He's a TV star, a tireless sustainability campaigner… and a shrewd businessman. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tells Kerstin Kühn why he's launching a professional cookery school and why responsible hospitality is much more than a fashionable focus on using local food
Where did the idea for River Cottage cookery school come from?
We didn't want it to be a restaurant or a conventional cookery school - we just wanted to follow our instincts and passions and see where that took us. So we started off with a pig day and a fish day and dinners on Friday and Saturday nights.
Gill Meller - who now runs the cookery school here - was our first recruit. From there this thing has evolved. We started making a lot of the TV on the same premise as this novel enterprise and as we added more courses and more structure and recruited Rob Greacen as managing director to drive the business, we decided that instead of allowing it to evolve us, we would shape what we wanted to do a bit more carefully.
When did you decide to push this to the â¨next level?
A couple of years ago we got to a point where we felt very confident that what we were doing was very different and that we had something to offer beyond the very lovely amateur cooks who come here and learn and walk away with a new-found passion for smoking fish or growing their own veg. We're not just running courses for them - we're running a restaurant, regular dinners, lots of corporate hospitality and are blazing a trail for provenance in catering.
I believe we are setting among the highest standards in the land in terms of sourcing very locally, growing a lot of food ourselves and making sure that everyone who comes to eat with us in whatever capacity knows the full story of where the food they are eating is coming from.
So why the professional cookery school?
We already had loads of industry professionals coming to us anyway. Even serious professional chefs, butchers or people who run delis were coming here, some with a tremendous amount of industry knowledge, mostly quite happy to go at the pace of our amateurs and main guests. But increasingly it became clear that there was a separate demand from professionals. We could run fast-track courses, streamlined and structured in terms of their actual needs. What that means is that we can offer people something that is very specifically tailored to their business.
How much has the expansion with the River Cottage Canteen had to do with this?
It has informed it a great deal because we've had to train a lot of people. We've taken people of varying skill levels, but they're people who we believe have the right mind-set and fundamental abilities to be River Cottage chefs.
We've taken them on and sometimes we've put them through courses, sometimes we've stuck them straight in the kitchen and mentored them, sometimes we've had them in the canteen for a few weeks. That all works very well because when you put someone on a sort of crazy merry-go-round they learn an awful lot very quickly. But, of course, that's then someone you want to hold on to for as long as you can reap the benefits of their skill levels.
So are you able to translate that for other people?
We can harness those same skills and same knowledge and deliver it to people in a packet so that they can come and learn and go back and enhance their own businesses - and that's really exciting. We can teach people how to implement the skills they learn here at their own business.
Cost is a major factor. Can you help people to run their business sustainably both in terms of the environment and the economy?
We can anticipate their questions. When people say "That's all great but we can't do that", we can say "You can because we have already done it".
Sustainability in terms of the environment and sourcing is key, but economic sustainability gets overlooked sometimes. We want to teach people about sustainable business practices that are not just about content but also about long-term employment. We are walking the talk in three operations at our Canteens in Axminster, Plymouth and Bristol and are showing that you can source very locally, engage with community agriculture and fisheries and still put food on the plate at fantastically competitive prices. You can do it - we are doing it!
What's the key to success?
People need to identify what they want to achieve and we can then help steer them in the right direction. You can't wave a magic wand and change everything overnight. You have to find a central passion or two for your kitchen team to grab and then do that fantastically well, make it your thing. Whether that's well-aged meat that's locally sourced or sustainable fish or maybe you really want to up your game in offering vegetarian food. We can help people find this central passion and give them the confidence to do this.
How do you do this? You've got to find what the talent is in your organisation and give it a chance to shine.
There's way too much cooking by numbers and cooking according to a false sense of customer expectations. If you go back 10 to 15 years, so much effort went into making plates look cool and the quality of ingredients was secondary. But now if people want to make an impression they know that the most authentic and honest way is through food sourcing and top provenance. It can take you a lot further than sugar cages.
As a sustainability champion, what more needs to be done for the industry to really embrace sustainable business practices? Sustainability has so many facets. But I think waste is a huge issue. Too many organisations accept high levels of waste as part of the routine, which is crazy and financially crazy.
