One smart cookie: for parties big or small, he knows the score

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am


Actuary Frank Buck's job requires a good head for figures and an ability to focus on fine detail. He brings those qualities to bear on his hobby, cooking for family and friends - sometimes large numbers of them. He can barely remember when he was not interested in cooking and says he was able to handle a Sunday roast by the age of seven - with, he concedes, parental supervision. He likes to cook European and Asian food, and his apartment features a well-equipped kitchen and, on the verandah, a barbecue large enough to take three turkeys; conveniently the number he needed to cook last year for Thanksgiving.

When did you start cooking seriously?

In my 20s. I got frustrated eating at mediocre restaurants when I knew I could cook a lot better myself.

Did you start off with traditional English dishes?

Initially, yes. I liked Indian food, so I started cooking that as well. I'd see something in a restaurant and think: 'That's nice, I'm sure I can do that', and then find out how to do it.

Did that involve spending a lot of time studying recipes?

I have a collection of cookbooks, most of which I've had for a long while. I usually use the recipe the first time unchanged, and after that I'll make alterations. I like reading about food, but I'm more interested in the recipes themselves.

Do you go through phases of liking different styles of food?

I'm not sure that I go through phases. Things develop over time. I'll try something from Thailand, something from Vietnam. What I think I'm good at is balancing flavours - which may or may not be from the same cuisine.

You like entertaining at home?

Yes. We have dinner parties, usually for eight people or maybe 10 or 12, and we have two major parties every year - one for Thanksgiving and one for the Fourth of July. My wife is American, and my birthday is on July 2, so we combine the celebrations. For those we have 60 or 70 people. I like cooking for large parties. For the biggest, we had more than 150 people, and I did all the cooking. If you can cook for 10, you can cook for 50. It's not more difficult exponentially. You just have to know the quantities and plan it.

Where do you go shopping for food?

I shop in the markets for vegetables. Central Market in particular, Wan Chai Market for spices, and I go to Great for my meat, although that can be expensive.

Have you invested heavily in your kitchen here?

We haven't spent a lot of money. In our house in New York, we had a very nice kitchen with a big double oven and a griddle top. You can't do that in a rented apartment. We have a slightly larger than normal stove, and I bought some butcher's block surfaces from Ikea. We bought a stone griddle at an exhibition at the Convention Centre. For pots and pans, I go to Shanghai Street.

How would you describe your style?

I don't really know - eclectic? Fairly classic in many dishes. I like to have things that blend together. I'm not into molecular cuisine. It's about 60/40 West to East - I like Spanish, French and Greek cuisine. I'm probably more flavour- than health-conscious. I like to use olive oil, which is healthy, and butter from time to time. I use very little salt and when I bake, which is rare, I'll put in about half the amount of sugar the recipe states.

Do your trips abroad influence your cooking?

Oh, yes. I like to eat locally, and I travel often for business. Recently I've visited Bangkok, Sydney, Beijing and Seoul. In general, I'm not very fond of Korean food. I like Sydney. I enjoy London, although my favourite restaurant in London has closed down. Alastair Little in Soho. I used to love that place.

Are you working from any particular cookery book at the moment?

My latest book was a present from somebody who was staying with us, a Spanish cookbook, which is fascinating [The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden]. It has over 100 pages on the history before you get to the recipes. I've been cooking quite a few recipes from that.