Irmin Schmidt Of Can On Food And Cooking (Plus A Recipe Tip)

Please sir, I want more! Renowned conductor and founder member of Can Irmin Schmidt tells the Quietus about his love of cooking, gives you a recipe, and explains how a tin of okra nearly cost Can their name

Pic: Irmin Schmidt and Wim Wenders

Growing up poor taught me to make do and invent

I grew up during the war, then after the war it was a very poor time for us. Our house was bombed to nothing, and we were often starving. What impressed me was that my mother always succeeded in making little dinners that everybody liked. She’d make a potato salad that didn’t have any real mayonnaise. With flour, water and vinegar she’d make a kind of mayonnaise that was delicious, actually.

A good chef understands the importance of leftovers

I have a big respect for food because of those times when throwing away something or letting it rot was such a sin, so heartbreaking, because you didn’t have a lot anyway. So now I can’t throw away anything, and I think the most important ability when you cook is that you are always able to make a new dish from leftovers.

Can taught me about democracy in the kitchen

I was educated to be totally in charge, because I was a conductor controlling 90 people. But on the other hand, I founded Can because I wanted to be with a bunch of people who I don’t control, where there is no boss. Some of my closest friends, a couple, come to visit from time to time and stay for a week or so. They are incredible, excellent cooks, so we sometimes work from midday on to make an incredibly sophisticated meal for the evening. Nobody controls, we just find out who does what. It is total teamwork.

When it comes to ingredients, place of origin is more important than price

The biggest misconception is that you have to use extremely expensive foods. On the other hand, vegetables have to be fresh, and I think that you should buy food from the region where you live, and not buy asparagus that is flown in from South Africa at Christmas. I eat asparagus when it is growing here, around me. Living in the South of France there are wonderful markets, and there are farms around us that produce wonderful vegetables. And meat, I would never eat lamb from New Zealand, because there are lambs raised in the Roussillon. I will always buy at the local butcher.

Meat is best when cooked simply

It’s important not to overdo it with chi-chi flavours. I put it in the oven, with neither spices nor garlic, I leave it pure, and not over-cooked.

You need good toys

I have a cooker with five gas hobs and it’s so big that I could nearly fit a whole lamb into the oven. Of course you need very good knives, and good cooking pots. These should be of good materials, but they don’t need to be too expensive. I found iron cook pots in the sale at the supermarket, and they were excellent quality.

Duck breast with Cassis is quick and impresses the guests

I take the duck breast and put it in a pan on the meat side until it is nicely frying, but not through at all, only so the surface is nicely browned. I use nut oil and butter. The fat side I cut in little squares, and then I put the duck breast under the grill so that the fat side is grilled – and only that side. That lasts exactly nine minutes. In the nine minutes I throw away the excess fat, and balsamico into the pan, and let it fry, and then I add Cassis, and let it cook until it gets thick. I put a tiny bit of mustard into it, and pepper and soya sauce to make it salty. You can always correct it if it is a little too sweet. In the end, I mix it carefully with a big piece of butter, and the sauce becomes very creamy. Making the sauce takes exactly nine minutes. In this nine minutes, the duck breast is ready, and inside it should still be quite red. I like to serve it with peas; they are one of the only vegetables that don’t have to be fresh, they can be deep frozen.

Making your own stock doesn’t have to be hard

When I eat fish I put the bones and the head and the leftovers in the deep freezer, and when there is enough I put it in a big pot with water and some spices and make a stock. I do this with different meats too.

It surprises me how many people can’t cook pasta

Everybody knows pasta should be al dente, and not overcooked. But few people do it, and most people cook it for far too long. You should never let it dry out too much when you throw the water away. Always keep a tiny a bit of the water so the pasta stays moist.

English food can be wonderful, if cooked by someone in a bad mood

English cuisine has had a bad time all over Europe. They say that in Holland and England you should always eat at the Chinese or Indian restaurant. This is totally wrong. I was in Hay-On-Wye to visit April Ashley [famous British transexual model] and she came with us to a restaurant in the countryside where there was not much choice. She said ‘eat the kidney pie’. So far I had eaten only kidney pie on tour, and it was always a disgusting meal. The funny thing was that from the kitchen you could hear a couple, he was serving, she was cooking. They both barked and swore at each other in the most vulgar way. The door opened and he came out, still swearing, and put this plate on the table with a big bang. But the kidney pie was actually divine.

A can of okra nearly cost Can our name

We didn’t know what to call the record and we didn’t have any cover ideas until just by chance, in the window of a Turkish food shop, we saw this can, made by a Turkish company called Can who put Okra in a tin. There were about 20 of them, arranged in a display. We saw it, and thought ‘this is a funny idea’, and made a photograph of it, and called the record Ege Bamyasi, which is Turkish for okra. We wrote to the Turkish company to tell them we have been called Can for a couple of years, and told them that we made this cover, and might send it to them, and we would love to do a promotional thing, like sending cans to journalists. We got a letter back from their lawyers saying ‘you are not allowed to call yourselves Can, and if you continue to do so, we will sue you’. I’m not such a big fan of okra anyway, it isn’t really my vegetable.

Irmin Schmidt’s score for Wim Wender’s Palermo Shooting is out now on Mute Records. Irmin will conduct the Babelsburg Film Orchestra playing The Music Of Wim Wenders – Live at the Berlin Tempodrom at some point in the New Year – the gig has been postponed from December 3rd. Irmin Schmidt’s collaboration with his son-in-law Kumo Axolotl Eyes is out now

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