Rachel De Thample’s World of Fermentation – a podcast

Rachel De Thample’s World of Fermentation – a podcast

On the final weekend in May, we’re heading to Axminster for the River Cottage Festival. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s esteemed establishment celebrates their 20th anniversary this year, so it’s a pleasure and a delight that we’re able to go along and take them some very fine non-alcoholic drinks. 

In the run-up to this, we’ve been chatting with some of the people closely associated with what River Cottage is doing. Last month we chatted with foodie mastermind, Gelf Alderson, and this month it’s the turn of their fermentation expert, Rachel De Thample. Known initially as a chef, then as a journalist, she is also known for her previous work with Abel & Cole, for her urban foraging passions and for her books.

She’ll be hosting a panel discussion involving Real Kombucha founder, David Begg, at the festival, but before that, we caught up with Rachel in her kitchen as she put the finishing touches to the latest River Cottage handbook. Touching on all things fermented, we were keen to get her take on the resurgence of interest in this style of food preparation. 

While we don’t ever flavour our brews here at Real Kombucha, we nonetheless find it fascinating when someone as skilled and experimental as Rachel starts digging around and looking at what might be possible. We arrived at her flat to find something akin to a laboratory, with our interviewee sat in the middle of it all brandishing what looked like a cheesecake. And that’s where our conversation began… 

This is the fun part about coming and doing these podcasts. I always somehow manage to get the chef or the interviewee to serve me food. 

Good! [Laughs] A cunning plan!

So, what am I eating? 

So, we have a cashew cheesecake but it’s made with one of my favourite kombuchas. I call it kombuchai. I basically make a black chai tea with loads of spices, and then ferment it. I fermented the cashews with the kombuchai and used it as a base, so it’s almost like a fermented cashew cheesecake. So instead of using probiotics I’ve used the kombucha, which gives it the acidity as well. 

I’d like to think you’re doing this because I’ve just turned up, but you’re doing it because you’re writing and putting together recipes for the River Cottage fermentation book, is that right? 

That’s correct, yes. 

Tell me a bit about that. 

Yeah! It’s exciting. I got into fermentation quite some time ago. I’ve always been really interested. My granny used to always make sauerkrauts, and I had lots of fermented foods as a child, although they weren’t labelled as that – they weren’t hipster or trendy, they were just foods, and it was just a way of preserving things. 

Then about seven years ago I was feeling really sluggish and tired and run down. I was eating really well and doing all the right things (apart from sleeping enough), so I went to see a nutritionist and did some tests and she found out I had no good bacteria in my gut. It was from, I suspect, growing up in the States and having loads of antibiotics as a kid, and never anything to rebalance my gut bacteria. So I did this really boring exclusion diet – I had to give up alcohol and sugar and lots of things. I started to have alcoholic alternatives like water kefir and kombucha in the evenings and when I went out.

Once I’d done this detox for a while, then I started doing a course of dairy kefir on an empty stomach in the morning for three weeks. Initially, I thought my stomach was going to explode! Apparently that’s completely normal, and I know other people who’ve had that experience because basically there’s a new party going on and you’re repopulating your gut. You just carry on with that and then suddenly you feel completely amazing and have loads of energy back. I had eczema and it had gone away, so I had a visual sign that something had been fixed. I thought, wow, this is amazing. I like the taste of fermented foods but there’s this whole other layer.  

I was buying in this kefir and it was quite expensive. I try to keep my food as handmade and local as possible, and I’m a chef as well, so I like experimenting. So I started making this stuff myself. And it’s totally obsessive! It’s quite daunting at the beginning – you think you’re going to poison yourself! [Laughs] And then you realise you’re not poisoning yourself and it’s really easy, and there’s just endless flavour experiments and avenues. 

So I started brewing kombucha, and I’ve done all these different flavours. These ones [points around her] are quite clean. I’ve done one with chai, I’ve done one with coffee… There’s a local coffee roaster and he does this really gorgeous honey-processed coffee, so this is a double-fermented product. The honey process is when they pick the coffee cherry, they take off most of the flesh of the fruit around the bean, but they keep this sticky honey layer and they ferment it in the sun and it just gives it a lovely sweetness. 

So I do coffee kombucha, I’ve done a sencha, Earl Grey… I do Earl Grey with marmalade sometimes, as well. In the second fermentation I’ll blend some marmalade through it and then strain it, and it just gives a little citrusy note, and that’s kind of like a breakfast kombucha. 

We’re surrounded by them here at this table! I should explain. We’ve got a Kilner jar… 

Yeah. I’m doing this really lovely event this week and they wanted non-alcoholic cocktails, so I’m doing fermented drinks. It’s a garden-themed canapé party, so I’ve done some lavender from my garden and camomile. 

So, I’m sitting here with four different bottles – honey-processed coffee kombucha, Earl Grey kombucha, we’ve got sencha, we’ve got kombuchai. Then, to my right there’s that Kilner jar, and in the kitchen I can see three… four… six more, I think. It’s like a brewery in itself. 

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage has become really obsessed with kombucha, and all the chefs now are brewing kombucha. We’re all kind of learning together, which is really good fun.

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The @rivercottagehq garden is springing into life. I’ve been feasting from it for the past two days. These blossoming espalier, step-over apple trees, framing the brassica bed, are particularly stunning. @gavinkingcome and I had fun photographing my rhubarb ginger beer in this spot yesterday. The sky unexpectedly started to throw some ice into our glasses of gingery pink fizz. In the photo the glasses look like we’d frosted them in the freezer like pros but in fact it was freezing and we were being pelleted with hail stones! A beautiful image though, and will probably end up being my favourite in the Fermentation handbook. . If you haven’t been to @rivercottagehq, come to the Spring Fair 25-26 May. I’ll be there with Hugh and the rest of the team. @ottolenghi will be there too. I’ll be cooking over the fire with @gill.meller, teaching classes in the cookery school, as will @naomiannedevlin – who has some amazing masterclasses lined up! At some point I’ll be talking about Fermentation on one of the stages. Pop onto the River Cottage website for tickets and full details. . #spring #rivercottage #garden #rhubarb #apple #espalier #blossom #fermentation #food52

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So, you’ve got all the chefs at River Cottage making kombucha? 

Yeah. Hugh started it because he brought all of his scobys in to have a play with, and then I got reeled in because they were like, “You’ve written a book that talks about kombucha, so help!” It’s great because you can’t stop learning and everyone’s experiments are quite different. Also, brewing in different atmospheres – in the country verses the city; in a flat verses a commercial kitchen. It’s lovely. 

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve found in working with fermentation? Is it that: the fact that it’s never the same twice? 

Yeah, and trying to get that consistency as well. But also really paying attention to what’s going on, and knowing how to get to the same place even though there are different hurdles along the road.

The book I’m doing is going to have a drinks chapter which will cover kombuchas and other fermented drinks. I’m also doing a baking bread chapter. I was preparing for a sourdough course the other day and my scales had broken. For sourdough, scales are quite important just to get the balance right, but they were broken and I was making up stuff. I was kinda making the recipe up as well [laughs]. I had a base recipe and I was going to tweak it and evolve it. I just had to make it and remember the texture of the dough and look at the rise, and actually it was completely perfect and I was really happy! I’d got to that point where I could just completely evolve with it and not be too scared. I always try to tell people that when I teach: don’t be too stuck to recipes because it does change all the time. Ingredients change, the atmosphere changes, the air pressure… all these things have an effect. 

I’ve spoken to some chefs who have said they didn’t think it’s a good idea to cook with kombucha because you’re killing the kombucha. But if you can get over that ethical hurdle… [laughs]… 

The thing is, there are lots of things you can do where you’re not cooking it, too. My son is not a massive fan of kombucha, but I make a salad dressing with it. So he’s not a massive fan of drinking it on its own, but he loves this salad dressing. I’ll make it in a jam jar and he’ll literally drink it! I just do 50% kombucha and 50% olive oil. Really it doesn’t need any extra sweetness because the kombucha has it. So it’s just two ingredients that are quite healthy, and you’re not cooking it. 

