Meet the Norwegian Cook Dishing up Flavourful Recipes for One

Norwegian whiskey aficionado, culinary academic and cookbook author, Signe Johansen, has quite the string of letters to her name – you might even call her a ‘food geek’.

Signe’s journey through the industry is quite the discourse in itself, and not in your typical ‘from dish-wash kid to celebrity chef’ kind of way. After gaining a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and anthropology from the University of Cambridge, she went on to train at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London, worked her way up the ranks in many top restaurants around the city, then topped it off with a masters in the anthropology of food at SOAS Food Studies Centre…and if she could, she would study again.

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Now with several cookbooks under her belt, a popular London pop-up restaurant ticked off the list, and an exciting network of female whiskey appreciators corralled across the UK and beyond, (take a deep breath) Signe has just released Solo: The Joy of Cooking for One – an ode to the pastime that many of us take for granted. We got chatting to this London-based foodie force about some of her enviable achievements:

Where do you currently call home and what inspires you about your city?

London – a city I love for its energy, diversity and many opportunities. This is one of the great cities of the world and I pinch myself that I’m fortunate enough to live here.

What do you miss about Norway?

I really miss being able to walk out my front door and go cross-country skiing in winter, or go swimming in the fiord while the midnight sun blazes in midsummer. Obviously the seafood in Norway is also amazing, given our long coastline and love of all things aquatic, but I also miss the breads, cakes and candies. Man I love the candy…

Have your academic studies influenced your approach to food?

It’s definitely influenced my food philosophy – I’ve been interested in seemingly dull subjects like food security and where our food comes from for years, particularly now as Britain goes through its tortuous extraction from the European Union. Brexit will throw up some nasty surprises when it comes to our food supply. More people are interested in food here now than when I first arrived, but the more academic end is still considered pretty niche.

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What do you love most about about cooking and eating solo as opposed to catering for family and friends?

It’s weird that we’ve been so conditioned to think cooking is a social activity – maybe it’s all those aspirational TV cookery programmes we’ve been watching over the years. There’s a lot of glossy “oh look at me I’m such a genius at effortless entertaining” lifestyle coverage in the media, but the reality is more people live on their own than ever before. Eating alone is considered sad, but in actual fact most people I know find it quite liberating. I love cooking solo – it allows me to ramp up certain flavours, be totally selfish and not worry about what other people think of my efforts in the kitchen.

What’s your favourite lazy-day recipe for one?

For lazy days I like to make a fish finger sandwich with a green herby salsa. It’s a bit of a cheats recipe given you’re just taking fish fingers out of the freezer, but then you blitz a really zingy green sauce to go with them, which incidentally goes with grilled chicken, halloumi, salads, roasted vegetables…you name it.

You’re a whisky enthusiast and the co-founder of ‘Spirited Women’, a project to get more women into whisky. How did you get into whisky? 

Whisky is still seen as a masculine drink, although thankfully that perception is changing. I grew up in Norway and we didn’t have these gendered ideas of what an ‘appropriate’ drink for a woman was. If you wanted a beer, you drank a beer. If you wanted a whisky, you drank a whisky. Both my parents love whisky (my mother’s more of a bourbon drinker, but she’s a fan of a whisky sour with scotch) and over the years I just tried whatever they had.

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Any advice for whiskey rookies? 

It’s not rocket science: if you’re new to whisky and aren’t convinced by the smoky, peaty flavours, try something on the milder end of the spectrum. Go to tastings, talk to a bartender, be curious. That’s one of the reasons we have tastings with Spirited Women, to create an environment in which women can meet, chat and learn more about drinks in a setting that’s fun, rather than stuffy.

If you had the time or means to study again, what would you do next?

Oddly enough, nothing too academic. I’d love to learn how to create more things: carpentry, ceramics, painting, how to make wine or whisky, that kind of thing. If I could change tack altogether and had the opportunity to study for free (ha, yeah right!) then I’d love to study architecture, medicine, or sports science…something more concrete than an arts degree. Who knows, it may yet happen!

We are itching to buy a plane ticket. Inspire us with your most incredible holiday memory?

This is an easy one: Japan. We went there in June on our honeymoon and had the best time. It’s a country of extraordinary natural beauty, with incredibly hospitable and courteous people and of course some of the best food in the world. Food is taken seriously there, but there’s no snobbery about it which I find refreshing. If I could I would go there every year for inspiration and ideas – I love their attention to detail.

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Favourite corner of the Internet?

I love The Pool, an online magazine that features sharp and incisive writing on pretty much everything. Otherwise I’m a bit of a news junkie: The FT, The New York Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Guardian…I also love podcasts like Freakonomics, Pod Save America, the The New Yorker Radio Hour, the BBC Food Programme, Diana Henry’s At The Kitchen Table, and the Honey and Co: The Food Talks. I have a bit of a girl-crush on Cerys Matthews and adore her Sunday morning BBC Radio 6 programme. Her taste in music is really exceptional.

What inspires you?

Smart people who have good ideas and are able to bring those ideas to life through diligence and determination. So many people coast through life on auto-pilot or choose the path of least resistance, so I admire those who are creative and take a different path.

Top three foodie spots in your city?

Koya, Holborn Dining Room, Dishoom, Hawksmoor and La Fromagerie Bloomsbury. I could list another 10 other brilliant spots like Spring in Somerset House, Tacos el Pastor and Violet Cakes, but the five listed above are places I frequent more than any other.

Most beautiful outdoor space?

Hampstead Heath. I never tire of its rambling paths, rustling trees and manifold plants, not to mention the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. It’s a much-needed sanctuary in a hectic city, and my favourite time to go swimming in the pond is late spring when the ducklings are bobbing around in the water…

Best place for fresh produce?

Without a doubt, Andreas of Chelsea. His commitment to quality is exceptional – I wish all greengrocers and supermarkets in Britain would take a leaf out of his book and provide consumers with a better standard of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Follow Signe on Instagram and Twitter.

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Win a copy of Signe’s new cookbook Solo: The Joy of Cooking for One

Try Signe’s recipe for Late-Night Miso Ramen

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By Signe Johansen