The drive down to Axminster is shrouded in fog. The further we move away from London, the less we can see. We pass Stonehenge knowing that it’s there, lurking in the mist, but it might as well be in China for all we can make out. Given that we’re heading for the famous River Cottage HQ – a farmhouse that has become synonymous with the farm to table approach to cooking, set in Devonshire hills that roll in from the sea – we’re starting to fear that we might miss the glorious views.
The murk stays with us right up until we arrive in the carpark. We can just about make out a tractor and and long wooden cabin, but beyond that all is white. One of us jokes that we hadn’t realised that River Cottage was on the edge of the Earth. We step into the office to meet the team, and then the miraculous happens. As we begin the descent into the valley, the sun cranks into full gear and the mist burns away before our eyes. It’s like a veil dropping, and there – sat gleaming, as if ready for a glossy magazine cover shoot – is the cottage itself.
So begins a day of cooking, photo snapping, eating and table-bound camaraderie. We’re here to meet the executive chef, Gelf Alderson – the man who is tasked with taking that famed farm to table philosophy and putting it into the River Cottage restaurants that dot the country. He’s part recipe magician, part campaigner, part businessman and part forager, and we take the chance to chat to him about all of those things, mostly while eating the exquisite food he knocks together while he rabbits away. It’s a hard life, isn’t it?
Let’s get straight into it with farm to table philosophy. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall played a huge part in how the general public became aware of that concept, didn’t he?
He was certainly one of the forerunners. I like to wind him up a little bit that I remember watching him when I was still at school [laughs]. So, he’s been going as long as I’ve been cooking. I’ve been cooking for 21 years, and he was right at that stage of doing Cook On The Wild Side when I was leaving school. He was certainly an inspiration to my generation of chefs, and a real eye-opener as well because nobody had really exposed modern farming methods, either. Agriculture was, and still is, quite cloak and dagger and they’re still not very open about what they do, but he was one of the first people who really dug into it and said, “This is all a bit rubbish – we need to stop doing this and we need to start moving into better ways.” It’s all about supporting proper farmers that treat the land, the animals and their crops in a respectful way. He still does that to this day. He still likes to get his megaphone out and shout at the supermarkets.
You haven’t been here since the very beginning or your career then, presumably?
No. River Cottage is 20 this year. I was only 17 back then and this place [the River Cottage HQ] didn’t exist. Hugh started very small – he only had an acre just outside Bridport, the original River Cottage – and then he moved here to Park Farm 12 years ago. I’ve been here for six-and-a-half of those.
Going back to the beginnings of your career – at 17 you started in the kitchen?
At 16, actually. Straight out of school and straight into the kitchen.
Where was that?
A hotel up in Worcester. I did my apprenticeship on day release.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was a bit like prison, to be honest. We used to work five-and-a-half days a week and then go to collage for one day, and then have half a day off. Back then, catering was still an 80-hour week. It was pretty hard graft but I managed to work in some pretty good kitchens under some pretty good chefs, and I learnt how to do things the right way. I was quite lucky in that the kitchens I worked in were very similar to here. They were buying whole-carcass animals; they were doing their own butchery. They were making everything from scratch which gave me a really good grounding – a lot of chefs don’t get that these days.
A lot of stuff’s brought in: the bread’s brought in, the meat turns up ready-packaged in individual plastic packaging, and you don’t really get that insight into what makes a quality ingredient. I had that from when I was a child. My dad grew veg and we were forever outside picking and going to health-food shops to get different grains and cereals, so I had a good grounding from childhood through to the beginning of my career.
Was your dad in the kitchen as well?
No, no. He was a groundsman and a librarian. My mum stayed at home when we were kids. We were pretty poor. It wasn’t like we had a luxury lifestyle. We were definitely only just above the breadline. But she cooked everyday and made bread from scratch everyday. She was a great baker – cakes, biscuits, all that stuff – and I started cooking with her before I went to school. My hands were forever ruining her bread. The bowl of risen bread dough is just a huge temptation for a child to stick their hands in it and knock the crap out of it [laughs]. So I started annoying someone who was cooking when I was quite young and then continued to do that throughout most of my career [laughs].
You said something just now about “knowing what makes a quality ingredient”…
Yes. That comes from dealing with it from its raw state, all the time. Especially when you talk about meat. I’ll talk about veg in a minute, but with meat you only get to know what makes a quality animal if you see that animal (A) when they’re alive, and (B) when they’re one piece when they’re dead. So you get to see the fat cover and the marbling through the muscle.
If it comes in from a butcher trimmed already, you don’t get to see any of that quality. You don’t get to see how long it has been hung for, for example, which is all really important. If you don’t know that process, how can you then go to a butcher and explain what you need from them? They’ll just give you what they want to give you. Butchers aren’t cooks. Butchers are butchers.
I have a great relationship with the producers that we have here and in the restaurants, because I can go to them and say, “This is exactly what I want from you: I want this animal raised to a certain age, I want it to have a certain fat cover, and then I want you to cut the muscle in a certain way at a certain point in the carcass.” If you haven’t been exposed to that you have to make an effort to actually go and do it yourself. And I did that – I went to work at a master butchers called FC Warrens, just to hone my knowledge of the animal, and also to talk to them about which bits they can’t sell.
Everybody wants the steak or the chops – the cut that’s easy to cook. It takes no skill to cook a piece of meat that’s already tender. And the bits that they couldn’t use… a lot of them are trendy now, such as the shin and the belly. Chefs like myself have gone to butchers and said, “Well, what can’t you sell? Give it to me at a good price and I’ll get it on my restaurant menu and make it popular.” Belly pork is a prime example. It’s now the most expensive cut on a pig, whereas before it was the loin. Without that knowledge, and without that interaction with your producer, you’ll never get the right ingredient. Chefs walk blindly into what they’re cooking half the time.
And with veg?
With veg as well… with mass-produced vegetables, they’re cross-bred to be successful, not to be tasty. The growers I use here, I go to those guys and say, “Can you grow me X?” I don’t just want a carrot, I want this variety of carrot or this variety of tomato; this selection of that, this variety of pea. And if you’re not doing that, they’ll just grow the peas that are successful because that’s good for them. Of course we want them to be successful as well, but what I want is flavour. And that’s the relationship that I’ve had here for six-and-a-half years.
It’s just strengthening those bonds between us and the farmer. I always say that it’s not down to us how good the dish is. We get stuff hot. The dish is already good when it arrives in that box from your grower. If you know your trade, once you get that bit right, your bit is actually reasonably easy. You just treat the ingredients with respect, get them a little bit hot, maybe make them a bit more tender, season them nicely and that’s your dish. Here at River Cottage we’ve always been ingredients-led, and that’s the way our cooking stays to this day. We get good ingredients and we treat them with respect.
We’re sat here with this incredible view. What a tough place to work, Gelf!
[Laughs] It has its moments. Joking aside, we’re a busy place so it is hard work. The guys work really hard in the kitchen. We have big dinners every Friday and Saturday night, so there are a couple of big shifts a week. It’s by no means a walk in the park. But if you’re gonna spend time at work, you might as well spend it here. I’d rather do 60 hours a week here than 60 hours in a basement.
I go and work in other kitchens occasionally, and it’s funny… for the dinner we recently did at The Savoy, I was literally underground for two days. When you did step outside, you were straight into central London. I love spending my time here. I love being able to potter about and meet my ingredients.
That’s something I noticed when I came in today. I saw you out there foraging.
Yeah – that’s part of what we do and what we need to do. Wild food takes no input. Environmentally, it’s pretty sound. Something that grows wild always has better flavour than something that’s been cultivated. It’s just that natural hardiness – it has to grow without any kind of help. It just boosts that flavour up. And the hedgerows around here – we’re organic and we don’t spray – are packed full of great stuff, whether it’s wild garlic or flowers.
Are you planting stuff that you know you’ll want to use, or is it the other way around: it’s naturally there so therefore you’re going to use it?
The only thing that I’ve seeded here is a small patch of wild garlic close to the kitchen, because the other wild garlic is quite a trek [laughs]. But no, the stuff naturally grows. These fields are packed full of wild sorrel because we raise sheep in them, and wild sorrel tends to grow in sheep fields. In the hedgerows themselves the primroses are just there. The fennel is wildly seeded. The borage – we have planted some, but it pops up as and when. The only bits we cultivate are the obvious bits in the beds, under the polytunnels. But the rest is wild.