I’ll also use it to finish a soup and it’ll get a bit of heat contact, but you’re not boiling it. Also, just finishing a sauce, or like I’ve done with this cheesecake which is completely raw and not cooked, and you’re getting all the benefits. And it’s natural, so rather than using a probiotic tablet to ferment it… and you have the flavour as well. 

It’s delicious. You’re from the States, aren’t you, originally? 

Yes. 

I think we, the kombucha community in the UK, makes the assumption that everyone now in the States is drinking kombucha. It’s huge! 

It is quite big, yeah. 

But it wasn’t when you were younger? It’s not something you were drinking? 

No, no. But I was there 23 years ago. That’s when I left the States. But when I go back now, it’s so exciting. One of my favourite places, similar to Whole Foods, is called Central Market. They must have 20 brands, and then each brand has three or four flavours on the shelf. It’s literally a whole shelf. It’s almost like the wine aisle! They have really exciting flavours, although some of them don’t always deliver. I kind of like that because then it’s my challenge to go home and make something that delivers on what they’re trying to do. 

An example of that, and I’ve made variations on this: there was an oak-aged blackberry kombucha, so I made one. I just brewed a normal kombucha and then pressed some fresh blackberries through a sieve to make a pulp, then added it to the kombucha for the second fermentation in the bottle, and I added some lavender to it. Then I toasted some oak in a frying pan – some oakwood chips and made a teabag… 

What, just pulled off a tree? 

Well, no [laughs]. I have a friend with a smokehouse. But you could do that! I do foraging walks and I tell people you can. You don’t pull it off the tree, but if there are fallen branches about you can use them. Toast the wood and use it in cooking! I’ve done oakwood teabags when I’m fermenting the kombucha. It’s really delicious. 

Do you have a favourite kombucha that you’ve seen in the States, or perhaps a preference as to whether it’s flavoured or non-flavoured? 

I like playing around with flavouring it myself, but when I’m buying it I think I prefer something really clean. I think one of my favourites is a jasmine tea, and that’s one of the first ones I started making. I’d get these jasmine pearls from Jing Tea and I’d brew it with quite cool water, so you get a really clean flavour profile and you’re not heating the tea leaves. Especially green and white teas, they have all these downy little hairs when viewed under a microscope, and if you put boiling water over them you kill them off. You brew in really cool water over a long period of time and you get this really… something almost like a champagne, I think. 

I’ve also done one with a tea from a place in Borough Market, Tea2You, that is darjeeling-based. They do a white darjeeling with Indian rosebuds, and I made a jun with that with some honey from Devon that was also sold in Borough Market. I was doing a fermentation workshop in Borough Market for River Cottage, so I was pulling all the ingredients from the market. That, by far, was one of my favourite homemade kombuchas ever. It was really clean. It was like a rosé wine, actually. I think that’s what’s nice: when you can get it to being a really acceptable alternative to alcohol

I would agree! 

Why do you think it is that people are suddenly so interested in fermentation again? 

I think there’s a real mix of reasons. One of the primary ones is not necessarily the flavour but the health benefits. Our diets have changed so much and devolved from where they should be, in terms of eating lots of processed stuff and not as much fresh food. We used to have fermented foods as a regular staple in our diets. Really we should be having at least one fermented food a day, and if you can have one with every meal, all the better. It helps keep your gut bacteria in check and it helps you with digestion and energy and all that. So I think people are really seduced by that, and they want to be healthier. 

So that’s one of the primary reasons, and then once they get sucked in they realise it’s packed full of umami flavours. It has so much flavour. If you try a homemade sourdough, even verses a commercial sourdough… Sourdough verses a normal loaf of bread… To me, I just think there’s no taste comparison. The sourdough has so much more flavour. It’s just had time to develop and evolve, and that’s what makes fermented foods so amazingly delicious.  

Your background is to do with writing, and you’ve written several books, but you were also a chef working with the likes of Marco Pierre White. Was fermented food a part of what you did in those places, or have you noticed it developing as a trend? 

Definitely developing. I think the first fermented food I came across in my food career was kombucha, and that was in this PR company where I was a copywriter for restaurants. We had a kombucha brand. 

When would that have been? 

It was in the early 2000s. Almost 20 years ago, which is amazing. It had a moment. I was working in Soho next to Whole Foods and they sold it there. It was the only brand and it didn’t explode into this trend like it has now. I don’t know why. It was quite a hippy-looking brand. Lots of rainbows and mandalas. 

But nobody was doing sauerkrauts or lacto-fermented pickles or any of that stuff, which was quite sad. And now you go into places like the Little Duck Picklery and Ducksoup and they have jars and jars everywhere. It’s become quite trendy to walk into a restaurant and see their fermentation. I need to talk to Gelf to see if we can have some shelves ladened with crazy jars and make it look a little bit more like my kitchen [laughs].

When is the book coming out? 

I think it’s out in September next year. It was due out in January but I’ve been adding things to it. I have an allotment, and I think it’s quite good because it was really sunny the other day and I was writing. I thought, I’m just going to take a break and go to the allotment for a bit. I was there and my gooseberries were coming out and I’d totally forgotten that last year I was making elderflower champagne, but I also made some with gooseberries because I thought they’d give it that nice dry sharpness. And the allotment reminded me to put that in the book [laughs]. Had I not gone to my allotment, that recipe wouldn’t have been available. I keep thinking of new things and coming across new ideas. 

It must be hard to know where to stop. 

I think I’ll stop when my editor starts really shouting! At the moment they’re being really nice, but someone’s going to tell me to stop at some stage. 

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Sorting and sowing seeds for my allotment this morning and I’ve got a lovely collection of saved seeds from various friend’s gardens: lemon drop chilli from Jeremy who I’m currently making queso fresco with on Thursdays @gringadairy (I’m planning to ferment the chillies in whey left from cheesemaking to turn into a mild hot sauce). I have a lovely packet of lovage seeds (which I’ve been using in pickles) from @oliver_rowe_london. My friend Colin gave me these amazing Cherokee trail of tears heritage black beans. I dried some the edamame I got from @robinsansai last summer, and I have a few bags of patron pepper seeds from my son’s primary school’s Edible Playground. The compost I have is made from kitchen scraps @theledbury. Saving seeds and taking cuttings is the loveliest way to cultivate your garden, especially when it weaves in connections to others people and places. #growyourown #gardening #seedsaving #organicgardening #compost

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Thank you very much. 

Thank you. 

I’m going to go and finish the cheesecake now. 

Lovely!  

10 top kombucha spots – our pick for April

10 top kombucha spots – our pick for April

We’re whipping through the year at what seems like a crazy rate. So let’s slow down a little, grab a chair somewhere nice and savour the flavours of an exquisitely brewed kombucha. Not sure where to start? We’ve got a few recommendations for you… 

Kombucha bars, pubs and restaurants – the best of April

Whole Foods Market (outlets across London) may seem like an obvious choice, but it just became a whole lot more interesting. Yep, Real Kombucha is now in stock across all of their stores, which means that the foodies have finally got something non-alcoholic that pairs superbly with the freshest produce. It’s what you’ve all been waiting for!

 
 
 
 
 
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Vinoteca (outlets across London) does all the good things right. They dedicate their energies towards creating enticing spots for wine, conversation and food. But how does a wine specialist cater to a crowd that’s drinking less? In this case, they’ve started serving kombucha – a real alternative to the usual non-alcoholic options, and something that demonstrates their sense of adventure. 

