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Gate meets plate

18 September 2008 by
Gate meets plate

Farmers and chefs don't normally talk very much. But with the cost of food rising, and many people saying local sourcing isn't feasible, now is surely the time for conversation. Ahead of British Food Fortnight, Caterer put some of the top UK producers and major hotel chefs together in the same room. Tom Vaughan reports

What is the relationship between chef and farmer like now?

John Williams Twenty years ago, the French chefs had a good relationship direct with the farmer, simply because by speaking direct they could explain what their requirements were, in the knowledge that together they could produce a product that was constantly improving. Nowadays, hotel chefs and executive chefs, like farmers, don't have a lot of time to meet up. At the Academy of Culinary Arts we have a patron in the Prince of Wales who wanted to support mutton farmers, so gave a challenge to us to help bring it back to the market, and with it came a serious opportunity to meet farmers. What it did, for the first time in a long time, was get a group of farmers and a group of chefs together, and we suddenly started to realise there were problems on both sides. As soon as you get that you will encourage an evolution that gets the product to the consumer with the right quality.

John Geldard All of my experience as a farmer has led me to realise that the consumer is king. It's up to us to work with all the people in the chain and understand their problems, because by doing this we'll have a better chance of them understanding ours. And I have had a massive learning curve as a farmer to understand how, if you want any chance of working with chefs, you must know their problems.

Would you say there are many farmers who are actually doing this?

JG Well, there are considerably more farmers coming up behind me than there were 10 years ago and we've got to work very hard to develop this.

How do you rate British produce?

JW We have some great meat: your Romney Marsh lamb, Frank, for example, or any lamb from the UK knocks the spots off the competition. Our beef is superior to that from France. We have great produce, but what we're not good at is marketing it in the right way, and I still have to buy poultry from France.

Martyn Nail I would love to have British duck on the menu, but the ones we get from France are the Rolls-Royce compared with our inferior models.

JW A lot of our produce ends up on the Continent because of the price, so we have to educate the customer that these items are worth the money.

Mike Powley What are chefs looking for in terms of information from us? Point of source? Breed?

JW All of that, even types of feed are becoming of more interest. The ageing process is a massive thing for people to know about. Many people don't do that properly in a supply chain and that drives me nuts. Among the consumer meats it's diabolical.

What is local food? Does it equate to British?

JW This is a very good question. I'm a British cook and I'm very proud of British produce, and I think we should use as much of it as possible. Yes, I understand the carbon footprint, but using British, is that local enough?

MN The whole carbon footprint thing is picking up speed. Here at the hotel there is a big drive towards it, but you can't source everything within the M25.

JG I think local is what is respected by the consumer as such. It can be British, but you have to be very careful. I think it would be the worst thing for government to try and make a clear definition of local because it would never fit everything.

JW What we should be doing is championing the best. Sell it as the best, not as the nearest.

JG It's amazing how strong the idea of local sourcing has got. It has overtaken the organic movement considerably in the past five to 10 years. Somehow local is easy to understand for the consumer.

Debbie Beaton Isn't local just provenance? Consumers now say they want to know where food comes from, how it is produced. Local for them just means that they know the farm the sheep came from and know it was produced with care. Really, local is a bit of a misnomer.

JG It's such a misnomer you have to be careful no one puts a definition on it. British food is fantastic but we sometimes need outside help. Take New Zealand lamb: I think historically it has done a great job at filling in when we don't have enough of ours to go to market.

JW It's not a patch on ours, though and we shouldn't have it

MN I agree.

JG Personally, I would rather see consumers eating tender, succulent New Zealand lamb at a time when ours is rough old hogget which could give them bad eating.

Frank Langrish Well, as somebody who only lambs in March and April but still supplies 48 weeks of the year, I'm able to say it can be done. The point is, as you move from milk-fed to hogget you have to hang it, and as you hang it you have to let the customer know what they are getting and that they have to change the cooking accordingly.

What's your view on organic food?

JW In some items it can be very important, in others it can be a load of baloney. I say to myself that I have to buy organic lamb and I buy some from Highgrove and it's superb. We also take organic smoked salmon, but what is it? It's farmed fish wrapped up nice saying that it's somehow better than wild. I believe in organic, but not for everything.

MN There is a debate at the moment, with rising prices, that organic is going to go backwards in popularity. The fact is, in most cases, conventional is very similar, and if people are going to have to pay 20% more they won't do it.

How do you see rising food costs having an effect?

JG This has only just started and none of us, not round this table or anywhere else, has a clue what is going to happen. You don't need to be a professor to know things are going to go up, and considerably. Fertiliser has gone from £40 per tonne to £430 per tonne in less than 12 months. We're getting much less subsidy now and there's spiralling costs with fuel. Our budgets just don't stack up. I've no time for whinging farmers but now we're seeing farmers who are doing the costings and realising things just won't stack up. All consumers, from those at the top hotels and restaurants to those in pubs and lower-scale establishments, to the housewife in the supermarket, need to realise that the cost of food has to go back up. They are starting, though, to work out that they must pay more for good food or to use cheaper cuts. Now consumers can see the top chefs on television, come into our farm shop and buy the produce and go and try it at home.