The dandelions, which you can see now flowering outside the window – we’ll use some of their leaves in salads, although, my mum used to tell me they’d make you wet yourself. I don’t think there’s any proof [laughs]. There’s a sloe tree just out there, some wood sorrel in that hedgerow down there, some wild horseradish over there, there’s burdocks… all kinds of stuff. If you know what you’re looking for you don’t have to go out and buy it.
Is this knowledge that you’ve picked up since you’ve been here? I know you said that your dad was very into this kind of stuff, but an understanding of what you’re foraging for is clearly something you have to nurture…
Yeah [laughs]… don’t blindly forage! It’s very dangerous! We’re lucky here because we’ve got John Wright who works alongside us. He’s an absolutely amazing forager. He has only poisoned himself once, which is the mark of a good forager [laughs].
There are certain things you can forage for without too much of a risk, like wild garlic. If it smells like wild garlic, it’s wild garlic. I’ve learnt loads since I started working here. I had a base knowledge of it before, but my knowledge has increased a hundredfold just by being surrounded by it, and people like John Wright or Hugh or Gill Mellor.
The other chefs in the kitchen are all keen foragers. Conor [a chef bobbing about in the background] will be down on the seafront today picking sea thyme and sea beets, all of which grow down in the estuary here. So there are a few things that if you take a bit of interest in, you can successfully forage. Just make sure you check out what you’re doing. I won’t ever talk about mushrooms [laughs]. There are a couple that you can identify really easily, but other than that you really need to be very careful with mushrooms. Leave them to the experts.
So, no hallucinogenic dishes on the River Cottage menu, then?
Only by accident [laughs]. Those mushrooms do grow on the farm, actually, but they all seem to disappear. I don’t know where they go [laughs].
That’s a joke, by the way, readers!
Yeah, that’s very much a joke [laughs]. They are very much an illegal substance! But to get back on track… this field hasn’t been ploughed since the Second World War, so the mycelium culture is very strong here. We grow a lot of parasols, a lot of field mushrooms, some blewits… we have a really strong wild culture because it has never been sprayed and it has not been ploughed for decades. It’s a really good piece of land for having that wild edge to it.
And all of this is what we’re talking about when we talk about the farm to table philosophy, right? You can ask the question, “What’s that philosophy all about?”, but it’s really all there in those three words.
It is straight from the farm, but farms can be good and farms can be bad. It’s all about the quality of the farmer. Not all non-organic farming is bad – some people are farming with good methods but choose not to be certified. For us, organic is just that mark of excellence. If you’re certified organic, you’re pretty insured that it’s going to be of a quality.
Is not importing is part of the farm to table philosophy?
We do have to import food. There’s no getting away from that. We don’t have enough land to feed the amount of people we have in this country. But it’s where that food is coming from that’s important. I had this real problem when quinoa burst onto the scene, for example. It was all being imported from South America where it was the base crop for the poorer people. So, what we were doing with our trendy superfood was starving a population of indigenous people by taking the only food they could afford and exporting it into the West. So I wouldn’t touch quinoa until it was British-grown.
And it’s grown not far from here, isn’t it?
There’s some grown not far from here but we work with Hodmedod’s, which is mainly based over in East Anglia. They’re a really great company. They started in 2012 and I’ve been working with them ever since, so we now get British lentils, British peas, British kidney beans… we’ve eradicated the need to import any pulses in our businesses now. Everything’s British-grown as far as pulses go. Every ingredient that we use is really thought about, no matter how small it seems in the grand scale of things. From salt right through to meat, everything has that thought process behind it, and it’s my job to think about that.
I’m sure we’re not perfect, but we really strive to make sure that it’s not just the quality we’re looking at but the whole ethical journey of that food. Are we taking it away from someone who needs it more than us, and if we are, where can we find a British-grown, next-door equivalent?
So the sourcing of the ingredients is just part of your job. You’re Executive Chef of River Cottage… what else does that entail?
Not sleeping very much [laughs]. I’m kind of the safeguard for what we do at River Cottage on a daily basis.
I thought that was John Wright, the foraging master!
Well, yeah… he safeguards me from poisoning myself [laughs].
Obviously, Hugh doesn’t have time to be here from day to day, but I ensure that we stick to that kind of ethical food, producing ingredients-led dishes. Sometimes I have to reign the chefs back a bit when they get a bit too technical and remind them that what we do is all about flavour and not necessarily about getting the tweezers out and doing the itsy-bitsy stuff.
I’m also here to keep us current. I hate the phrase: not exactly “on trend” but we do need to move with the times. We can’t just stand still and say, “Well, we’re River Cottage, we’ve been here for 20 years, people will always want to come and see us”. We’re offering new things through out cookery courses, keeping that interesting. We’ve moved it into fermenting and gut health – the wellbeing side of things.
I’m tasked with taking the food that we do on the farm back out to the restaurants. So I spend a lot of time running around getting here into there. And then I go out and do dinners. I’m doing one for 400 at London Zoo in May; I’ve just done The Savoy; we’re going to cook at The Old Bailey. And I do stuff like this [the interview you’re reading] with companies like you, Real Kombucha. I recruit likeminded chefs to come and work for us. I have a large amount of paperwork to do, so there is a slightly boring side to my life! Staff welfare has never been forefront in our industry, so we’re trying to change that. We try to make sure our staff don’t work more than 48 hours a week, which is pretty good for our industry, and we make them take two days off a week. I’m on the phone a lot when they want a shoulder or a they want an ear to bend…
So, it’s not actually just coming up with amazing dishes.
That’s probably about 25% of my job. That’s the easy part. I come here and I’m surrounded by amazing ingredients. It doesn’t take long to figure out what to do with them. Writing the recipe is usually a lot harder because I’ll throw something together and think it’s amazing and then forget what I’ve put in it [laughs]. But a big part of it is getting the recipe into a format that can be delivered on a daily basis, because our restaurants are busy – they’ll do 300 covers on a Saturday – so it can’t be too technical. That’s a slightly challenging part of it.
What would be the one thing that underpins all River Cottage recipes?
Ingredients, really. That’s the real focus. Without the ingredients we’re nothing. There is technique going on, but it’s definitely all about the ingredients. We’re quite a complex food business. We don’t have an ethnicity to us – we’re not North African; we’re not specifically British. In all the books there’s cooking with spice and there’s cooking very traditionally. We cook however we can to make the ingredients sing. We’re not really pigeonholed into one area of cooking, which is nice.
You mentioned that part of your job is to have your finger on the pulse. You’ve talked briefly about gut health, but what else is the Next Big Thing?
Er… [laughs]. I’m not sure! We’ve gone through quite a number of rapid transformations. Cooking outdoors has been really trendy. [Gestures towards the courtyard] You can see we’ve got Big Green Eggs all over the place today. We’ve got a wood-fire cookery area out there…
Can I just stay here, Gelf? Would that be OK?
You can! We’ve got rooms in the farmhouse!
Gill Mellor has just written an amazing book full of outdoor cookery techniques. We’ve also seen a lot of people wanting to go gluten free, so we run three or four courses on gluten free cookery, run by Naomi Devlin, and we released the River Cottage Gluten Free book a few years back.
The health thing includes eradicating some staple ingredients, focusing on sugar and wheat and stuff like that, so we’ve seen a big rise in replacement cookery. And fermentation is obviously becoming a big thing. Preserving has come back with a force. I think that came on the back of the Great British Bake-Off. People started to bake at home and then went, “What else can I do at home? Ooooo, I can make jam”. I think that kind of triggered this interest in fermenting – things like kombucha. The Great British Bake-Off has some great things to answer for, actually. Rachel De Thample is currently writing our fermentation handbook, which will be published next year.
We’re also thinking a lot about waste. Hugh’s got a plastics programme coming out soon. Again, we’re not perfect on plastics, but it’s interesting… we’ve completely eradicated polystyrene from our business now, so when suppliers turn up with something in a polystyrene box we just give it back and say, “No thank you – please don’t bring that back here again”. It’s amazing what happens when you tell people you don’t want their packaging and they’ve then got to find something to do with it. It triggers a conversation, and they go, “Hang on a minute – let’s talk about this”. Our fish suppliers told us that if a fish weighs over 10 kilos they have to put it in polystyrene, and I said, “Well, that’s a load of rubbish!” So now we’re looking a lot more at non-single-use plastics.
Our veg supplies come in plastic crates that are collapsable, but they also come with a £20 deposit. If we lose one, it costs us that amount. So we’re incentivised not to lose it, and the suppliers are incentivised to pick them back up. It’s a really good system to have. Our butcher only vac-packs in quantities of 30, rather than individuals. Every business should do that. The first thing a chef does is take it out of its plastic packet and put it into something else. Vac-packing is something we’re really clamping down on. So it’s not all about food, the stuff we do. It’s putting pressure on big organisations to do better things.