 
 
 
 
 
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The Blue Boat (Fulham) is a great spot if you like gorgeous London sunsets over the water (who doesn’t?!) It’s dedicated to life on the water, so make sure you get there relatively early and secure yourself an outdoor table port or starboard. The pub is also a Fullers Kitchen, so it’s a top spot for a Sunday lunch – and if you’re on for a roast, we recommend the Smoke House

We love Chard (Brighton) for its back story as much as its rustic simplicity. It’s a family-run business that grew out of a successful pop-up. Now with its own permanent location, they deliver food crafted with real love and care, with each of the dishes made from locally-sourced Sussex produce. You see? What’s not to love? 

There are two branches of Bumpkin, although you’d be forgive for wishing there were more. We’ll start with the South Kensington restaurant, where you can wash down your very British fayre (Bumpkin pie made with ox cheek, anyone? Hold us back!) with a very moreish kombucha. From the dessert menu, we’re big fans of Adrian’s Choc Fudge Brownie – it pairs wonderfully with our Smoke House. That’s a hint, by the way. 

You’ve been able to get Real Kombucha at The Botanist venues across the country for a few months now, but we’ve got our eye on The Canal House (Birmingham) this weekend for a couple of reasons. Firstly, various members of our team are slightly obsessed with Peaky Blinders, and The Canal House looks like it might have seen a Shelby Family member or two in its time. Secondly, they’ve got their very own festival. Head on down to the Waterfront Festival later this month, and grab yourself a booch while you’re at it. By order of the… 

If you’re up in Cambridge and you’re after a healthy but hearty chowdown, head to Doppleganger Burger. They specialise in American diner food done the vegan way. With no less than seven vegan burgers on the menu, they’re a huge hit with the plant-based community, and the ideal spot to get your booch on over lunch. 

We love somewhere that knows its art from its elbow, so we’ll take any opportunity to drop into Sketch (Mayfair, London), where you’re literally elbow to elbow with some truly mind-blowing pieces. If you’re not in a drinking mood as you take in this part gallery, part tea room, part wine bar establishment, you’ll be pleased to hear that they’re now serving a kombucha of real artistry. Not that we like to blow our own trumpets or anything… 

One of London’s best-loved coffee shop chains now stocks one of its best-loved kombuchas. Yep, we’re talking about Notes, which now has establishments in Bond Street, Victoria, Bank, Gherkin, Kings Cross, Canary Wharf Crossrail, Canary Wharf Jubilee, Moorgate and Trafalgar Square. Just as you’re never far from a decent cup of Joe when you’re near a Notes, the same can now be said for a decent kombucha. 

Regular readers of our blog will know that we’re all about offering non-alcoholic options to foodies who want something sophisticated to pair their food with. So you’ll understand why we’re so delighted when we find a restaurant that thinks along the same lines, just as the Felin Fach Griffin (near Hay On Wye) does. Some of their supper clubs look like the mother of all FOMO. Thank goodness they have bedrooms. We’ll see you there!

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Well last nights #winesupper #greekwinesupper #griffinsupperclub appears to have gone down really well But did you know we can cater for the non-drinker/designated driver at these events too? And not with boring old (sorry) Becks Blue and a few fruit juices….We love the new drinks emerging to create flavourful drinks that can be matched with food. We’re experimenting with a number of Kefir drinks and @willysacv Apple Cider Kombucha but at present we are using @realkombucha and @bigdropbrewco for some extra exciting matches. While the wine officianados were quaffing Greek masterpieces from #eclecticwines we matched with Kombucha and Stout. @joinclubsoda #mindfuldrinking #mindfuldrinkingisntboring

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Pairing exquisite non-alcoholic drinks with the finest food

Pairing exquisite non-alcoholic drinks with the finest food

One of the biggest hurdles that a non-drinker faces is choice. Non-alcoholic drinks have long been limited to sugary, unsophisticated offerings – so much so that they often say they feel overlooked. Real Kombucha is brewed with that at the forefront of our minds. We offer a genuine, sophisticated, exquisitely prepared choice for people who are keen to rejoin the party

If you’re a restaurateur, a hotel manager, a caterer, a pub owner, a chef or a bartender who recognises that it’s time for change, take a look at our video below. You can contact us via our kombucha stockists page, which also contains all the info you need in terms of wholesalers we work with and other stocking options. 

We look forward to hearing from you. 

Getting Sober Curious with Ruby Warrington – a Podcast Interview

Getting Sober Curious with Ruby Warrington – a Podcast Interview

The language around being a non-drinker is ultimately insubstantial. In this week’s Real Podcast, Jon Wilks chats to Ruby Warrington about the ways in which communication can hinder someone new to a less alcohol-dependent life, just as much as a lack of choice can. On the way, they discuss the demise of ladette culture, the differences between US and UK drinking culture, and the ways in which the world is now opening up to alternative drinking and eating habits.

Click on the player below to listen. Alternatively, scroll down to read the full interview. 

“‘Oh god, you’re not drinking? Don’t be so boring. Oh, you’re ruining everything. Oh, go on! We were meant to be having a nice night out.’ Suddenly, your simple choice – three simple words: I’m not drinking – can mean everyone else’s night is ruined. And that just seems crazy when you take a step back and look at what’s really going on.”

A familiar sounding scenario for many people who, for whatever reason, choose not to drink. And that’s why we’re talking in this week’s Real Podcast with Ruby Warrington. Formerly the Features Editor on the Sunday Times Style Magazine, Ruby has recently written Sober Curious, a fascinating book that offers a non-preachy take on our relationship with alcohol. Through her own experience, she details the benefits she has discovered from unlearning what she calls “the mindless habit of drinking” and pursuing the possibilities offered by a sober curious lifestyle. And, as you’ll hear, that doesn’t necessarily mean giving up alcohol entirely, but instead taking an active interest in what a sober life might offer to you. We met up in Central London to find out where the sober curious life has led Ruby so far. 

Getting Sober Curious with Ruby Warrington

You were telling me before this interview started that sober curiosity is something you’ve been talking about for three or four years. 

Outwardly vocalising and encouraging other people to get sober curious for about three and a half or four years, I suppose. I think I wrote a blog post for my blog about being sober curious in the summer of 2015, maybe. I don’t know the exact date. 

My definition of what it means to be sober curious is to literally question every impulse, every invitation or every expectation to drink, whether it’s on your behalf or in the eyes of others, rather than just go along with the dominant drinking culture. And so, based on that description, I have been sober curious for about eight or nine years now – really just bringing this questioning mindset to all the different situations I’ve found myself expected to drink. It has been quite a long journey. The lessons learnt and the experiences along the way are all shared in my new book. 

It has been very interesting to witness what began as such a personal thing now really begin to blossom. I see so many other people getting sober curious, too. It’s really fascinating. When I wrote for magazines I was always really most interested in writing those kind of zeitgeisty, social trend pieces – I think I’ve always just had quite an antenna for what’s in the public mood, I suppose. This was definitely not something I approached in a calculated way, like, “what’s going to be the next trend in drinking?” It was just very much feeling attuned to my own instincts about this mindless drinking culture that we’ve been consumed by for probably the latter half of the 20th century, up to now. It just started to feel out of alignment with our values collectively, as well as my values as a person. It’s a personal story and a mission and a quest, I suppose, that reflects a much bigger shift societally. 

And if you pick up the book you get the sense straight away that it’s not a zeitgeisty thing because it’s something that you have lived. Again, we talked before about our similarities before the interview [we both come from a journalistic background and we both found ourselves having difficult relationships with alcohol], but you talk in your book about being in Camden in the 90s, and ladette culture and that kind of thing. While I wasn’t part of the ladette culture, I was certainly in Camden in the mid-90s and… 

…But you would’ve been part of the male equivalent, which was the Nuts, Loaded thing. Similarly, it was very much about this life of debauchery and it being a kind of badge of honour, in a way, wasn’t it? 