MP In our box scheme for consumers we've found that it's not too hard to interest consumers with other cuts. The perfect example being braising steak, which at first they will get out of the box and wonder what it is, but over time, we've found from the customers we've kept in contact with that they are becoming more and more interested in the other cuts.

JW I agree, I think people are ready to go out and find new products that hit the spot with them. If we want a more consistent, better product, it comes at a cost. Yes, there is a level for everything - there will always be the cheapest and the most expensive, I accept that. What I am asking, though, is why shouldn't we have the best meat in the world?

Is it possible to go direct to the farm gate?

FL I don't think it will ever get to that stage for most restaurants. The best course of action is to find a small butcher out there who can deal first with the supply, and secondly manage the carcass.

JG There should be more abattoirs and chefs trained in butchery and there should be more stockmen trained to manage our farms. Stockmen have a multitude of skills and the thing that is scarcest right along the chain is expertise.

MP The guys working on the farms don't necessarily need to know your demands, but at some point it's going to impact on what they do.

JW What we learnt from the mutton renaissance is that there are a lot of chefs who are happy to go straight to the farmer and buy half a carcass a week. It is starting to change. The moment that you have a meeting like this, ideas will appear. It's just the bridging of a gap. Both chefs and farmers strive for perfection, and if we stretch ourselves in this quest, then the supply between us and the consumers is going to be affected for the better.

Chefs have done a lot of work to put British food on the map. Where is the farming industry in this? It seems they have done a lot less to support it.

JW The only thing I would throw in is that the cost element to chefs is very different for farmers. We are at a much more visible end than farmers. Nine times out of 10 it's the farmer's personal business they are taking time away from, that's not always the same with chefs.

JG I'm worried about the time my boys spend running the farm. We haven't really the time to get out there and promote it as much as we would like.

MP The other massive thing is you guys enjoy working in the limelight - you thrive on it. You need good reviews, you're used to PR. Farmers are the complete opposite. They're not good at PR and often are shy of getting involved.

FL They also don't always understand the process between farm gate and it getting to you. They are beginning to understand now but before, once it left for the abattoir, they are rid of it. That makes it hard for them to get out there and promote it.

How do you see the relationship between chef and farmer developing?

JG One of the most fascinating things I do now is to have a group of chefs on the farm. We show them the animals then take them to the abattoir, then to the procurement place and show them how we cut it up. They're absolutely fascinated. They can't believe the meat that comes into their kitchen has anything to do with this process. We've got to do a lot more of that.

JW You're spot on there. My particular meat supplier is great mates with all his farmers, they all come in and eat at the Ritz and in Claridge's. It's all about working together to improve the product. You also have to advertise your product - link up with a chef you're supplying and, whether it's a food show or an exhibition, get out there. We had lunch at the Ritz for the recent mutton promotion with farmers, and plenty of others on the supply chain. The farmers were desperate to talk to the chefs, and the chefs, likewise, love a bit of knowledge about what's happening on the farms. They've just got to be in one room together.

Academy of Culinary Arts

Aside from his day-job as executive chef at London's Ritz hotel, John Williams is the executive chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts. Founded in 1980, the Academy is a professional association of head chefs, pastry chefs, restaurant managers and suppliers, with the Prince of Wales as its patron. While concerned with raising standards and awareness of food, food provenance, cooking and service, its objectives are also focused on the new generation of young industry members through education, training programmes and help with career opportunities. As well as the proposed Adopt a Farm initiative, the academy has numerous projects running at present.

  • The Chefs Adopt a School project: Began in 1990 and teaches school children all about food, food provenance and cookery through taste sessions delivered by academy members.
  • The Specialised Chefs' Training Programme: A three-year vocational course for young apprentices aged between 16 and 19, which has been running since 1989. As part of the course, apprentices are employed by academy members who mentor them throughout their training.
  • The Annual Awards of Excellence: Began as the Commis Chef of the Year competition in 1983. The aim of the awards is to recognise and reward the talents and ambition of young chefs, pastry chefs and waiters between the ages of 20 and 26.
  • The Mutton Renaissance: Conceived in 2003 by The Prince of Wales and officially launched in November 2004. Run jointly with the National Sheep Association, the aim is to put mutton back on to the menu and to link farmers, abattoirs, butchers and chefs in the process.

In attendance

  • John Williams Executive chef, the Ritz, London
  • Martyn Nail Executive chef, Claridge's, London
  • John Geldard Farmer of the Year, beef farmer, Plumgarths, Kendal, Cumbria
  • Frank Langrish Ludley Farm, Rye, Sussex
  • Mike Powley Beef Farmer of the Year 2006, Elm House Farm, Green Hammerton, Yorkshire
  • Debbie Beaton Projects editor, Farmers Weekly
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