Moving back to the foundations of River Cottage, I guess one of the questions many people have when they go to a restaurant that is heavily associated with a celebrity chef is just how much that person has actually been involved with the dish you’re eating. Take Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for instance…
Well, all the menus have to be signed off by Hugh. I create them all and send them off to Hugh, then we’ll talk through the dishes and I’ll cook them for him. He’s got an amazing palate, so he’ll be like, “This needs X or Y”. It’s a process in which he’s involved in each step. That’s the important thing. Obviously he doesn’t cook them! He doesn’t do a 15-hour shift on a Saturday [laughs]. I think he’s done his time. Part of my job is to know his mind and his methods, so it’s not like every dish I create is thrown back at me with, “What are you doing?!” Most of the things we create get signed off and go into the restaurants.
So, he will have been drinking these glasses of Real Kombucha, then?
He has! And he makes his own. He dropped his scobies off here recently, actually. We had a big 20-year bash for which we brewed our own kombucha and did three different kinds.
Was it good?
It wasn’t bad, actually. We didn’t get it all that fizzy but it was pretty tasty. It’s an interesting thing to make – we hadn’t tried before. We read up a bit, Hugh gave us his scobies and we ran from there. You get some pretty interesting flavours out of it, depending what your scobies are like. I’ve had some pretty bad kombuchas in my time, I’m not gonna lie [laughs]. There are different palates for different things. Some kombuchas are… unique, shall we say?
So, what’s on the horizon for River Cottage, other than the hundred TV programmes that Hugh seems to be making?
[Laughs] This year we’re celebrating 20 years, so we’ve got lots of different events. We’ve just finished renovating the rooms in the farmhouse, so they become available to the public very soon. We’ve had some people there trialing it out, so this’ll be the first time you can actually come and stay at River Cottage and rent the whole house out. That’s something new for us – it’s quite a big thing to have people onsite 24 hours a day. We’ve got books keeping us busy, too. It’s a pretty busy year.
For more information on Gelf Alderson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the farm to table food philosophy and River Cottage, head to www.rivercottage.net.
Several weeks ago, we passed a very happy day interviewing vegcentric chefs in Bristol. One of the highlights was an hour spent perched at the kitchen counter in Box-E, chatting with Tessa Lidstone and head chef, Elliott Lidstone, as he knocked together the perfect pairing for one of our kombuchas.
In the time since, we’ve had dreams about this dish, and several of our blog readers and podcast listeners have dropped us a line asking if we can share the recipe that accompanies the picture at the top of this page. Very kindly, Tessa agreed to try and pin Elliott down and extract the knowledge from him – never an easy task when it involves an in-demand chef.
And so, welcome to the first in a new series here on our blog, one in which we pester some of the amazing chefs we’ve had the pleasure to work with and get them to share their secrets. Up first: charred leek, goats’ curd and Jerusalem artichoke crisps, as created by Elliott Lidstone from Box-E. (Please excuse any typos you find in this post – we’re having to deal with heavily watering mouths.)
Box-E’s charred leek, goats’ curd and Jerusalem artichoke crisps, paired with Smoke House by Real Kombucha
Serves 4 as a starter
2 medium leeks
A couple of Jerusalem artichokes
Veg oil for frying
2 dessert spoons of Lilliput capers
Goats’ curd (we use White Lake)
Powdered cep or black truffle (if available)
- Steam leek until soft and then colour in a pan or on on a griddle (or even barbecue).
- Slice Jerusalem artichokes as finely as possible (on a mandolin if you have one) and fry until golden at 140 degrees. Place on kitchen paper to dry.
- Mix the capers with good quality rapeseed oil to form a dressing.
- Place a spoonful of goats’ curd on each plate, arrange the charred leek on top.
- Spoon over the dressing and place the crisps on top.
- Add some watercress leaves and powdered cep or grated black truffle.
Goes beautifully with Smoke House.
For this week’s Real Podcast, I jumped on the wrong bus from Waterloo and turned up late for my meeting with Joey O’Hare. That’s OK – she’s a kindly soul, as you might have guessed if you ever saw her on Masterchef: The Professionals.
It’s been quite a while since she came to prominence through that TV programme, but for those of us with an ear to the ground and a mind for fermentation, she’s only gone from strength to strength. So, when one of the Real Kombucha team suggested that she might be able to get in touch with her for an interview, I jumped at the chance. As you’ll see from the interview, she’s a kind of interviewee chef made in heaven. It’s rare to find someone so passionate about what they do, who also has the confidence and eloquence with which to spread the word so well.
So, strap on your ear goggles (or simply read the interview on our website, if you prefer) and join us as we bounce around subjects that include her beloved fermentation, kombucha (obviously), her food author recommendations, her ideas around vegcentric cooking, her involvement in the growing startup All Plants, and of course her favourite London veg-first restaurants.
You’re well known for having a veg-first approach to cooking, and you’re also known for being a big fan of fermentation. I want to come to all of that, but also I’d like to chat about All Plants, which is what you’re doing now. But first of all I think it’d be a good idea to go right back to the first time you remember being amazed by the kitchen.
Oh my gosh! What a question. Weirdly, it’s not the kitchen but it’s certainly a food memory, I remember loving apples from a young age. I grew up in Hampshire, and there was a couple of apple trees in the garden. I’m one of four kids and we used to use them for all sorts, whether it was apple fights, playing tag with the apples, and we’d then go and collect a bunch and peel and prep them down and they’d be used for crumbles and things throughout the autumn and winter. Or, literally, we’d be playing in the garden and we’d get hungry and grab an apple as a snack. I still love apples. I pretty much do have an apple a day.
Was there anybody that influenced you? A key person you wanted to be like?
Yep. It’s a bit of a cliche but certainly my mother, who is a fantastic home cook. She’s very, very humble and says that she’s learnt everything from me in her later years, but she didn’t [laughs]. She was always a real natural, and we were lucky to grow up on nothing fancy but just home-cooked food. So there was no ready-made freezer food; it was mum’s shepherd’s pie or bolognese. And beans and greens – we had lots of veggie stuff as well. So dad, occasionally, would dig up some pretty gnarly cabbages from the little veg patch [laughs] and enjoy those cooked up in a one-pot-wonder style.
So they were cooking out of the garden then?
A little bit. They had a small veg patch but they made it go really far, and we were lucky to always have those fresh flavours and that fresh approach to family cooking which I remember loving from a young age. And I certainly had a large appetite from a young age [laughs]. So I always enjoyed my food and learnt to appreciate it first and foremost from my mother.
How does it go, then? In the early days, you’re there with your mum and you’ve got your apples all around you and it’s a very Hampshire childhood…
So, how does the young Joey start to become a chef?
That’s a good question. It’s a growing love of food and an awareness of food. And then, for various reasons, I became increasingly picky in my late teens. My relationship with food became quite unhealthy and I became quite unwell. I became slightly fascinated and fixated with food whereby I didn’t want to eat things I hadn’t cooked myself, for sort of very horrible, controlling reasons! But very, very fortunately for me, that transpired into something more positive. In becoming more hands-on with food, I learnt to fall back in love with it, as it were, and then I made the decision to go to cooking school rather than university initially after 6th form. And so I went to Ballymaloe in Ireland, which was so fantastic. I cannot sing its praises highly enough. And I kind of went from there.
Whenever you pick up a Joey O’Hare interview…
One of those millions of Joey O’Hare interviews out there…
All of those two!
Haha! Anyway… you pick up these interviews, you read about Ballymaloe, but I think a lot of people don’t know what that is. Unless they’re involved in the food industry, of course. Can you explain it?
Yes. So, Ballymaloe is two things. It is a cooking school but with a key difference. The most wonderful thing about it is that it’s a cooking school on a working, biodynamic farm. So rather than teach you how to make and omelette or a sauce, you go right back to the source of food, and you see it and appreciate it in a very holistic sense. So it gives you a strong appreciation for provenance, a strong appreciation for seasonality and cooking in harmony with the land and nature. It gives you a real appreciation of food, from root to shoot, farm to table, and zero waste as well. And a bit of hard work! The students are put on different chore shifts and rotas each week. It might be collecting the eggs, or going and collecting the herbs that day, or feeding the chickens. So it’s very, very hands-on.
So, how did you hear about that? Is it something that is well known in that world?