Absolutely. And yes, that Britpop era where your icons were heavy drinkers: your Liam Gallaghers, your Graham Coxons… 

Exactly. Have you read Kill Your Friends? That typifies, in a very exaggerated, bombastic way, this culture of excessive consumption. And it was a reflection of excessive consumption that was happening in terms of material goods as well. It’s all wrapped up in the same vibe. 

There’s a really interesting quote in your book… let me just find it. You talk a bit about the idea of the modern woman at that time being, “emancipated by having a pint of beer in her hand”. What do you think happened to the ladette? 

Oh, the ladette maybe over-indulged a bit and had to go, “What’s going on here?” [Laughs] It’s funny: someone sent me a picture of Zoe Ball from that era the other day. She’s kind of my doppelgänger in many ways, particularly when we were both that age. I think Zoe Ball doesn’t drink now. When drinking to excess has been your norm, I think there naturally will come a point – whether it’s your classic rock bottom that we hear about often in terms of people’s recovery stories – or a subtler rock bottom, which might look like an inability to feel optimistic about life, or feeling really pissed off and angry that your entire weekend is given over to hangovers and you don’t actually get any real time off.

Sober Curious author, Ruby Warrington

There are degrees of crisis point, I suppose. I think for anyone who has been drinking to excess for a long period of time, you’ll reach some kind of a crisis point that’s like, “No more! I just can’t continue with this!” For a long, long time, the only language or the only path that we’ve been presented with if you reach that point is, “Well, there’s AA for you and you’re an alcoholic. Have this label and that’s a done deal. Goodbye.” I never felt that was very fair, actually… although fair isn’t the right word. It didn’t feel to me inclusive enough. I felt that, for myself and for many people in my community and my peer group, we were having this question with alcohol but didn’t necessarily see ourselves as alcoholics or candidates for a 12-step programme. And so the sober curious idea came about when we said, “well, what if we all just spoke about this openly? Perhaps we’d find some other solutions.” You know, collaboration is how we breed ingenuity and progress. So it was like, let’s just talk about what’s going on here and see what comes out of it. 

The alcoholic thing is a really interesting point. Obviously, you will know – and anyone who tries to take a break from drinking for whatever reason will know – that doing so comes with a huge amount of inquisition. So you can’t go to a pub with your friends without being treated almost as a sort of pariah. One of the things that I always find myself having to explain is that I wasn’t an alcoholic. There’s no description for myself. The only description for myself comes with a lot of explaining, that tends to be along the lines of, “I didn’t wake up in the morning desperate for a drink, but I couldn’t go out to a bar without having four.” 

Right. There’s this grey area which doesn’t really have language around it. I’m still making it up. People often say to me, “So, are you sober now?” And I say, “I’m not sober but I don’t drink.” Even the word sober has so many connotations. If I said I was sober, people would automatically assume – and I would actually feel that I was implying – that I’m completely abstinent from alcohol because I’m recovering from the disease of alcoholism. And that’s not my story. I’m not sober. I may occasionally have a sip of wine at a toast during a wedding. I wouldn’t consider that a relapse, whereas if I was sober that might be termed a relapse and it’d have all these other kind of implications. It’s complicated. I think there needs to be even more language around it, which is what I’m attempting to stimulate by having this discussion. 

Again, this comes across a lot in the book, and it’s obviously attached to what you do in other parts of your life: there’s a lot of conversation there that overlaps with what you might call mindfulness. The idea of having stories [about yourself, and being aware that they’re just stories] is a fascinating one. You go out and you have to present a story, for whatever reason – you feel pressured to present a story as to why you aren’t drinking. And actually you’re presenting that story to yourself on a daily basis. 

There isn’t a succinct way of phrasing it, right? I’m a human being and that means I’m biologically very susceptible to becoming dependant on alcohol – a beverage which meets many of my biological needs in terms of my emotional needs.

In the book, I quote from a brilliant book called The Biology of Desire, which is by a guy called Mark Lewis, who is a former opioids addict turned brain scientist. He can really speak to what’s actually going on in our brains when we develop an attachment to something. (The subheading is, “Why addiction is not a disease” – which is highly controversial [laughs]. But without controversy, how do we have progress?) He talks about the desire function of our brain, which shows that we’re biologically hardwired to seek out and repeat any experience that either brings us pleasure or takes away our pain.

Alcohol, on a very superficial level, can appear to do both of those things. As a human being with a complicated life, especially considering the billions of pounds of advertising and marketing revenue spent by the alcohol industry every year to make sure that we perceive alcohol as the answer when we desire pleasure or when we are feeling pain, it’s really hard not to become dependent on it. 

So, what am I? I’m a valuable human being [laughs] who happens to live in a culture where alcohol is celebrated.

And we’ll come on to that, because I think that finally we’re starting to see real change.

Yes, definitely. 

But before we go there… some of those questions [that you pose in the book] that are really worth emphasising, because I think for some of the people who listen to this, these will resonate. You ask these questions: “How come I feel like an outsider? A weirdo?” This was an interesting one: “I sometimes feel that I’m a problem to other people if I don’t drink.” Without wanting you to paraphrase the book entirely, how do you go about answering some of those questions? 

This is really the peer-pressure piece. When the group activity is drinking, for many of us in our society, we grow up in a culture where most of our group activities outside of sporting occasions revolve around alcohol. And even when the sporting activities have finished, many of us will drink. How many of my friends have run a marathon, and the first thing they do is go to the pub? [Laughs] By simply saying, “I’m not going to drink”, you’re marking yourself as an outsider, and that can be very uncomfortable.

Rubby Warrington holding a copy of Sober Curious

Again, we’re biologically hardwired to fit in, to be accepted, to not want to make ourselves stand out or be ‘other’ or ‘different’. So, of course, by marking yourself as different by saying “I’m not drinking”, immediately you become a mirror for everyone else to look at their drinking – a mirror for them to examine their own drinking habits. So, very often, you’re going to have all of their insecurities and their own subconscious questions about their drinking projected onto you, and that’s a really uncomfortable place to willingly put yourself. 

You must be familiar with One Year No Beer? They were telling me about some research that they did recently. For 93% of people in their survey, peer pressure was the number one reason why they chose not to take a break from drinking, or even stop completely. They just didn’t want to have to be answering all of those questions.

The thing about being a problem for other people when you don’t drink, the number of times (and thankfully, maybe because the way that I’ve approached it, my friends have never made me feel this way, but I’ve heard it from lots of other people), “Oh god, you’re not drinking? Don’t be so boring. Oh, you’re ruining everything. Oh, go on! We were meant to be having a nice night out.” Suddenly, your simple choice – three simple words: I’m not drinking – can mean everyone else’s night is ruined. And that just seems crazy when you take a step back and look at what’s really going on.

Absolutely, and I think it comes down to the ingrained culture, certainly in this country. Another thing that really resonated in your book was the fact that you were introduced to alcohol at the age of eight! 

[Laughs] You know, I’ve seen other people with their three-year-old child: “Oh, he’s having a sip of beer. Isn’t it funny!” It’s seen as quite normal. I think my parent, my dad in particular, thought he was doing the responsible thing by not making alcohol this glamorous, exotic, forbidden fruit that I would then binge on as soon as I looked old enough to acquire it. But the hidden implication in that is that it was inevitable that I would become a drinker. It was like, “Ease her in gently rather than making it this forbidden fruit that then becomes something that I binged on or did to excess. I did that anyway! 

It’s very similar. I don’t know what age I would have been, and I think most people have a memory of a similar ilk, but just being allowed to try wine at the table… 

Exactly. 

And then I have a vivid memory of probably being around 11 and going to a family party with everybody drinking, and you [the children] almost being expected to have a shandy. 

Right! Exactly! So my version of shandy, which I wrote about in the book… I discovered at some kind of family picnic… Do you remember Lilt? I don’t think we have Lilt anymore do we? 

I can’t picture seeing it anywhere recently. 

It was quite delicious, though. 

