The chef, the cook, his book and his menu

13 September 2004
The chef, the cook, his book and his menu

I have always felt that I could hold my head up high with regard to my adherence to the seasons in my cooking, and to the provenance of the produce that I buy. I have the capacity to bore people to death on the subject of seasonal cooking and how I find people's ignorance and laziness when it comes to menu writing staggering.

I know where my lobsters are from, I know where my lamb is from and I could disclose all sorts of information about my potato suppliers. You won't find asparagus on my menu outside June and you won't find tomatoes in the kitchen for eight months of the year. Smug? Perhaps.

Then I met Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the first - slightly lesser-known - hairy, eclectic chef to rise to stardom after a stint at the River Café. And he dented my halo.

But I'm fast-forwarding. When Caterer asked if I'd like to interview Hugh, I jumped at the opportunity. I have read most of his writings and seen plenty of the television phenomenon that is River Cottage. I like all that he stands for, and in my dark, pressurised hours in an urban restaurant kitchen, his work can look blissfully appealing.

He is, of course, a hugely busy man but what stands out more than anything in his broadcasting and writing is that he has given himself the benefit of time to consider his beliefs and preferences with regard to food, ingredients and farming in general. He has a focused and clear direction to what he is striving to achieve - which is educating the public on seasonality and the provenance of the meat that they buy.

I agreed to trade an interview for lunch at the Square and wasted significant head space worrying whether my menu would contradict any of my preachings on seasons and produce. After all, Hugh is a man who is uncompromising in his beliefs, one who is genuinely appalled at the state of farming in this country and, in turn, at the quality of the ingredients we produce.

On the morning of our chat, he is late, woolly, happy and full of life. Even so, very soon into the interview I find myself feeling rather compromised by what I do as a "normal" restaurateur at the top end of the industry.

Given that any proper cooking gathers an immediate local following in the country, Hugh can't understand why so few chefs venture out of town to set up shop. Out, especially, from London - a place where there is a surplus of enthusiasm, but, sadly, a cooking environment entirely disconnected from the source of its produce. A place where most kitchens work with no allegiance to the seasons and with no idea about the origin of their produce.

"Do you find it frustrating that you have to destroy your natural product - you bone it out, stuff it, portion it out?" he asks me before going on to question why I haven't challenged the perceived wisdom of metropolitan dining out. "How about sharing food - whole fish in the middle of a table, whole lambs on the fire?" His latest venture, he reveals, focuses on this pleasure: the sharing of food and interaction with others during meals.

"I've leased some converted old farm buildings where we'll have a cooking school of sorts - hold courses, hold events, do demos and simply chat about food," he continues. "With a group of 40 or 50 we might then roast two whole ribs of beef, for example, and all sit down to supper - an extension of home cooking but with the best possible ingredients. Very satisfying."

He lets slip that he is planning a fishing day in Dorset: two boats departing from Weymouth for a day on the sea and returning to cook what's been caught - having demonstrated the filleting of the fish. The vision is so seductive, I ask if he needs an additional angler!

We then engage in a rather long and meandering discussion about the reality of life running a busy restaurant kitchen (me) and the importance of us all embracing provenance and seasonality (Hugh).

I know I sound rather weak and defensive while Hugh maintains total composure and belief in his "meat manifesto", as expounded in his new book The River Cottage Meat Book - in a nutshell, that we should eschew intensive farming and respect the animals we kill by using their entire carcasses. My case is that I happen to run a particular type of restaurant where people expect luxurious, sophisticated food. Given that Hugh has just written a book on meat, I use the example of beef to portray the reality of my business at the Square.

I like to offer beef on the menu and it is a popular customer choice. It offers customers two pleasures; the meat itself and the world's great red wines that match the beef so well (and which we, naturally, want to sell). Beef is a classic meat, potentially offering all one can expect from a fantastic piece of protein. Yet, if I use rump, I get complaints about toughness; if I use rib, it's too fatty; if I use shin "I don't expect stew in a smart restaurant" is the feedback I may receive.

Only the minority voices its opinion but I want total customer satisfaction. People are paying a high price for their meal at the Square and I aim to please them all. So I now plump for fillet. It will deliver for them all - if, that is, it's an exemplary piece of fillet. I sell four to five fillets of beef a day, which makes 30 a week, and that means 15 animals are slaughtered for a fraction of their carcasses. You find me a small farmer who can handle an order like this.

Hugh will not accommodate such an argument. "We have to lead our clientele in a direction of enlightenment," he counters. "All corners of the culinary map have been investigated by the modern chef and the reinvention of the classical repertoire has been done, so you have to go in a different direction. OK, I can see you can't have a totally holistic approach but for chefs to use only the prime cuts is ignorant. What about brisket? Surely the way to pull away from your competition is to couple top-flight technique with seasonality and provenance?" He simply refuses to accept that those of us who call ourselves talented chefs can't transform brisket, for example, into a plate of food that will deliver in a top restaurant.

The problem with Hugh is that he makes it all seem so logical and correct and he's clever enough to see that attraction is the way forward. I don't respond to preaching. I am a standard human being and will get defensive. But, when someone puts forward his case in such an alluring way it makes it hard not to follow. As a result, my conscience is under self-appraisal.

Seeing doubt creep into my mind, he lists endless examples of what he has chosen to do in order to educate those he meets, writes for, or feeds. He forces me to admit that, yes, we do lead very contrasting professional lives in completely different surroundings but that alone can't justify my practices.