It’s very renowned. I couldn’t cite when I first heard about it. I think I’ve always been aware of it. I’ve always felt proudly Irish, yet I’m very ignorant of my Irish heritage, and I’ve always loved Ireland. So I was really excited to spend some time there after 6th form.
And so, from Ballymaloe you went straight into the kitchen in a job? You mentioned earlier that you went back to university…
Yes [laughs]. My route through my twenties was an interesting one! Immediately after Ballymaloe I did six months in France. There’s an Irish chalet company that recruits chefs and takes them out to the Alps, which was awesome. It was a really good practice to cement everything that I’d learnt over the three months course, and routinely cook three courses for 16 people, which was really very useful and formative.
So, then I knew that I wanted to be a chef and I had the bug, so very naively I printed out my “CV”, which was basically my name and the fact that I’d done Ballymaloe and six months of work [laughs], and a map of Michelin-starred restaurants in London (which is where my parents were living at the time – I was living at home so I started with the closest, being quite a practical soul). I just went knocking on doors, and I was really lucky in that the first place that I showed up at was Roussillon, in the Pimlico and Chelsea area. There was a young American chick who was on her way out and they hadn’t found a replacement, so the chef was like, “well, can you start tomorrow?” And that was actually Alexis Gauthier, who is a big vegcentric and vegan chef now. I’m sure we can touch on him later.
Absolutely. OK, so that takes you up to work… your first job.
Yes, I was 19.
I found it quite interesting that you went back to university after that to study English, and that you were interested in words.
I love words. I love language. I was in restaurants for a couple of years, and Alexis actually encouraged me to get a degree in culinary arts. I did it while I was full-time working in kitchens, but in college one full day a week. That was a two-year programme at Westminster Kingsway.
In my mid-twenties, having worked seven years, I was having a really tough time in the kitchen. It’s notoriously hard, and I certainly found it so at times. I just thought I wanted to keep my options open. I had always thought that my career would be in food, but maybe not literally at the grills and the pans. I dreamt of food writing or editing or publishing. I’d always been very strong at English Literature at school and I loved it, so I applied and was fortunate to get a place at Queen Mary University of London and did English Literature there.
Do you have any favourite food writers?
I do. I love Gill Meller. His writing is so beautiful and such a pleasure to read, but he alludes to everything that’s beautiful about food beyond just flavour and the fact that it’s nourishment. He talks about connection, community, culture, landscape, sustainability – his writing bleeds into all these other areas that food permeates. It’s just so beautiful.
Obviously you came to a kind of prominence through Masterchef: The Professionals. That must seem like quite a long time ago to you now.
It really does! It feels like a lifetime ago. It was filmed in the summer of 2015, and then it aired in the winter. But yeah… ages ago.
What did it do for your career?
Er… first of all, it was so much fun. It was completely terrifying and probably took a couple of years off my life in terms of stress [laughs]. But it was so fun, and I was lucky that the intake that we had that year was just such an awesome group of… I want to say guys and girls, but I actually didn’t meet another girl in my route through the competition. I only met male chefs. I’m not trying to be sexist there! But such a lovely group of guys, and we all stayed in touch with each other on social media and got together at charitable events and cookups – things like that.
Personally, what it gave me was a huge whack of confidence that I was really lacking previously. The fact that I was able to keep up and make it through to the final 12, for someone who had spent a lot of time as a private chef as well as a chef in a restaurant in the first part of my career, was really helpful.
Both of us keep saying, “we were talking about this earlier”. We had a chat before we started recording…
We had a coffee [laughs].
…but very briefly, we touched on Matt Campbell who was a big friend of Real Kombucha. He helped and introduced us to a lot of people, he was a fascinating chef and he was amazingly into his fermentation. I think there are similarities there, because that’s something that you’re known for as well. Were you the year before him on Masterchef: the Professionals?
I think I was two years before Matt. Firstly, that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. Matt was a completely extraordinary chef and an amazing guy. I never had the pleasure to meet him in person, sadly. We sort of supported each other on social media and had one of those very odd 21st century friendships where you message lots and you feel like you’re up-to-date with each other’s lives because you see so much about what the other one is doing. But we didn’t meet in real life, which is a huge shame.
But yes, much like Matt, who was a real innovator in vegan food (and I wouldn’t say that I’m anyway near his level) I love to take vegan cooking into that more elevated space where it’s really quite culinary and it’s celebrated just as much as an art, and there’s finesse to it. It’s not just a secondary choice for culinary delights.
I’ll let you go back to that thought, but the other thing that strikes me as a similarity is that Matt was also a private chef beforehand, so he came from that background and up through that route, too.
Yes, which I think is – like anything – good and bad. But there are loads of great benefits to being a private chef. Number one, you have full creative responsibility, which can be really empowering and forces you to keep innovating and think creatively. You can’t rely on anyone else for ideas and inspiration, necessarily. And it forces you to do a bit of everything. So, arguably, there’s a risk that you become a jack of all trades rather than a specialist chef, but I don’t think that’s the case. And even if it is, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think being able to stand up proudly having cooked everything from the canapés to the petit fours is pretty cool.
Yes, absolutely. In the music industry they talk about “cutting your teeth”. I suppose it’s the same as serving an apprenticeship. Being able to do all the things is hugely important.
I certainly think so. I feel very grateful for my experience in both restaurants and private homes, because what I got from restaurants – Michelin star places like Roussillon – was that kind of precision and that Best Kitchen Practice, where you’re held to very high standards. Clean, smart, efficient. You’re part of a brigade so there’s the whole teamwork thing there that’s perhaps missing if you’re solo or freelance. But there’s the responsibility and creative freedom that I love from the freelance side of things. So I’m super grateful for both.
So, let’s go back to the point we were making before. We briefly touched on that similarity between Matt Campbell’s and your interests in fermentation. You talk very eloquently about fermentation, and passionately. I can see you shrinking!
[Laughs] That’s because, embarrassingly, I talk about little else!
You coined the phrase vegcentric.
Yes. It’s a word I’ve used to describe how I cook pretty much since Masterchef.
You’re not actually vegan yourself, are you?
No. I may as well be. I love a plant-based diet. It’s one that really suits me. I respect it for the environmental conscientiousness that it has, and its healthful nature. But I’m a chef and a massive foodie, and if I go out to different restaurants as a treat (not the whole time!), once a month or for a celebration, if it’s a chef that I am really interested in and really respect, and I can see that there’s great provenance and that they’re supporting what seem to be very responsible farms and farming practices, then I would happily enjoy and appreciate a little bit of animal protein from time to time. But that is very few and far between, so that’s why I say vegcentric. It’s not advocating full vegetarianism or full veganism; it’s prioritising seasonal veg and putting that at the centre of the diet for sustainability reasons. And then, if one chooses, opting for animal protein in moderation, and that’s very much on the periphery of the diet.
I hope it’s quite an inclusive word, and it’s sort of a label that’s not quite a label. To me, it’s the most sustainable and healthful diet for all of us. I would argue that you can be a vegcentric vegan if you’re prioritising British seasonal veg in your diet, because let’s not forget that white bread and margarine sandwiches can be a vegan diet, and that’s not healthy for anyone [laughs]. But if you’re putting seasonal plants at the centre, that’s fantastic for you and the planet. I think a vegetarian can be vegcentric, and I think an omnivore can be vegcentric.
You mentioned before that you’ve been using that vegcentric term since Masterchef. How about the style? Were you interested in the plant-based thing beforehand?
I’ve always loved veggies, but no – I must be honest. Around the time of Masterchef, I started reading some books by the American food writer Michael Pollen. He’s a food journalist, and I find his work so sensible and so inspiring. I think he make more sense than any of us on food. He’s a fascinating man, and he really influenced my own thinking on food. Vegcentric is his line of thinking repackaged slightly. So I had a growing awareness for it around 2015. I can’t claim to always have been that way inclined, but it’s a sort of process that I found very interesting, and I’ve tried to educate myself about it as it’s gone along.
After Masterchef, you started your own pop-up, Hare on the Hill.
I did, and my USP was that it was a vegcentric supper club. And I hope that that speaks to something I mentioned earlier about vegcentric being inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s not about what we don’t include in the diet. It’s about one diet for all of us that ticks all the boxes and is very inclusive. So the way I structured menus was… well, I always did croquettes for starters, because who doesn’t love something deep-fried and salty to start a meal [laughs]? But there was always two croquettes with a lovely sauce. One would include meat or fish, and one would be vegetarian. And then there were sharing plates on the table and one or two might have meat or fish, like a rillettes or a pâté with some sourdough, and then there’d be fermented pickles, and then there’d always be a vegetarian option and a grain-based salad as well.