Quite sugary. 

Well, Lilt mixed with white wine! I was making my own alcopops at the age of nine or 10. 

It’s no wonder!

It is no wonder [laughs]. But this is not about placing blame on parents or society. This is just the way things are. For me, the sober curious conversation is not about being right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s just about acknowledging what’s happening, and then cultivating enough trust, self awareness and self belief to know it’s OK to make choices that feel good for you, no matter what’s going on around you, no matter what the pressures might be. 

In your Sober Curious book, and as someone who is promoting sober curiousness, you’re not preaching in any way. When you hear about people not drinking, as you say, quite often it’s like a mirror being held up to them. So their natural reaction is to become slightly defensive and to feel as though, “Oh, god! They’re harping on about that again!” And it’s absolutely not that, is it? The word ‘curious’ takes you away from that in the first place. How do you balance that fine line between a largely non-alcoholic lifestyle and not preaching about it? 

I try to show, not tell. Just by modelling and by behaviour. I would never see it as my place to tell anybody, “You know what? You’re probably drinking a bit too much.” It has happened maybe on one occasion. A close friend was going through a very difficult time in his marriage and I made the subtle suggestion, “You know, if you’re really confused about this, maybe take a break from the drinking. It has really helped me in situations just to feel more clear and more confident.” And so, offering advice but in that same breath saying, “Because in my experience this has been really helpful.” And just being super selective. 

Ruby Warrington, author of Sober Curious

Alcohol ended up presenting as a problem for me, but there are tonnes of people who drink as much as I did who’ve never experienced it as a problem, and that’s fine. It’s about bringing it back to my own experience and really just modelling… like… “life’s great!” [laughs self consciously] … without wanting to appear smug! 

Going back to this idea that it might be a generational thing… at the moment we’ve got this new generation of non-drinkers. Amazing stats. Around 30% of Londoners between the ages of 18 and 24 claim to be teetotal. 

It’s huge. 

It is. And the other day I was reading about students. 38% of students in Britain now don’t drink. I don’t know what they’re doing! [Laughs] 

38%?! That’s amazing. 

So, this Sober Curious Movement… it certainly resonates with me, because I come from that age group where life was seen as better if you were pissed up and having it large, or whatever the terminology was back then. 

[Laughs] 

And that’s just not the case now. At Real Kombucha, we work with a lot of younger people, and it’s much more about life being about experiences. You have that Instagram phrase, #LivingYourBestLife… 

[Laughs] It’s funny, though, because we would’ve thought that living your best life meant cocktails on the beach at sunset in Ibiza. What constitutes “best life”? There’s a shift in values, which is the larger piece I was talking about. We’ve moved away, I think, from this idea that over-consumption or conspicuous consumption is a status symbol. It actually now seems a bit sad and a bit selfish. It just doesn’t fit with out more collaborative, collective, nurturing mentality in general now, you know? 

Well, you used a phrase… I think it was something like “living a more vital life”, or something like that? Or have I got that wrong? 

I might have used something like that. It sounds a bit too #wellness for me, and I’m not really into that. I really don’t like that idea of #LivingYourBestLife. I don’t like this hierarchical terminology that implies that some life is better than another. Because actually, I’m not living a better life. I’m living a life that’s right for me. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t like it purely because it sounds too much like marketing speak. But if you had to have a hashtag around that kind of thing, I quite like it being about living… maybe not a vital life, but the idea that you can do a little more with your life – you can experience a lot more – if you’re not drinking. 

Yes. I prefer, for example, the term “conscious drinking” rather than “mindful drinking”. For me, I want to be conscious. Choosing consciousness means awakeness and awareness. Being really aware of what’s happening in the world, and how I can respond and interact with it. That, to me, is the kind of life I want. I love the fact that you’re called Real Kombucha. It’s about an authentic life for me as well – an authentic life meaning a life that’s aligned with my values – what feels good to me. 

Back in New York (because you’re based in the States), you’ve got your Club SÖDA, which is not the same as London’s Club Soda…

No, we call it Club SÖDA NYC specifically to get around that. But yes, we’ve been doing the Club SÖDA NYC events for just over three years. We always have a different theme at the events, and generally we’ll have featured speakers or a panel discussion on the theme. We may have some kind of interactive activities to get people talking. The whole point of that was to bring this conversation out of the closet and actually make it the focus of the event. Getting people together in a social way where we were specifically saying, “this is about not drinking, and it’s not about being at an AA meeting. This is a different approach to not drinking.” We’ve had dance parties, we’ve had a boozeless brunch, we’ve had all sorts of different, fun ways for people to get together. 

And the book itself? You’re here [in London] to promote it… 

Yes. Not surprisingly, actually, the press response here in the UK was really, really great. And so it just felt like a good time to come over here and do a bit of a launch. It’s my hometown. I did most of my most excessive drinking here [laughs]. And it’s very curious to me how, like you were saying, the alcohol-free movement is moving at warp speed here. And I want to see what’s going on! 

Is that the same in the States? 

It’s definitely picking up speed. The States is so big and, in a way, so segregated. A mass movement will, I think, take longer to gain traction in the US because there are so many different pockets and so many different things happening. But at our events, when we started off at our first event I think we had 70 people, and at the last one we had over 200. Maybe that’s just because more people know about it, etc, but to me it also speaks to the fact that more people are interested in sober socialising. 

To go back to the point that the UK is growing at such as speed, I think that has to do with choice. Before we turned the tape on here, we were talking a lot about things not being black and white. In the foodie world, people are much more interested in having a vegcentric approach, or certainly giving people those options. I always joke (although it’s not really much of a joke) that when I came to university in London in the mid-90s it was unusual to find an avocado in a Tesco. The choice that we have now, both in terms of drinking and eating, has to have an effect on that, don’t you think? 

Sober Curious, the new book from Ruby WarringtonDefinitely. And you would expect the same in America, right? However, another reason I think it’s gaining traction faster here is that alcohol is just woven more into everyday life here. So, whether that means more people have found themselves at that crisis point of, “Hold on, I’m drinking a bottle of wine a night – how did that happen? I’ve got to pull back”, in the US I see a lot more hard liquor on a Friday night, and that’s how people drink. There’s less pressure to drink wine with dinner during the week. I really noticed when I first moved there: nobody would order a bottle of wine in a restaurant – it would always be ordered by the glass. And I think that just speaks volumes. If I was going out for dinner with a friend here it would be a bottle of wine, of course, between the two of us. But there, that would be seen as very excessive on a work night. But people will drink heavily and they’ll do lots of shots and hard liquor when it’s time to drink. They’ll go for it harder. 

But that’s in cities like New York. Across the rest of America, it’s such a driving culture, a lot more drinking happens at home. And so there’s not really this social drinking situation – there’s a lot more drinking behind closed doors, and so I think that alcoholism is a huge problem. But there’s not been such a consumer demand and need for other options in bars because a lot more people are drinking at home. 

It’s really interesting. Even alcohol-free beer… there’s not much of it there. I’m like, “Please Brewdog! Bring me Nanny State!” [Laughs] 

Well, hopefully we’ll get over there eventually. 

Yes! And there is quite a lot of kombucha. Kombucha has exploded off the back of that healthy eating, gut health trend that has been huge there for a while. There’s a lot of kombucha now. 

I always talk about kombucha in this way: you can take a grape and turn it into a Shloer – a sugary soft drink – or you can turn it into champagne or a very fine wine. Neither of those things are any better or worse than the other; they’re just different drinking occasions. In the same way, you can take tea and ferment it into something that’s a health drink, you can add flavours to it and turn it into a flavoured soft drink, or you can take great tea and ferment it into something that doesn’t require flavouring and actually suits non-alcoholic drinking occasions. And that’s really the differentiator between what we’re doing and other brands. 

