Stuck in the Middle with Hugh…

Chef, food campaigner and restaurateur, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is on an enduring mission to improve the way we eat and change how we view food and its production. Sally Thomson caught up with him to discuss his new book, training the next generation of chefs and a little bit of brain re-calibration…

Who are your culinary influences? You mentioned Elizabeth David and of course your time at the River Café which must have been an amazing experience?

Even before I went to the River Café, Keith Floyd on TV, he gave me the first inklings of a book. Celebrating where food was coming from. I remember him being on a fishing boat and making a fish soup whilst on the boat. He did so many interesting pieces to camera.

Your favourite dishes?

I really can’t tell you as there are so many different foods throughout the seasons. I suppose one thing I come back to in the middle of the summer is barbequed mackerel, which we have caught ourselves, served with vegetables from the garden. We get the crisp skin of the mackerel, the charcoaled scented fish, and I always put down bay leaves as when they burn against the skin it creates a really incredible flavour. It is definitely a favourite and when I am on holiday, which is generally in Scotland these days, we do a lot of fishing when we are there.

On a different note, I understand that you run trainee apprenticeships and how many people do you take on at a given time?

Yes, we do that in the cooking school in Axminster. The numbers vary from year to year. We work with Cornwall College and basically the students all need placements at local restaurants, hotels or somewhere in the hospitality industry. They come to us for two days a month and we hope that we not only teach them skills but the River Cottage philosophy. We teach them how important where your ingredients come from, knowing the provenance and understanding it.

Once they have gone through the process do you monitor them?

They go out into the great wide world and we hear back from quite a lot of them. Quite a few of them have come back to be with us.

It’s important that they learn from other kitchens and restaurants so that they get a well-rounded understanding of this business. I really love it when I see people who started off with me and go off and do well. There are at least 3 very talented head chefs that I can think of that came through us. Tom Hunt, in Bristol at Poco, Charlie James who recently opened Jamaica Street Stores and Ollie Gladstone in The Shed in London. We like the idea that they will pass on that commitment to not just seasonal but sustainable food.

Photo courtesy of Matt Austin

Of all of your achievements to date, what makes you the most proud? 

Well, I get feedback in many different ways, however, it’s when I get ‘we’ve got an allotment now, we’re keeping our own chickens or we’ve watched the programme for years and we’ve changed what we do.’ Those sort of comments makes me very happy. Of course, I have always been involved in quite a lot of campaigning and that has a different set of challenges.

We use the campaigning to get specific changes. Last year I was involved in confronting the illegal wildlife trade and I made a programme about ivory poaching. There is now a serious consultation being held. It is satisfactory that something is happening but whenever you are dealing with government or big business you know that even if you had a successful campaign, you’ve raised awareness it takes a long time for it to be put into practice.

There are so many other things we should be doing, especially protecting our oceans. For me it has been so important to see particularly with ‘Blue Planet’ that they were facing up to the environmental issues. This is in no small part due to the Charlotte Moore. I am currently involved in a programme to do with the national obesity crisis – it will be coming out soon. These are all complex issues. It is exciting to be given an opportunity to explore them.

Can yell us about your new book ‘Much More Veg’? 

Quite simply – the only ingredients in that book are plants. No fish, no meat, no dairy. It’s a completely vegan book. It’s my second veg book – my first one was vegetarian but it included butter and eggs, but this time I wanted to go all out. The plant kingdom offers the most important ingredients we have. These are the building blocks of good eating.

So, this is why we shouldn’t be cutting down forests to have cattle?

Absolutely. I think that we all know in our heart of hearts that we should all be eating more veg.

Why do you think that people don’t eat as much veg as they should? It is because it is time-consuming?

It could be as it can be, but I think it is because they don’t believe that it will deliver on flavour. The whole objective of this book is that it can do both things. I wanted to create a whole bunch of dishes that are really satisfying, incredibly tasty and that can compete with meat and fish. This book is vegan but it is for everyone and in the end.

Vegetables are the most inclusive ingredient. There is not moral reason not to eat veg. As we put this book together, which was a very collaborative thing, with my head chef Gill Mellor and my long-time food editor, Nicky Duffy, we just couldn’t stop experimenting. Our long list just got longer and longer.

That’s why it is such big book!

That’s just about half! And I certainly think that there is another one to be published.

I’ve set it out by cooking technique as one of the things that is really important is that we need to use everything in the kitchen to make vegetables delicious. This means that we need to roast not just potatoes and parsnips but brassicas and others as well.

Do you still eat meat?

Yes, I remain an enthusiastic omnivore, particularly at weekends. We have our own meat so we cook that, but during the week, apart from any of the leftovers, we are eating less and less meat.

How has that effected your well-being?

I’ve certainly lost weight without doing any calorie counting but just by virtue of piling in more veg, particularly the raw stuff. It is basically recalibrating your brain so that veg comes first. It used to be that veg was the after-thought, however, now meat and fish take second place to vegetables.

What about fruit?

Yes, very keen on fruit. We have apple trees. I’m a bit of an apple a day guy. We have early apples from May to August.

In the book there are a lot of recipes such as plums mixed in with beetroot, so we are basically using fruit with the vegetables which adds the sweetness to some of the dishes. We have a dish of roast squash with apples with raw Brussel sprouts, so you have that roasty richness with the crunch of the fresh sprouts.

We have some tasty recipes from the book to try out! Just visit our recipes pages here.


River Cottage Much More Veg by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Bloomsbury, £26) is out now.