So the sharing course was “one menu for all”, which made my job in the kitchen more about creating the best dishes I could, rather than thinking, “Who’s vegetarian?” or “How many pescatarians have I got?” or “This person needs a different dish”. It was all sharing, all very communal, and then the main course was always plant-based. It wasn’t necessarily vegan, but incase I had any vegans in I would never rely on cheese or eggs to be the bulk of that. So, celebrating plants at the centre of the main course and the centre of the meal. A vegcentric menu that people seemed to enjoy, and I liked the communal aspect of it that meant that, in such an open and sharing forum like a supper club, the vegan dish didn’t need to be the poor man’s option, or that you felt strange because you had to have the vegetarian main course. It was all very inclusive.
Had you noticed at that point that people were moving towards that sort of thing, or were you just happily surprised that everybody seemed to have gone the way that you’ve been going?
[Laughs] No, people were [going that way]. It was very much a rising tide. All of us now talk about eating more plants in our diet, and I think that started about three or four years ago.
I feel like I’m about to open the cage doors and let you run riot, because you love talking about fermentation. But, obviously with me being here as a representative of Real Kombucha, fermentation is our thing. So, tell me about your interest in fermentation. I guess I’m interested in where it came from – did it come out of your interest in plant-based stuff, or was it there before? – and I’m also fascinated with the idea that fermentation can be seen as part of the artist’s palette; you can do some much with it. So what does fermentation bring you as a chef? Go!
Go! [Laughs] Such good questions! I’m excited! So… to answer the first half on where it came from, I think it totally was simultaneous with my growing interest in a vegcentric diet. That’s because I think the two go hand in hand. I would go so far as to argue that the complex flavours of fermented foods and condiments are vegan (or vegcentric) cooking’s closest ally. I love a plant-based diet – I’m pretty much vegan myself – and I would never be rude about plant-based cooking at all, but just by nature of having a smaller larder in terms of ingredients you can draw on, it runs the risk of being less exciting than an omnivore’s larder. Just numerically speaking. And animal proteins do interesting things under heat. They caramelise, and very effortlessly for the chef, they give fantastic and complex flavours which are harder to create in the plant kingdom. Not impossible, but harder.
And that’s where I think fermentation comes into the plant-based chef’s larder. The beautiful complexities of flavour that layer up over time in ‘krauts, kimchis, misos, kefir – that is so helpful for creating food that is completely exciting, that you’re so looking forward to sitting down and eating. And even just a little inclusion of a fermented product can totally enhance a vegcentric dish.
Give me an example.
Argh! [Laughs] Well, basically, anything with a bit of miso before you roast it is super easy. I brew a lot of dairy kefir. That’s pretty much the one thing that stops me being fully vegan…
It’s sitting right here, bubbling away.
Yes, there it is next to the water kefir. That has got such a savoury tang that I’m completely addicted to. I use it in a lot of savoury dressings, so that whizzed up with some fresh herbs makes a sort of creamy green sauce with far more intensity and complexity than you could ever hope to achieve through a mayonnaise-based sauce or even a crème fraîche or yoghurt sauce. It’s like the best yoghurt and crème fraîche dialled up to 10! So that’s an example of a really simple fermented food hack that quickly injects a lot of complexity.
I suppose the idea that you can cook with ferment-based sauces suggests longevity or a long period of gestation, because you’re essentially dealing with slow cooking or slow creation. So is it a good idea for somebody to have these things around the house, bubbling away like you’ve got there, or are you talking about the kind of thing that people can just buy in and throw into their food?
I think, if people don’t have the time or inclination, you can totally buy it. There are great kombucha brands now – of course there are [laughs] – but you can get good kimchi that is unpasteurised, so you’ve got lovely live bacteria – the food feels very living. You can buy great quality miso. I really think people should make their own ‘kraut, because (a) it’s so much fun, and (b) it’s so easy and cheap. When you buy it it’s not cheap and you lose out on the fun.
But that’s another example. I’m big into zero waste as well, and the byproduct of ‘krauts and kimchi is the brine – that probiotic-rich ferment liquor that’s sitting in the jar. I use that half the time instead of vinegar. A few spoonfuls of that in my lunchbox to take to work is brilliant. It’s got all the acidity and zing and complexity that you could wish for.
You mentioned kombucha… have you cooked with it?
I’ve used it in the sense that I understand it. If you cooked with it you’d be killing… not the flavour because it would still taste delicious, but the beneficial live bacteria. I’ve used it in things. Going back to Hare On the Hill, there was a pre-dessert course that was this dinky little vegan cheesecake set in little glass teabag holders that I bought for, like, 50p each (they ended up being the best investment ever! The amount of time those guys got used was crazy!) Anyway, it had a little ganache on top to offset the creamy base, and it was always something quite zingy. I had over-brewed my kombucha, which tends to make it slightly vinegary – almost a nice shrub flavour – and I did a kombucha shrub granita on top of the vegan cheesecake. They offset each other beautifully. So that’s one example. Salad dressing is another big one. Again, not cooking but using it to enhance plant-based cooking.
I have great plans to try and put some of this stuff together, but I have to admit that I’m not even slightly a cook or a chef. So the great plans will first involve learning to be a cook or a chef…
Haha! Or just do really easy stuff. Kombucha popsicles in the summer! You know you get those plastic moulds? Freeze it down. It’ll be great.
You could stick some fruit in it, or maybe if you want to make it sweeter (because it looses sweetness when you freeze it), a dash of elderflower cordial and you’ve got a Dry Dragon popsicle! Dry Dragon with a bit of elderflower in a popsicle would be stunning, I think.
Cool, well you heard it here first. Joey O’Hare’s Kombcuha Popsicles!
You can have that as a bit of new product development [laughs].
So… Hare On the Hill. What happened to that?
It naturally ran its course. It was super hard work. I was cooking from here, from this tiny little Brixton kitchen, and renting a friend’s food photography studio in Clapham. The venue was stunning. In fact, I’m humble enough to admit that the venue was probably the best thing about it! It was just so cool [laughs]. It had all these beautiful props and styling, and gorgeous lighting. I just absolutely loved it, and I’m so proud of what we were able to achieve. And I say “we” because we built up this band of merry helpers, and it was so much a collaborative team effort. Some of those people have become best friends.
We had a ball, really enjoyed it and it was so fulfilling. And I was taking on other bits of freelance work and recipe writing for different plant-based brands, and, naturally, I think I got everything out of it that I hoped to achieve. I wasn’t ready to make the leap from semi-permanent supper club to real bricks and mortar restaurant. That was next-level scary. I have so much respect for the people who do that, because I think that’s extraordinary.
Is that something you’d like to do one day?
I think yes and no. Yes, in the sense that you always fantasise about it, but no in terms practicality. I don’t think that’s my course. It is so much hard work. Like I said, I have crazy levels of respect for the chefs who turn their hand to it, take a risk and make it happen. I have had some experience in that, being responsible for the management of a cafe site in this case, and it is back-breaking stuff.
But with your love of words then surely it’s a Joey O’Hare cookbook for you, right?
I would love to do that. I’m not ashamed to say that that’s absolutely the dream. Whether that’s on my own way into the future, or with All Plants, who I work with at the moment and I’m sure we’ll come on to. That’s very much on our radar as a brand. I would love to work on a cookbook, for sure, and in the meantime I blog a bit on my personal website, www.foodwithtime.com, and I share recipes about fermentation and big seasonal salads.
Well, you did one for us recently. (You can read that here.) Thank you very much for that.
Yes! You’re welcome! But, yes, I write about seasonal one-pot wonders and very accessible but (I hope) interesting and exciting cooking. I blog about that there. It would be wonderful to write a book.
That does lead us very neatly onto All Plants. Tell me about All Plants, because it’s quite an interesting thing.
All Plants is awesome! In a nutshell, it’s a vegan foodie startup… although I don’t think startup does it justice. It’s smashing it! It’s such an amazing and inspiring company, founded by two very cool brothers. One comes from a foodie FMCG background, and one comes from a consultancy background. They have wicked complimentary skillsets. They’ve built up a team of about 30 in the office and 50 in the kitchens. We’re growing quickly.
50 in the kitchens?! That’s not a startup!
I know! It’s impressive what our outputs are. We’ve had a fun Veganuary, that’s for sure! Lots of people taking up the pledge and signing up. We make really delicious and exciting plant-based convenience food. It’s direct-to-consumer, which is awesome. It’s a subscription-based model. Customers order in boxes of six, whether that’s single-serve meals or double-serve meals for you and a partner or flatmate, and you can choose the regularity with which you receive your delicious suppers.
