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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
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 Freebook 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.