Yeah, absolutely. I actually tried some unflavoured kombucha recently in Berlin – my brother has been working in a restaurant there. The guy who was running the bar was making his own kombucha. It was so delicious and subtle, compared to what I’m used to in the States. There, it’s about all the flavours, and the maximum different combos. Pink lady and basil was one of my favourites recently! It’s all about what’s new and novel and next. CBD kombucha is now the next big thing. 

But I like the subtleness of this [drinking Royal Flush]. This feels to me like a genuine alternative to a glass of wine, whereas a lot of those heavily flavoured ones feel much more like it’s an alternative to a Coke or a lemonade, or a flavoured soft drink. 

Well, you’ve said all the right things, so you’ve got the job.

[Laughs] But we’re tasting it now and I can still smell it. It’s really delicious. One of the reasons I love alcohol-free beer is that it was a crutch for me on those occasions when, initially, I was feeling awkward in a bar. The alcohol-free beer quietened that voice in my brain and made me realise I was actually just in a bar and it didn’t matter. For anyone who loves wine (because alcohol-free wines tend to be not very good – although that might be changing), I think this would be a great alternative for someone who’s looking for… “What can I have that’s almost a placebo effect on my brain while I get over the initial hump of awkwardness into it becoming my new normal?” Because it does become your new normal. Not drinking in bars is so not a problem for me now. I don’t even think about it. But in the beginning it can be tricky. 

Well, I think there are two things. Certainly, there’s that perception of having something to drink. I always found that if you were able to pour something into a wine glass the questions didn’t happen, because nobody sees that you’re just having a Coke, or whatever. So you don’t have to deal with that social pariah status. And then there’s the slight placebo effect, as you say, of having something to calm your own nerves, your own anxiety. But the third thing is this: if you don’t drink alcohol (and a lot of people find this, whether they’re not drinking because they’re pregnant or they’re the designated driver), the options that you’ve traditionally had are dull. You have one orange juice… 

…I hate orange juice! [Laughs] 

Sparkling water… 

Coke!

I’ll throttle the next person who gives me any elderflower! 

I actually quite like elderflower. 

I’ll have the orange juice, you have the elderflower. The idea of having something that’s complex, sophisticated, interesting in flavour profile as much as anything else… that’s what we’ve been missing. 

It’s similar to having been a “plant curious” eater, which I have been for around a similar amount of time – you start to feel like a bit of a second class citizen, and a bit pissed off. “Oh, another risotto. Great.” And that can be off-putting if you really want to make a sustainable change. It’s like, “God! Is this the future of my eating out, being confined to choosing the one thing off the menu?” It’s just a bit miserable. 

Absolutely. And while you’re back in London, find a way to eat the cooking of Joey O’Hare. She’s pretty interesting. 

Where does she cook? 

She used to do pop-ups, so at the moment you’d have to go and knock on her door and beg her! She writes recipes and she’s very much about fermentation, using things like kombucha. She talks about how animal meat under heat does interesting things, but vegetables don’t. But actually, if you use fermentation, you can bring some really interesting flavours out. 

And the other person I was chatting to and interviewing the other day is a bloke called Jamie Park. He cooks around the corner from here in a place called The Frog. It’s a very cutting edge, Michelin restaurant, and it’s at the forefront of trying things out. As he says himself, he wants vegans and vegcentric diners to come and be blown away by what they can do. So you should go there. 

Yes, absolutely. It has been really exciting to see those sorts of things happening in food as well. There’s a restaurant in New York called Dirt Candy. If you ever come over you should check it out. It has got the Michelin star look and feel, but it’s all vegetables. They do these sliders – what Americans call mini hamburgers – and they do these carrot sliders in these little brioche buns. I don’t know how they do it! 

And this is what’s exciting about the world at the moment, no? 

It is! And this is what I mean about… the more of us who start asking for what we actually want, the more innovation will happen. The more choice there will be. 

Thank you so much for chatting to us. 

Thanks for having me!

This week’s Real Podcast was brought to you, as always, by Real Kombucha: Non-alcoholic fermentation at its finest. Our thanks, of course, go to this week’s guest, Ruby Warrington – make sure you buy her book, Sober Curious, available now at all good bookstores. Our thanks also to The Drift Bar for their hospitality during the interview. We’ll see you again in the next couple of weeks for more great foodie and modern drinking podcasts. You can find out more about Ruby Warrington at www.rubywarrington.com

Real Kombucha Meets: Jamie Park, Head Chef at The Frog Hoxton (video)

Real Kombucha Meets: Jamie Park, Head Chef at The Frog Hoxton (video)

Anyone at the cutting edge of the foodie world knows that there’s huge change afoot. People are eating and drinking in ways that would’ve seemed like pie in the sky a decade ago. Words like vegcentric and sober curious (more on which next week) are rapidly moving from buzzword status to a more mainstream way of life. 

One of the up-and-coming names on the London foodie scene is Jamie Park, the Head Chef at Adam Handling’s Frog, Hoxton. Already known to many of you from Masterchef: the Professionals, we first met him through our mutual friend, Matt Campbell. We were immediately taken with his ideas around a more holistic, healthy approach to food in general – everything from avoiding the bullying nature adopted by chefs of the previous generation, right through to staff meals and nights on the beer – and have looked for a chance to work with him ever since.

In the following interview, you’ll find out how Jamie Park found his way into food, how he sees the foodie scene changing and developing, his own struggle with mental health and the darker sides of the industry, his impending marathon in Matt’s memory, and why he’s not to be mistaken for a yogi. 

If you’re in the mood for a good, long read, scroll on down. But first, here’s a video of Jamie Park at work in the kitchen. 

Real Kombucha meets Jamie Park: the Interview

You told me before we started this interview that you don’t speak very much. That must be a difficult thing for a head chef in a kitchen.

It depends. We’re quite a small team and it’s a small, open kitchen. I guess the last thing the guests want to hear is some angry-looking chef shouting at all of his staff. So we try and keep things pretty cool and pretty calm – more just going over to people and chatting with them rather than yelling across the whole kitchen and being aggressive, abusive or sweary. That’s not really my style. I’m not really into that.

It’s interesting you say that. I’m fascinated with the fact that people like you and Matt Campbell – this young generation of chefs – are very different to the previous generation: your Gordon Ramsays, your Marco Pierre Whites…

[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I’m very conscious of it. I trained through the later stages of that era, where chefs still thought it was cool to be angry, abusive, bullying, fucking around playing mind games, harassing young chefs and things like that. We’re at a stage now that that generation of chefs are complaining that there’s no good chefs left in the industry. It’s like, obviously! Nobody wants to get up at 7am or 8am and come to work just to be yelled at for 18 hours, just to go home feeling miserable. Even if the food that they’re making is making them really happy, if the environment’s not right then they’re not going to do it.

Real Kombucha offer

I look around now at the jobs that exist that didn’t exist when I was going through the late stages of college – social media jobs and things like that where people can genuinely make a living sat in a cafe on their laptop – as opposed to getting up first thing in the morning, working their arse off for 18 hours, being shouted at the whole time. Who’s going to want to do that now, do you know what I mean? If you could go back and if you had the opportunities that you have now, you’d have to think seriously about what path you wanted to take. If you love food and you love cooking then you’re going to find the right environment to work in. You’re not going to go and work in an environment that doesn’t make you happy. People aren’t going to do it anymore.

Is that something you’re seeing across the chefing industry? Is there still an element of that bullying nature, or is it something you’re all moving against?

I think it’s a little bit split. Especially in London, there’s massive pressure on restaurants to make money, on head chefs to make profit, to fill the restaurant, to have the best restaurant. I guess it’s just how you approach that pressure, and how that trickles down through the team. We’re a massively open kitchen and all the chefs take the food out, so really, for the guests to have the most positive experience, the people serving them need to be happy and passing on that energy. It just lifts the whole vibe of the restaurant. You can tell that everyone’s working together and happy. Whereas, I suppose in more old-school kitchens where they’re closed, you don’t see the chefs, they’re locked away in some basement kitchen, then yeah, I’m sure that style of head chef still exists in some London restaurants. 