OK, so what’s the difference between that and something like Hello Fresh?
So, there are a few models like Hello Fresh where you get the ingredients and then you cook it at home, whereas this is ultra convenience. So you can microwave the meals or oven-cook them. All the cooking is completely done for you. It’s a really planet-forward company, so we’re pretty much carbon neutral, all the packaging is recycled or recyclable. Over 40% of our customers return the insulated boxes, which is really nice because reusing is actually better than recycling because obviously you’re producing less new stuff. So we reuse all the packaging. The guys have gone through everything… the attention to detail in terms of our sustainable credentials is just so inspiring. I totally recommend people checking it out!
But what do you do? [Laughs] You’ve just sold it, but what do you do?
I’m a senior development chef, which is a great role. I started in November and I look after some EPD (existing product development), looking across our range at how we can really drive culinary excellence in everything that we do, and looking for micro-refinements. But to be honest, the range is so strong at the moment…
So, you just kinda sit there?!
[Laughs] Yeah, I just sit there. It’s great! And then I do NPD (new product development) – listening to customer feedback and noting areas that they really want to see dishes in, whether it’s comfort food or really adventurous street food-style dishes. We have a small team and we ideate around those briefs. It’s a really interesting process. It’s very easy to make something delicious at a domestic scale, but then managing that process through to a large-scale cook by the kitchen team… it’s great fun. There are so many challenges that you wouldn’t even think of. When you scale up a recipe, it is never just straight maths. It’s not, “Oh, let’s increase it by 200”, or whatever, because garlic will do one thing, ginger will do one thing, salt will do one thing… It’s like you’re a puppeteer and you dangle all those strings and look after those ingredients throughout the scaling process.
It’s an interesting point. We find that with kombucha as well. People make the assumption that if you can brew a four-litre Kilner jar of kombucha, you can do it in a 400 litre vat because of maths. But actually, science gets in the way!
Science gets in the way, all sorts of things get in the way. With kombucha, it’s the methodology as well. Even just the amount of negative space you might have in a fermentation vessel can dictate the rate at which it ferments. So you can’t say, “Oh, it’ll ferment in a week as normal”. And you guys will have the added variations in temperature and daylight. There all sorts of variables at play, and it’s not just a simple equation. I wish it were, but it’s not. Actually, I don’t wish that at all. It’s quite fun.
Somebody said something interesting to me the other day. They said, “the great thing about being vegan is that you have to become mindful in the kitchen”. As you’ve just said, you have to think about what you’re left out and what you’re going to put in its place. So you have to become thoughtful about what you’re doing, rather than just bang, bang, bang – pulling stuff out of a freezer, or whatever.
Exactly. And mindful in two respects: one, mindful as in vegan cooking makes you work a little harder as a cook because if you put a steak in a pan, if that’s your jam, that will be delicious because of the way it caramelises, whereas veggies aren’t necessarily going to give you that complexity straight away, so you’ve got to be mindful and think, “how am I going to inject texture and umami and depth”. Maybe it’s different temperatures, like a nice cooling sauce on a warm curry. You’ve got to be creative and playful to create something super exciting.
So you’re mindful in that respect. But also, I think, because you are making a decision that is very planet-forward, that bleeds into all that you do. So you might opt for things that aren’t packaged in tonnes of plastic. You might be thinking more about implementing zero-waste policies in your kitchen, so using all of the veg, not just hacking off the top and tail and throwing it in the bin. I think it naturally draws out other more mindful behaviours in the kitchen, which is a great thing.
All Plants… is it London-specific? Do you have to be in London to use it?
No, not at all. It’s UK-wide. It’s fantastic. You can get it anywhere.
You just logon to…
www.allplants.com [laughs] I think we’re running a cool campaign at the moment where you can nominate a friend and you both get £20 off and we plant a tree. There’s lots going on – lots of reasons to sign up.
Just to bring it back to London a little bit, because that is where we are… I’m interested in the idea that a recent report said that Bristol is the most vegan city in the world, but I think there’s no doubt that London has such a wide range of plant-based and plant-first options now in terms of eating out.
Yes, it does.
And it has rocketed from just a few years ago. The idea that being vegan is a struggle is absolutely not the case anymore.
No, we’re very lucky.
If you are going to go out… Er… Nope! Let’s cut the question shorter!
Where are the three best plant-based restaurants for you at the moment, in your opinion?
Oh, good question. Two immediately spring to mind and I like them because they’re so different. One is uber-fancy, Michelin star, crazy special occasion, and that’s Gautier in Soho. And that’s going back to the first head chef I ever worked for, Alexis Gautier. He has really pushed vegan cooking into “Haute Cuisine” (he’s a Frenchman, so I don’t mind using that phrase!) He has a whole vegan tasting menu with wine pairings, and it’s proper, stunning cookery. It’s nice to see that challenging the fine dining space as well. There are a few other chefs doing it, which is wicked, but I think Alexis is doing it brilliantly. So that’s somewhere that’s really exciting.
Do you spend a lot of time there?
Haha! No, I don’t! I did go a year ago. He’s so nice. He recognises me and says a big hello. He’s so friendly. But, no… I wish I could spend more time there.
And another one, totally different end of the spectrum, but there’s a new brand called Club Cultured. They’re three lads who are fermenting their own tempeh here in the UK, and (a) it’s delicious tempeh, and (b) they do these wicked club sandwiches and arancini balls, and it’s just really highly flavoured – awesome flavoured street food. But they haven’t taken it too far down the vegan junk food route – we’re seeing a lot of that at the moment and it totally has its place, it’s just not how I personally enjoy eating. Tempeh being the whole fermented soy bean smashed into a kind of patty. I suppose the closest thing in a club sandwich would be the chicken breast, and texturally it’s not too far away.
Where are they based?
I think they’re a kind of pop-up, so they move around to different street feasts and markets. They appeared at Vegan Nights recently, which was great. I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing. I think they’re smashing it and I think their food is delicious.
And thirdly, I would say… there’s a new restaurant on Mare Street called Plant Hub, which I respect because it’s not just a cafe but also a culinary academy and they have a good events schedule. There’s life-drawing classes with vegetables and, y’know, naked models [laughs]. There’s cooking courses and lots going on that’s spreading the vegan message beyond just vegan food on a plate – kind of what that means more broadly, which I think is really cool. So, yeah… those are my three.
Excellent! Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you so much for having me!
And if people want to find out more about what you’re doing?
Yes! Instagram probably is the best.
Can I just say, I like your Instagram for two reasons. One, that it’s your typical foodie Instagram thing, but I like the interjection of the books.
Oh, thank you!
It gives you something to think about and some recommendations for things to go off and read. I’ve got a couple of things on my reading list that I got from you.
I like it too, because people comment back and say, “Oh, that’s great – you’d really enjoy blah blah!” So I get recommendations, too. It’s a great space to share. I must do more of that, actually. I read a lot, but I only save my best, best books to share on Instagram… one of which has been Eating Animals, which has been influential on me of late.
Find out more about Joey O’Hare via her Instagram account, @joeyscooking, or her website: www.cookingwithtime.com. You can grab your Real Kombucha, brewed for open minds, from www.realkombucha.co.uk. Podcast music by Airtone.
Hello, and welcome to the Real Podcast, produced by Real Kombucha – non-alcoholic fermentation at its finest – and presented by Jon Wilks. This is our second episode (you’ll find the first on our blog or on any of our podcasting channels), and we’re continuing very much in the vein established in our first. Allow me to explain. (Note: You can click on the podcast player below if you’d prefer just to listen.)
First and foremost, our blogs and our podcasts are an attempt to document the adventure we’re on. We launched Real Kombucha in the early autumn of 2017, and it has been a wonderful journey so far. We’ve met some fascinating, passionate people along the way, so we use our digital platforms to help spread their word, too. These people are experts in their field, so it’s a real privilege to spend time with them, learning about what they do.
So, for this podcast I came down to Bristol, and I have to be honest: there were three motives at play. Firstly, it was to find out about the booming vegan and plant-based food scene that has found a home in these parts – so booming, in fact, that articles across the web last week claimed that Bristol had more vegan-related Google searches than anywhere else in the world. Secondly, I wanted to get inside the mind of some of the chefs serving that plant-based scene – to find out how veganism might represent a wonderful form of constrained creativity. And thirdly I wanted to cheekily eat some of their amazing food. Well, wouldn’t you if you had the chance?