Hugh asks one question that pricks my conscience more than any other. He sticks the knife in then twists! He asks when I last put aside a day to go out into the country and visit a supplier or farmer. And when he sees I'm struggling to recall one, he asks how much time chefs like me spend reading reviews of our competitors, or eating in each other's restaurants (hoping either to witness weakness or to find inspiration).

I spent two days abroad visiting a plate manufacturer recently, a fact Hugh enjoys enormously. "There's nothing wrong with that, but don't then tell me there's no time available to visit farmers and growers out in the country. For me there is nothing more motivating and inspiring, as a chef, than seeing outstanding produce on the hoof, growing or being made. It is this that drives my creativity."

He has a point. As chefs and restaurateurs we are frantically busy people who have to meet stiff margins and deadlines. We have to deliver both sides of the fence. But surely we must be in the vanguard of quality food production rather than aligned with the massed ranks of the multiples and supermarkets just waiting to see how the effects of industrialisation continue to limit our choice?

The Interviewer Philip Howard is chef-proprietor of London's two-Michelin-starred the Square, an accolade the Bruton Street restaurant has held since 1998. His route to the top was via the kitchens of Marco Pierre White (Harvey's) and Simon Hopkinson (Bibendum) but he has always stood apart from the stereotypical chef, having graduated from Kent University with a degree in microbiology. It undoubtedly armed him with the knowledge to understand properly the science of cooking without getting him so hooked on science at the theoretical or microscopic level that he forgets that cooking is about the senses.

The Square is unmistakably French in influence, but Howard's off-duty preference is for food from Italy. He says: "Ask me where I would like to eat in London and my answer would likely be the River Café. It is no coincidence in my mind that it has produced two chefs (Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray) who have done more for cooking than all the rest of our stars together. They are fanatical about produce and all things wholesome in the kitchen. They cook real food for people who want to enjoy all that delicious ingredients have to offer."

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall It was at London's River Café back in 1989 that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had his brush with a professional kitchen. But after seven months of working there, he had a moment of clarity. Namely, that he was never destined to be a professional, finely tuned, disciplined chef. "I loved it all, learned invaluable skills but quite frankly, worked like a tramp," he says candidly.

He grew up in deepest Gloucestershire after an early start in London and he fondly remembers the day that his father moved the family to the country - and what ensued. Plucking carrots from the vegetable garden and podding broad beans - it clearly struck a chord with his soul. He remained in Gloucester until he moved to London to pursue a career.

That makes me ask him if his present incarnation had, at its heart, an urban dweller returning to the countryside to try and make good a situation which had appalled him while working in London; or whether he was really a rural man desperate to support small country producers.

He answers: "I basically came to London to find work, but used to return to Gloucester often. I loved London in the late 1980s, my time at the River Café, and then a period of time as a journalist, specialising in food. I had a great time chasing chefs around for interviews and eating their food. Nevertheless, my spells in the country kept me aware that some of the produce I saw on their plates was simply not as good as the vegetables from my parents' garden and this fuelled my love of rural and wild foods.

"It was this that brought about the first television series - A Cook on the Wild Side - and fuelled my desire to put down some roots and dig deeper on the subject, and this in turn brought about the original River Cottage series. Both were a complete blag, but they worked! I honestly don't think either show would be commissioned now but there was a different climate in the TV world then and people were prepared to take a punt on something new - I was very lucky.

"River Cottage was a weekend holiday place for me and my then girlfriend, now wife, Marie, in Dorset. It was only when we started discussing the TV project that I thought perhaps the next proposition would be to move in, buy some chickens and a couple of pigs." The rest is River Cottage history (three series of history, actually). Hugh and his family have since moved from the cottage to a farm in Dorset and live there full time. He has several new projects in mind.

Hugh and Meat Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall talks about produce with such passion that it seems appropriate to unleash the topic of meat - so eloquently discussed in his new book, The River Cottage Meat Book. This is, in my view, a book of phenomenal value to any cook or kitchen.

Hugh has made it his mission to try to inform and educate people on seasonality, the hard-core facts of modern, industrialised farming and in the ways we, as consumers, should try to change the way in which we buy and show respect for our meat.

He has personally decided that it is morally sound to eat meat based on the simple proviso that, as the collective killers of the animals, we provide them with a happy and disease-free existence while they live on our farms. As long as we all continue plucking packets of cheap, bastardised meat from the shelves of our supermarkets, we will continue to drive the machine that is intensive, careless, appalling farming.

I ask Hugh how we can change the country's obsession with cheap meat. "As always it starts with education," he answers. "Supermarkets have to take responsibility but you lot, the chefs should commit as well. Providing the customer with the provenance of your ingredients is the starting point. People would love it; they both enjoy and respond to knowing exactly what they are eating. But then the problem is that most chefs don't know the information themselves - basically it is down to giving no time for research."

Speaking at the recent Skills for Chefs conference in Sheffield, Hugh asked the delegates (chefs one and all) to raise their hands if they knew the provenance of the meat in their restaurants. Only 25%, he estimates, were able to put their hands in the air - and that's assuming they were all being honest!

It's not that Hugh is ignorant of the constraints on chefs. He clearly understands and respects the time shortage factor in a chef's life but is convinced that if chefs were to embrace provenance it would both inform and motivate their customers to look into the subject themselves.

In addition, the research needed to produce the information for the customers would inevitably drive an improvement in a chef's seasonal knowledge. (And this goes for fruit, vegetables and fish as well as meat.)

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