In more local places that I’ve worked in back up North, even 1-star places, they’re not really like that. There’s that element sometimes, but it’s not like that all the time. That’s like intense pressure, non-stop, abuse.

Since I started working for Adam Handling five years ago, he’s not really a big believer in that. He’s trained at the same sort of time as I have, so he’s seen that side of kitchens and he’s seen that kind of chef. He’s not interested in that. For me and for him, I think it’s more about nurturing talent. I don’t want to be complaining that there’s no chefs left in the industry if I’m stood shouting at some young apprentice for doing something wrong because he didn’t know better. If he doesn’t know better then it’s because I’ve not taught him better, therefore it’s my fault. I should be shouting at myself. You can’t shout at someone for not knowing something if you haven’t taught them properly, do you know what I mean? 

When I was younger, I’d never seen a quail egg before, and all of a sudden you’re getting told, “How come you’ve not cooked it right?” And I’m like, “Well, I’ve never cooked it before and you’ve not shown me how to cook it.” It’s a bit of a vicious cycle that we’re breaking out of. Now it’s more about trying to nurture talent, mentor people, help them.

Tattooed chef cooking meat at The Frog Hoxton

What’s interesting as well is that it’s not just the change in attitude, but also a change in the way that you’re cooking; in the way that chefs behave in their own lives. I was talking to Rob Howell down in Root, Bristol, and he was saying that after hours they’re more likely to sit down with something other than whatever gets them slammed. It feels to me that there’s a change right across the board. Would that be fair to say?

Yeah, and that comes with the attitude towards management of the kitchen as well. Obviously, if you work those hours and you’re working under that pressure, then of course after work you’re going to be feeling pretty miserable and you’re going to want to go and smoke and drink – those things just become part of the cycle. When you start changing the attitude towards working hours – giving people back their time, working on the mindfulness of people and the health conscious side of things, then people’s approach to their life is going to change. They’re going to start going for more healthy options. They’re going to start swapping the beer for something non-alcoholic because they’ve maybe got a run or a swim the next day that they’re looking forward to. It just has a knock-on effect on people’s actual lives when you change the attitude at work.

Take the attitude towards a staff meal. If everyone’s got a bit more time during work then the staff meal’s going to be better or healthier. If someone’s taken their time over it, then it’s going to make people happier because they’ve had a delicious, nutritious meal at work before their next shift. It’s all one sort of cycle. If you break the cycle from before – hours, pressure, which just leads to smoking and drinking, whatever; laying in bed until 4pm on your day off, hungover after a hard week because you’re knackered – if you change that, people are going to start making better plans for themselves and living better.

So is that something that has happened to you? When you joined the industry were you slamming it all the time?

[Laughs] Yeah, definitely! Like I say, you work those hours then everyone, when they finish at the end of the week or at the end of a hard day, they just want to get wasted. They just want to forget about it. It’s like, “I’m off now, I don’t have to get up in the morning, I’m just going to go out and get hammered.” But now I’m training for a marathon, so if I’ve got to go out for a run on Sunday, then Saturday night I’m like, do I really want to drink all that booze that I would normally, or do I want to go for a better option, be able to wake up and enjoy my days off and do the things I need to do?

You’re 28. For your generation it seems more acceptable to get to the end of the day and pour a kombucha, or something like that.

100 percent. It was Enrique [a colleague], originally, who went to Noma about two and a half years ago and had kombucha from their test kitchen. He brought this idea of it back and he was like, it’s actually quite nice! So up until the back end of 2017, when I discovered Real Kombucha through Matt Campbell and we were doing the events after Masterchef: the Professionals, and he gave me your product, I didn’t know that this style of kombucha was available on the market. I’d had some before from health food stores and I thought they weren’t as good as what I was making because I’m in charge of the balances – it was a bit too funky; a bit too much like, “this is a health drink, it’s good for your gut” and all of these taglines that you associate with that style of kombucha.

Jamie Park drinking kombucha

But with your product, it’s aimed at the Modern Drinker. It’s a sophisticated version, I guess. It’s the sort of product that you’re going to (A) drink for yourself at the end of a long day (I tend to drink it before dinner service and after staff food because it just settles me down a bit after what’s usually a lot of carbs), or (B) at the end of the night when you’re having a drink with the guys and you’re getting up in the morning to do whatever it is you’re going to do.

Obviously, if it’s something we’re going to be happy drinking ourselves then it’s going to be something we’re happy to sell in the restaurant alongside our food. Especially with the way food is going at the moment, as well. Everyone’s using the term “vegcentric”. I try not to use that, but we have vegetarian and vegan tasting menus here at the restaurant, and that’s been the case since we opened, since someone came in and said they were vegan. I’d never heard of a vegan before! I was like, “Oh! We’d better find something to cook for you”. That was pre-Masterchef and meeting Matt Campbell.

Obviously meeting Matt and going through Masterchef, looking at his approach to that style of food – vegcentric, vegan – looking at protein alternatives – that really opened my eyes. Hence, starting the full vegan and vegetarian offering at the restaurant. Also, it was a way of not alienating people, which I guess is the same as the kombucha. If somebody went into a restaurant 10 years ago and said, “I’d like a vegan tasting menu and I don’t drink alcohol”, they’re going to go, “You can have an orange juice, and I think the chef could prepare a salad”. Do you know what I mean? Now you can walk into a restaurant and have a complete non-alcoholic pairing and a vegan tasting menu. And, if you want, you can even go as far as taking sugar out of people’s menus, too, completely.

So, yeah. Definitely people’s approach to food and cooking has changed hugely, as has the attitude in kitchens.

We’ve mentioned Matt Campbell. Some people might not know, so maybe it’s worth mentioned who he was, why he was important and how it leads to the fact that you’re doing the London Marathon.

I’d never met Matt Campbell before, until I did Masterchef. Adam Handling knew him before from something like BBC Young Chef of the Year. When he found out I was on the show with him, he was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve known Matt Campbell for a bit. He’s a really cool guy. He’s got some really innovative ideas about food and restaurants and how they’re going.” But when you’re on the show, obviously he’s competition to you, so you’re watching him and you’re like, “This guy’s pretty fucking clever! I can see what he’s doing here and people are really going to like this.” Which they did.

He did what, I guess, was a really niche market for most people at that moment. I think Marcus Wareing was a little bit taken aback by him. He wasn’t really sure how to handle him! He was coming in with these ingredients – for instance, like kombucha – that Marcus Wareing had never heard of before. This was all very Nordic! Wareing was a little bit out of touch with it and he didn’t really understand it, so I guess it made him not like it at first. But you could see how, as the show progressed, they came around to it, and to Matt’s style of cooking.

That massively rubbed off on me. We became really close friends outside of the show. We started doing pop-ups to the point where we did a Vegan Easter Sunday which sold out in no time. We did a whole vegan tasting menu for Easter Sunday. When everyone else in the country was eating their roast lamb and mint sauce, we had people eating Matt’s carrot hot dog! It was really exciting for me because everything I knew from food before was kind of flipped upside down. I had this whole new understanding of stuff.

Unfortunately, he passed away during [last year’s] London Marathon, which made me want to join [chef] Tom Peters and run this year’s London Marathon for the Brathay Trust. I’m in the middle of training for that at the moment. 

How are you planning on approaching it? 

We’re going to try and take the day. I’ve never run a marathon before. I’ve never done something so big. Everyone tells me it’s quite overwhelming. There are lots of people, huge crowds, a really good energy and good vibes. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed. It’s the same as in this kitchen – it’s a bit like a pirate ship! Everyone’s just in it together like this weird band of pirates. We’re just going to do the best we can. There’s myself, Tom Peters, and Tom’s father running with us as well. I think we’re just going to set a nice comfy pace and just grind it out.