Ultimately, what I think I found was a scene and a city that embraces and celebrates open-mindedness. But before we jump to any conclusions, let me introduce the cast. I’ll be chatting to Rob Howell, the Head Chef at Root, a veg-first restaurant in the ultra-hip Whapping Wharf; to Elliott Lidstone and Tessa Lidstone, the Head Chef and co-owner of Box-e, also in Whapping Wharf, and to James Koch, the co-owner at Suncraft and the Gallimaufry on Gloucester Road. (Each of these work with Real Kombucha on their non-alcoholic options.)
It’s at Suncraft that I began, sitting down with James to ask him about those Google results. Some reporters went as far as to say that Bristol was now the recognised vegan capital of the world. Did that surprise him?
James: To a certain extent, yes, because it still feels very young and formative, but I suppose that’s similar all over the world. Bristol itself, I’ve been here for 22 years and the more it gets under your skin, the more you get under its skin, and you realise it is a slightly peculiar place relative to the UK and the rest of the world in its politic, probably. It’s quite a liberal republic society here – very progressive. The sort of things that push people towards an interest in veganism, such as animal welfare, the environment and personal health – they’re all things you see here.
Over at Box-e, Elliot and Tessa Lidstone agree.
Elliott: It certainly feels, since we’ve opened, there’s been more of a trend to vegetarian and vegan eating. Definitely.
Tessa: I think the nice thing about it is that people are very interested in where their food comes from. So, whatever it is that they’re eating – vegetables, meat or fish – we get a lot of customers ask us where we get our produce from… which I like, I have to say. I like that people are a bit more self-aware.
Elliott and Tessa Lidstone, Box-e. Photo by Chloe Edwards
I’m aware, of course, that I’m talking here to people that cook an awful lot of vegan food. I wonder if perhaps their views are skewed, so I head next door to Root, where I find Chef Rob Howell glowing over a freshly cooked sourdough. I wonder if you’d find a keen reception if you were to ask your average Bristolian on the street about being vegan.
Rob: It depends which street you’re walking on! [Laughs] I think so… I really think so. It’s the same here with my diet. I’m not a vegan in any sense. I love my meat and fish, and in the last couple of years I don’t eat a quarter the amount of meat or fish that I used to. [Veganism] is great here for staff food, too. At the moment we have ox tongue, and that’s all the meat we have. Where I used to work, staff food would always be trim or minced meat or some sort of curry you’ve made with trim. Here, all we have is vegetables. It’s nice . You feel better for it. I think that shows in Bristol, in the UK, even. Slowly but surely, people are understanding that we don’t need to have a massive piece of meat with every dish. It makes sense.
As someone who has flirted with vegetarianism and veganism for the past 20 years, it’s clear that there’s been a vast sea-change in the way people think about these things, and one that seems to have become fairly mainstream fairly quickly. Rob himself has seen it firsthand. He tells me that when the restaurant launched only a couple of years ago, he was putting four meat dishes on the menu each day. Two years later, that has fallen to one.
A freshly baked sourdough at Root, where inspiration comes from anywhere
Rob: I felt the need and demand for the meat dishes wasn’t there. We’d have them on and not sell even one a day when we were doing fifty or sixty covers. We went down and down [on the meat dishes], and now I think people come because it’s vegan. We have parties with big tables and they come because there’s vegan options. Especially at Christmas, people would choose us because out of 10 friends, four would be vegan.
And if you’re assuming that it’s an older, traditionally left-leaning crowd that is embracing this move towards a more vegan, plant-based lifestyle, then James Koch has news for you.
James: From early on, we recognised that we wanted to distance ourselves from (and there’s nothing wrong with it at all) “hippy culture” and political veganism, and that this is something that is, if it hasn’t already, going to go into the mainstream for good reason, and there’s no need for us to be hard on the politic about it. So, it’s an option for good, healthy food that happens to be vegan, and certainly it’s a very broad demographic of people that we have in here.
Funnily enough, when we were doing some research on it, we went down to a restaurant in London. One of the things I was really blown away by was the demographic in this place. It looked like it was 14 to 20, and it was just really buzzing. I was talking to the kids in there, and they travel from the other side of London to be there. I was expecting it to be similar here [in Bristol], but it’s very, very broad – from a younger demographic that are interested in their health (and it seems to be the same with younger people: less smoking, drinking, taking drugs, so it stands to reason that diet might be in the mix with those things); from younger teenagers to past retirement.
While James says the “heavy politic” is unnecessary to his business, it’s still clear that it’s a key part of what turns people onto a more plant-based lifestyle. Later on in the conversation he tells me, “I personally will eat vegetarian/vegan, and occasionally I’ll have something that has fish, meat and dairy in it as and when I feel like it, especially if it’s well-sourced and I can trust where it’s come from. And probably that’s what most people, more and more people are behaving. That said, I think people are becoming more and more aware of the reality of the industrial farming complex and it’s uncomfortable. We’re brainwashed, really, to not know what really goes on in these organisations, and it’s difficult to unlearn it once you see the footage that’s very easily available on social media.”
Grey skies, bright lights. Box-e at Whapping Wharf
Over at Box-e, Tessa agrees. In fact, it’s a key part of the ethos on which their restaurant thrives – an ideology that you might call ingredient-led rather than chef-led. It feels like a wonderfully ego-less, humble way of cooking, and I have to say, I love it.
Tessa: The cheesemonger that we use, she pretty much exclusively sources cheese from the neighbouring counties. But you think how much amazing cheese is produced in Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire – literally just a stone’s throw from where we are. It’s the same with vegetables. There are so many beautiful vegetables produced really close. There are big fruit farms like New Cross Fruit Farm that grow loads of asparagus. We get quite a lot of customers come in who have allotments and they’ll give us produce that they’ve got too much of. My dad has an allotment as well, and he’s always given us spare produce. People like the fact that we’re a small restaurant and they know that Elliott changes the menu regularly. If something comes in that’s super fresh, or our fishmonger or our veg supplier says, “We’ve got this at the moment and it’s beautiful… do you want some?” we’ll say, “Yeah! Let’s do that!” It’s almost working the other way around. Instead of Elliott saying, “I’m going to have this, regardless of whether it’s ripe or not in season yet”, we kind of do it the other way around. We’ve got a nice relationship with a lot of our suppliers in that sense.
Does she think that expands beyond the glass walls of her shipping container restaurant?
Tessa: There was perhaps a point where people thought, “Oooh, we can get strawberries 12 months of the year. Isn’t that great!” And then they took a step back from it and thought, “Actually, maybe it’s not that great.” It’s kind of like the rise of consumerism saw that possible, and so people did it because it was possible. Now it’s like, “Just because we can get strawberries 12 months of the year doesn’t mean we should.” So, people have kind of reached the boom and then got back from that slightly. And then I think things are enjoyed more. Yorkshire forced rhubarb has just come into season, and it’s like, “Woah!” It’s exciting to have that on the menu, and we’ll have it for as long as we can get it. Asparagus! How lovely to have asparagus for that small period of the year when you can get it. It doesn’t mean that for the rest of the year I’ll buy it from Peru. I kind of savour that moment when you can have something that’s really tasty, grown fairly local to you. You kind of enjoy that more.
So, we’ve talked a lot about how veganism is opening minds and bringing people together, both in Bristol and beyond. Eventually we have to stop talking, though, and start digging in. I see this as the ideal opportunity to get a bit cheeky and ask for a bit of free food. Elliot steps up to the plate, literally, pulls on his apron and talks me through light but luscious dish, the photos of which you can find on the blogpost accompanying this podcast. As he cooks I wonder aloud about how he found his way into the chef life.
Elliott Lidstone at work in the Box-e kitchen
Elliott: I’ve always been into food anyway, and I used to do a lot of scouting – I used to go to scout camps, so obviously I used to cook there and for people as well. So I realised that, actually, I quite enjoyed cooking for people, not just cooking in general. And after that I knew that the direction I was going to go in was catering, so I went to catering college and went from there, really. But yeah, from being in the Scouts I think really cemented my idea that I was going to do something with food. What’s secret Scouting flavour combination? Bolognese was standard, but I always used to bring some bits and bobs from home to tart it up a bit. The secret weapon? An Oxo cube!
So, is there a sense of restraint that comes with preparing vegan dishes as a trained and celebrated chef? Rob Howell recalls his apprehension on the day Josh Eggleton, the owner of Root, asked him to think vegetables-first.