If you're wasting food, you're doing something wrong. You're buying the wrong ingredients or putting together the wrong menu.
We buy whole carcasses and we don't waste a scrap. People need the confidence to do that and that's what we want to do. We want to help people gain the confidence to cut down their menus, order whole carcasses, reduce waste and thereby save money.
RIVER COTTAGE CHEFS SCHOOL COURSES
River Cottage Young Chef Apprenticeship Scheme
A 24-day training scheme at the River Cottage Chefs School, including mentoring and assessment in business and tutoring and testing in culinary skills and knowledge. Each apprentice is awarded a City & Guilds Diploma in Professional Cookery at Level 2.
River Cottage Professional Cookery â¨Level 2
This qualification is open to people already working in the industry. Each student is awarded a City & Guilds Diploma in Professional Cookery at Level 2.
River Cottage Professional Cookery â¨Level 3 To launch in June 2014.
City & Guilds accredited one-day courses Bread, Desserts, Fish, Meat, Pastry, Poultry, Game, Stocks, soups and Sauces,Vegetables
RIVER COTTAGE CANTEEN
River Cottage operates three Canteens, in Axminster, Plymouth and Bristol. A fourth site is currently being planned for Winchester, which will be located in an old mill in the centre of the city and open later this year.
River Cottage Canteen managing director Rob Greacen says that, while there are further plans for expansion, the group will grow organically. "There's no corporate agenda, we just know that we'd like to grow the group in a gentle way, so maybe one or two new sites a year. Each one has to be different and special and in an interesting location," he says.
"When we started we didn't really know if it would work - whether we'd be able to run our food strategy across a group of restaurants and still be profitable. We're doing it on a reasonably high volume - our restaurants are typically 120 covers - so we need a high turnover. But it is working, that's the fun thing, and we keep tweaking it as we go along."
River Cottage Canteen's expansion is being funded primarily by the business itself, with some capital raised some years ago to kick-start the initial growth. "So many restaurant groups these days are backed by venture capitalists. We want to be different and keep control over the whole thing," Greacen adds.
THE FISH FIGHT FURORE
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's most recent TV appearance was in the second series of his Hugh's Fish Fight on Channel 4.
In the first series in 2011, the celebrity chef called on EU ministers to ban the discard of unwanted fish, which saw fishing boats legally dump dead fish back in the sea under EU quota regulations. Following his high-profile campaign, the EU this February agreed to introduce a blanket ban on the practice.
"I'm pretty pleased," Fearnley-Whittingstall says. "It has come a long way and we're very close to a fully described ban. There's still some way to go but I think we will have a workable discards ban within the next few months and that's great."
But his most recent Hugh's Fish Fight series, which aired last month, has arguably caused even more of a stir. In it he called on the UK Government to implement more Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in which no fishing is allowed at all. He argued that practices â¨such as scallop dredging and high-impact fishing methods have a detrimental impact â¨on our seas, which should be better â¨protected.
This time, far from receiving the backing of the fishing industry, Hugh's Fish Fight was met with hostility by much of the sector. Seafish warns that a call for such measures, without due consideration of robust scientific evidence and detailed decision-making, presents a very real danger of undermining and undervaluing years of environmental improvements.
Fearnley-Whittingstall has responded to the criticism by saying that, while he acknowledges much has been achieved in the past 10 years, more needs to be done to rebalance the seas.
In his blog he says: "I do care about fishermen and I want to see a future with more jobs, more boats and more fish landed in Britain, not less. I also believe, and I know this will be controversial, that many of those gains (not all) can best be made in the smaller scale, lower-impact end of the industry. And I believe that a network of MCZs that lets our seabed recover to a healthier state should be part of that future, and can facilitate those gains for the industry."
Fearnley-Whittingstall adds that he understands the anxiety and frustration that fishermen feel about MCZs and plans to address the issue directly by spending more time talking to fishermen for a follow-up film.
"But in the end I will continue to make programmes that reflect what I believe in. And those beliefs will always be based on talking to fishermen, scientists, conservationists, politicians, as well as what I see for myself around our coast," he says.