It’s quite amazing to be sitting and talking to a head chef about running a marathon and mindfulness in the kitchen. It shows how things have changed so quickly.

[Laughs] Yeah… we’re not quite yogis! We’re not out on the Hoxton Square doing our sun salutes before breakfast every morning!

There’s still time!

Well, yeah! [Laughs] If I had my way…

It’s just one of those things. I’ve been through really dark times in my career as a chef. I know that I’ve been depressed. I know that I’ve definitely been way too attached alcohol at some points. Over the last few years its been about taking that time back, taking the bits of yourself back that the industry does take from you and you don’t even realise it’s happening until it’s a bit too late.

It’s about nurturing people. “People” for me is a key word. They are people, they’ve got real lives outside of the kitchen. You can’t just treat them like staff, or like non-human entities, like head chefs have been doing for so many years. You need to understand that each person is an individual, they each has their own home lives and problems at home. They’re all from different backgrounds. In kitchens especially, you can have four, five, six different cultures and nationalities coming together. They’re all working together as one, and sometimes socialising together as well after work. It’s about understanding everyone as an individual. If someone’s a bit down today, it’s not just “man-up and get on with it” (I hate that phrase), it’s “is everything OK? Can I help you with anything? Is it work related? Are you not happy here? Is it not work-related?” It’s about getting to the bottom of things and making people believe that you care about them and their life and their career, rather than just getting ready for lunch.

We’re going to lay out some food with the kombucha in a moment. What are we having?

The first dish we’re going to do is one of Adam’s dishes. It goes well with Dry Dragon by Real Kombucha. It has been on the menu for seven years. We’re going to do the vegan version. So, usually it would have truffle cream cheese, and we take those elements out and do a whipped truffle tofu. It has truffle, apple, dates, salt-baked celeriac, fresh apple. It’s seasoned with seaweed and mushroom powder, full of umami and bags of flavour. You’d never know that it was vegan food you were eating.

Kombucha food pairing with baked celeriac

It’s what I like to do with that style of food. You don’t want people to feel alienated. Say you’ve got four people with three regular tasting menus and one vegan, as much effort goes into the vegan tasting menu. You still 100% believe in, and are happy with what you’re putting down as an offering. You want the other people having the regular tasting menu to go, “Well, actually, that sounds quite good.” You want them to be jealous of what they’re all having – like a kind of competition around who’s having the best meal. So we bring loads of vegan elements into all of our dishes now, including one dessert on the menu at all times that’s completely vegan and gluten free, which is really cool.

A kombucha food pairing at The Frog, Hoxton

The second dish, is a pairing with Royal Flush Kombucha. We’re going to do a fish dish – a really light, roasted spring hake dish. We’ve got a little limestone mashed potato on there that’s filled with a crab sauce, and then a couple of kinds of radishes – fresh, garden radish left raw, really nicely crunchy and peppery. And then we get some meat radish, which we crunch right down and make like a kimchi that we’ll serve on the side.

Kombucha food pairing dessert, The Frog Hoxton

And then we’ll do a third course that’ll go really well with the Smoke House Kombucha – a whipped chocolate dessert. It’s a whipped tofu mousse filled with a chocolate sauce, a little chocolate sorbet and a few bits of garnish on there as well. But like I say, it’s completely vegan and gluten free. It’s everything free! You always get someone who comes in who can’t have anything, and we like to be completely prepared to blow them away.

Sponsor Jamie Park’s London Marathon on behalf of the Brathay Trust by clicking here. For more info on The Frog Hoxton, click here. Our thanks to Jamie and all the staff at The Frog, and to Adam Handling, for allowing us to set up in the kitchen on what was a busy morning. 

The 5 best non-alcoholic cider alternatives and where to find them

The 5 best non-alcoholic cider alternatives and where to find them

Until recently, going without alcohol has been a tough ask, mainly because of the lack of genuine alternatives. But these days, with the flood of amazing alcohol alternatives arriving in shops across the country, it’s quite easy to swap out the frustration for a sense of adventure. The modern drinker, no longer determined to have a beer or wine with every meal, can set out on an exploration of new breweries and intriguing flavours. There are some amazing options out there, so this week we thought we’d have a look at the world of non-alcoholic cider alternatives. 

“Non-alcoholic cider alternatives” is a bit of a mouthful, certainly, but there’s a reason for that added last word. When people are looking for non-alcoholic drinks, there’s a tendency simply to look for the most obvious replacement. Non-alcoholic wine, non-alcoholic beer, non-alcoholic cider – these are all straight swaps. As modern drinkers ourselves, we’re keen to look beyond that habit and find things that offer an amazing taste experience in their own right. 

Smoke House by Real Kombucha

Take, for example, our Smoke House. This isn’t a non-alcoholic cider, and we wouldn’t ever claim it was. But there’s something about it that hits a similar spot to a nice drop of scrumpy – so much so, in fact, that when a former senior manager at one of the UK’s biggest cider brewers came to chat to us at a festival last year, he found it hard to believe he was drinking something different. 

Why wouldn’t we claim it’s a non-alcoholic cider? Quite simply, that’s because it’s a kombucha. As with all our brews, we haven’t added any flavours to it. The delicious caramel and apple notes, as well as the acidic bite that you’d commonly associate with a cider, are simply the result of carefully brewing and fermenting a certain kind of rich, smokey tea in tried and tested conditions. 

Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this unless you tried it, and it’s that kind of experimentation and exploration that really appeals to us about the world of the modern drinker. We brew for open minds, after all. That said, we understand that many people have a particular idea of what they want from a cider, even if it’s a non-alcoholic cider, and so here are a few favourites that we’ve found on our journey. 

Sheppy’s Low Alcohol Classic Cider

We were lucky enough to discover this delicious non-alcoholic cider at a festival last year when we swapped a couple of bottles for a bit of muscle (they were having trouble with an oversized fridge… it’s a long story). One difficulty we’ve found with some so-called non-alcoholic ciders is that they tend to taste like fizzy apple juice. Not so with Sheppy’s. There’s that bite that we mentioned earlier – that sense of something having been brewed rather than mixed. 

This is a regular addition to our fridge, but where do you find it? We usually get ours from the Dry Drinker website. Well worth stocking up on for a sunny day. 

Stowford Press Non-Alcoholic Cider

 
 
 
 
 
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What marks a good non-alcoholic cider from a glass of Appletiser is the level of sweetness. Stowford Press have been making cider since 1878, so they know a thing or two about what tastes right, and here they’ve hit the sweet spot (excuse the pun) in terms of sugary balance. Wonderfully crisp and refreshingly unsweet, a bottle of this also comes in at only 81 calories. Not quite as low as our Smoke House (less than 50 cals per bottle), but on the right lines. 

Again, we tend to get ours from Dry Drinker. You can find it here. 

Braxzz Oaked Cider 0.0%

 
 
 
 
 
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When it comes to this Dutch non-alcoholic cider, we’re particularly taken with the fermented apple taste – again, something that really sets it aside from a traditional soft drink. There’s a hoppiness to it, too, and the oak finish gives it a complexity that really pleases the palate. Another one that clocks in low on the calorie counter, if that’s your thing. Only 79 cals in this bottle. 

You can find Braxzz non-alcoholic cider here.  

The Good Cider of San Sebastien

 
 
 
 
 
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For those that like their cider a lot lighter and sweeter, try this juicy option from North coast of the Spanish Pyrenees. A traditional Basque cider, this comes from a 3-generations old brewery working out of their own orchard. Very popular in Spain, it is brewed in an apple and a peach flavour. Something for a sun-splashed drinking occasion. 

We get our Good Cider from Light Drinks. You can find it here

Got any other non-alcoholic cider recommendations? Drop us a line via our Twitter, Facebook or Instagram channels to let us know.