Rob: When Josh Eggleton first said about it, I was a little bit unsure. My background is that I’ve worked in three very good fish restaurants, so my background was fish before working at the Pony & Trap for five years. Vegetables wasn’t my forte, as such. It’s been amazing. Starting in the kitchen, equipment-wise, we had nothing. We still do. I said to Josh, “I need a vac pack machine; I need this, that…”, but you don’t need any of it. When you strip it back it’s more exciting to go back to basics. We’ve got a couple of inductions and a chargrill and we do absolutely fine.
Back at Box-e, Elliott muses on the same question.
Elliott: I think it’s being sensible and looking back, and not just concentrating on an ingredient. It’s so easy to put cheese or dairy into something without even thinking, as classically trained you would do. So, whenever I do something vegetarian or vegan, I take the main component of whatever it might be and work back from that and try and make sure that everything harmonises – not having a dairy or meat product as a substitute for something. Every season has its own wonderful vegetable or fruit, so it’s just about taking whatever’s around at the time and really emphasising that.
Once again, it’s about reaching for what’s around you and keeping an open mind. Tessa agrees.
Tessa: Some people have very set ideas of how a vegetable is going to taste, like beetroot. Then they’ll taste it and think, “Oh, there is another way of eating this and it doesn’t have to just be pickled in a jar. Although I love any kind of pickled food, so I’m not going to diss a pickled beetroot!”
The perfect combination at Box-e
Meanwhile, Elliott has finished cooking my lunch, so I ask him to talk me through what he’s put together.
Elliott: I’ve just cooked you a roasted leek with goats curd, capers and some Jerusalem artichoke crisps. Leeks are lovely at the moment, so I really wanted to do something with them – starting off with them. If you steam and then roast them, you get that lovely caramelised flavour. I also wanted something with a bit of tartness, so the goats curd is lovely – you’ve got the creamy, lactic flavour of that. And then the Jerusalem artichoke crisps have got that lovely texture to them, and the leek is soft, you’ve got the texture of that as well as the goats curd. The capers bring another acidity to play as well. It all kind of works together.
In my head I can taste all the bits individually, then think what would work with that texturally. Once you put it on the plate and taste it, you’ll know what might need tweaking – more acidity, less acidity. It’s just experience, I think. It’s like if you make music: if you can play the piano and don’t have to read music, you just know what’s going to work. It’s similar to that, really. It’s what you do every day, in and out. Second nature, I guess.
I’m intrigued by this idea of a chef being able to taste things in their minds. Does Rob have that same culinary clairvoyance?
Rob: Some of the dishes go on without fully sitting down and eating the dish as a whole. You know the elements. Sometimes you’ve just got to go for it. Some of the dishes we’ve created – the hispi cabbage with seaweed butter, pickled shallots and radish was literally a dish from when we first opened and we had nothing. We were really busy one lunch and we’d run out of so many things, I kind of chucked it together without thinking about it. A year later (obviously it has changed through the seasons) it’s still on the menu. Sometimes you just have to run with it, and sometimes you think, let’s taste this because it’s not the straightforward meat and two veg. We do try and… not push the boundaries; we’re not breaking any… not doing anything crazy new. The main thing is actually making food that you wanna eat, that’s actually tasty. Sometimes you have to put away your chefiness, trying to make it look its most beautiful. We’ve got some pakoras on the menu, totally vegan and gluten-free. We serve them with some salted plum and pickled plum, but to eat it’s just reminiscent of going to your local curry house… do you know what I mean? It’s not breaking boundaries, but it’s tasty and we’re busy and people like it, so it’s great.
Rob Howell (right) in the kitchen at Root, Bristol
Now we’re on a roll. I love digging into the way that people access their creativity, so I pepper Rob with more questions. Where does he get his inspiration?
Rob: It’s through not one thing, but many things. Social media has changed everything, cooking-wise. Sharing ideas… you’re seeing hundreds of dishes everyday on Instagram, and I think that obviously some are going to stick with you and you’re definitely going to take inspiration from that. You can’t possibly not. I love to eat out – I don’t eat out as much as I used to – but you definitely draw inspiration from that. It makes a massive difference when you go out and you realise what you like to eat, and then bringing that back into the kitchen.
We went to Ivan Ramen and had a ramen there. It was amazing. We had a cauliflower dish with some koji butter, but it was like a curry sauce. It kind of stuck with me, so I came back and tried to make a really mild curry sauce…. I made a curry sauce but it’s totally vegan. I roasted it with a nut butter instead of using cream and I was really happy with it. You wouldn’t know it’s not like a chicken-based thing. We roasted some celeriac to riff off a curry dish. We were going to do some puffed rice, but we went for tapioca crisps. The salt-baked celeriac is like the chicken element in the curry sauce. We’re working on it now and it should be ready today. I’m really happy with that.
Elliott is much the same, and I find it interesting that he likens the creative process to that of a musician.
Elliott: It’s always at the back of my mind. Something’s ticking away, and I’ll always write things down. Trying to find the time to play with dishes is always the tricky part, so maybe I’ll scrabble bits together and do a prototype dish – maybe get some other people to have a taste of it and then go from there. So it’s always constantly ticking away. It never stops.
Tessa Lidstone at Box-e, Bristol. Photo by Chloe Edwards
As my time in Bristol comes to an end, I’m left pondering the city’s place in the burgeoning Vegan scene. Certainly, the rise in successful vegan Google searches would suggest that there’s plenty here for the growing community. Undoubtedly the city’s natural left-leaning politic has something to do with the ease with which that community feels at home, but there’s also a sense of pride that fans the flames and helps it to flourish. When Jay Rayner came to review Box-E, he spoke of something that he called ‘the defined Bristolian style’. I wonder what that might be, and it’s Tessa who has the final word.
Tessa: I would say a fire for doing something different and being independent and standing up for that. I was pleased to see that that was still here when we opened – that people really celebrate small business here, or creatives or individual artists doing their own thing, and people are very proud to say, “This is Bristol, and they’re mine, actually. These people come from here.”
Our thanks to James Koch of Suncraft and the Gallimaufry, Tessa and Elliot Lidstone at Box-e and Rob Howell at Root. You can grab your Real Kombucha, brewed for open minds, from www.realkombucha.co.uk. Podcast music by Airtone.
Mulled booch, eh? In years gone by, the idea of a non-alcoholic Christmas would’ve been unthinkable. (Indeed, there are members of our team that can’t even remember Christmases in years gone by because of the alcohol.) However, as anyone who reads our blog regularly will know, we’re excited by these more modern times in which choice isn’t seen as a bad thing and non-drinkers are welcomed back to rejoin the party. We often say we’re “Brewed for open minds”, and there has never been a better time for open-mindedness in the world of food and drink.
With so many people turning away from heavy drinking these days, it’s pretty much a given that a good number of people turning up at your Christmas party will be looking for an alternative. If it’s a non-alcoholic Prosecco they’re after, give them a flute of Royal Flush. If they’re looking for a non-alcoholic cider, or something that feels more like a real ale, pour them a glass of our Smoke House. If they’d like something that feels a little lighter altogether, a nice glass of our Dry Dragon should do the trick.
However, if they’re really in the mood for something festive, we’ve got just the thing. Pardon the pun, but you could say we’ve been mulling this one over for some time…
Mulled Booch Recipe
Put a spin on mulled wine with Real Kombucha’s festive recipe
- 2 bottles of Real Kombucha Royal Flush
- 2 teaspoons demerara sugar
- Zest of 1/4 of a lemon or 3-4 vertical shavings off a medium lemon
- 6 bruised green cardamom pods
- 1” piece of cinnamon stick and/ or star anise
Mulled booch method
- Add the two bottles of Royal Flush to the pan and bring to a boil
- Add the demerara sugar, lemon zest, 6 cardamom pods, and a 1” piece of cinnamon stick
- Steep for at least 20 minutes to let the flavours round out
- Remove the ingredients so you don’t overwhelm the drink
- Serve in a glass and garnish with lemon
What we’ve found in our experimentations is that star anise in place of the cardamom works really well. It’s also the case that some people prefer more sugar for a sweeter taste – each to their own! Oh, and one more thing: be careful with the cinnnamon – you can have too much of a good thing, and it has a tendency to overpower the other flavours in the mulled booch when used without self control!
As London Cocktail Week comes into focus, kombucha cocktails are really grabbing the attention. Mixologists all over the country are starting to realise just how well the acidity in this amazing fermented drink binds their flavours together, whether they’re making something more traditionally punchy, a low ABV cocktail, or even something to serve the growing number of people choosing not to drink alcohol. (more…)