural light, and everybody smoked down there. There were smashed-up hotel chairs and a TV that played news all the time, and snoring porters and chefs in their whites grabbing a couple of hours’ sleep, and I found that exciting: the upstairs/downstairs thing. That you go upstairs from there and put on a show. It’s a bit like one of those Heath Robinson drawings – it’s fun to see how each thing fits in with another. Having said that, I like to think that the working environment at Leon is slightly more fun for the people who work with us.

What about your third book, the Pépin?

At that stage, when I was working in the hotel, I asked what book I should read to learn about cooking, and I was given La Technique, which is a classic French textbook with all the old techniques in it. It’s incredibly dated, but I like it because it displays very clearly the steps that go into creating the finished product, with these very old-fashioned black-and-white photographs for every dish. The chicken liver pâté recipe is still the one I use. Absolutely brilliant recipes, wonderful sauces. But you’ll also have what was considered at the time part of the canon: how, for example, to build a pigeon out of fruit – mad stuff. Jacques Pépin has these very, very hairy forearms, which are in all the pictures… I cook from it a lot at home, and, again, for me it was the beginning of thinking about the wonderful end product and the steps that went into creating it.

How does this all lead to your enthusiasm for fast food?

I was talking to an old friend who’s a restaurateur the other day, and he was saying that, years and years before I set up Leon, I’d talked about setting up a fast food restaurant. I think the thing that appealed to me about fast food as opposed to running a conventional restaurant was that it’s all about the quality of the food. When the price point is £5 or £6, it is all about the food – not the starched tablecloths, or fancy china.

As opposed to the circumstances in high-end restaurants?

Yes. The thing I didn’t like about the Park Lane place was how much of it wasn’t about the food at all. I remember working New Year’s Eve, when we did a massive 8-course tasting menu – incredibly delicious. But when we peeked round the curtain at midnight, everybody there was completely pissed; they’d wolfed most of it down without even noticing what they were eating. I like the very direct value link with fast food. It’s more about whether you can do good food at that price than all the other stuff: hosts, getting on the reservation list, the flattering thing.

What’s next?

Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, which was his first book – and for me the second cookbook I got into, after Jacques Pépin. Pépin goes into what he’s learned when he’s creating the French classics. He breaks it down into very straightforward steps. But McGee begins to question those steps – so, for example, he looks at the science of making a mayonnaise, and how much egg yolk you need to make a certain amount. The rule of thumb was that you needed one yolk for every half-litre of oil or so. But McGee worked out that purely from an emulsification point of view, that you could emulsify something like ten litres with a single yolk, and actually the rest was just about taste. He was very logical. He found whenever he fried things his glasses got covered in oil, but on the inside, because the oil was going up into the air and coming down as a mist. So he wore a peaked baseball cap when he was frying, and that sorted it out.

And knowing that sort of thing is useful to you?

Yes. We try to think logically. How do you make a meatball tender enough to crumble in your mouth, but still give it a firm bite? It’s all about the ratio of meat to fat to couscous in the meatball. It’s totally scientific. At Leon we’re always looking at the science of things.

What about your last book, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food?

Interestingly, Pollan takes the science of food and shows where it’s been misapplied. So there’s been a lot of science around nutrition that is very bad science. It’s the opposite of the Leibniz thing; it’s effectively mysticism cased in the veneer of scientific work. Pollan takes a very pragmatic view, which he sums up in one sentence: ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants’. He says we should be careful of any processed product which makes nutritional claims, because people will have taken chemicals out of other foods without understanding how complex real food is – food we’ve evolved for millions of years to eat. I read this book three years after we opened Leon, and it brought together everything we’d been thinking in a very succinct and clear way.

So what’s your credo?

I try not to eat anything that’s been invented in the last thousand years. In that time, we’ve invented fats that don’t exist in nature, additives we don’t need, and, possibly worst of all, we’ve refined sugar. Our bodies treat sugar as a rare energy source that should be wolfed down at the slightest opportunity, but now it’s everywhere. If you look at the causes of ill health, they’re almost always recent inventions. Eat what’s real. Eat real food.

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