We feel very lucky to announce that Chris is heading up the SSAW team at Groundswell festival this year! Chris's enthusiasm and passion for cooking has seen him working in a variety of incredible kitchens including the Quality Chop House and the Jolene family where Chris has played a key role in building the group’s impeccable reputation and we are so exited to have him with us in June. Here he talks about where his love of cooking all began, his new chefing adventures coming up on the horizon and what he is looking forward to at the festival:
TELL US ABOUT THE BEGINNING? HOW DID YOUR EXPLORATION INTO FOOD BEGIN AND WHY?
It all started with a cookery course that my mum gave me as a present when I was 14. At the end of the day I asked if there was a Saturday job going to help out and from then on my mum would ferry me every Saturday morning at 7am to Brook Hall, half an hour and a few villages away to work until 5 or 6 in the evening. I was thrown in the deep end and got to do a bit of everything, helping out set up for all the courses they offered. Because it was such a small team I had the opportunity to learn lots, ‘one on one’ with one of the owners, Stephen and pastry chef, Andy. After a few months of Saturdays I started picking up extra work here and there, helping cook for events and weddings until I had my mind set on cooking for a living.
Around that time, I also got quite a bit of work experience at London restaurants, short stages, a week here or there helping out with whatever needed doing. I also started to go out for lunches by myself – there wasn’t much where I lived, but I’d take myself up to London where you could get great meals (and maybe a glass of wine) for not too much money.
WHO DID YOU LEARN FROM (IF ANYBODY) AND HOW?
I think I really only really started learning once I had the first few years of working full time in kitchens out the way. After a turbulent and gruelling first few years cooking I ended up a small French bistro in Edinburgh called Café St Honoré. The chef, Neil Forbes, is the first person, aside from being at the cookery school, I’d say I really learned from. It was an independent restaurant with a super small team where everything was made in house and there was a real push on using sustainable produce and learning important skills. We would bake bread every day, do our own butchery, and plan menus according to what was available from local suppliers. They were also really keen on teaching us about the financial side of things, so each morning on our way in we’d collect a sheet with the previous day’s earnings on it; and there was a clipboard with running sales throughout the day so we could keep track of what we were selling to avoid wasting food. It was so useful to have that side of things as being part of running a restaurant drummed into me. I also learned a lot from Shaun Searley and the team at the time at The Quality Chop House, Pascal Wiedemann who now has a great little restaurant Pompette in Oxford, and not to mention all my bosses and colleagues at Jolene, Big Jo, Primeur and Western's Laundry .
Otherwise, one of the main ways I’ve learned is from eating out and travelling as much as I could afford to on a budget. I spent 6 months living in different areas around Italy. I also spent some time around Lyon when I was younger working odd jobs here and there, which was a really great chance to try the same dishes done different ways. Eating food other people have cooked really helps me understand it better.
WHAT KIND OF CUISINE ARE YOU MOST DRAWN TO? HAS THIS SHIFTED OVER TIME?
I’ve always been drawn to European cuisines, like French and Italian, especially if I’m cooking for others. It’s what I’ve cooked the most of professionally, so I understand the rules and techniques with the dishes and ingredients. In terms eating out, I have so many great Turkish restaurants around where I live so more often than not I’ll be there if I don’t want to cook at home.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE COOKBOOK?
While it’s not a cookbook, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking is by far my most used reference book. I’ve had the same copy since I was 15 and it has gone everywhere with me – I think I’ve read it 30 times (although both covers are now missing). Otherwise, I love Marcella Hazan’s Italian cookbooks, and Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories gets a lot of practical use.
AFTER SPENDING A MONTH OR SO VOLUNTEERING AT FLOURISH, COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE IMPACT AND EXPERIENCE IT’S HAD ON YOU?
My time at Flourish was really amazing for a few reasons: Firstly, I loved getting to live on a farm and work outside in the blazing hot sunshine all day, as it was such a change from being inside a kitchen. We’d been using Flourish for a while by that point and I knew Calixta and all their produce was great, so it was also really nice to go up there for long enough to see how it works in practice to grow that sort of quality of crops. I learnt a lot about transplanting and growing techniques, planted lots of aubergines and strung up a fair few tomatoes. It was great to be productive with my days. Some others from work ended up joining, as well as some other hospitality folk, who all got the same idea about doing something productive while restaurants were closed – so it ended up being quite social too. Other than my time in Italy, I hadn’t taken much time off over the previous few years so it was also really valuable for me to have a break from my normal work.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO AT GROUNDSWELL?
I’m really looking forward to being able to do the event in the peak of summer, when there’s so much good food around from all the small farms. It’s made planning the menu really easy because there is so much good stuff about. It’s been great collaborating with local suppliers and we’re going to be cooking the dinners over big open fire barbecues which is something I don’t usually get the chance to do
DUE TO THE RELATIONSHIP FOOD HAS UPON THE ENVIRONMENT, WE’VE NOTICED SIFTS IN THE MINDSET OF CHEFS, THERE IS A MORE IMMEDIATE NEED TO SOURCE INGREDIENTS CAREFULLY AND COOK CAREFULLY. HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED THIS AT JOLENE?
Along with many other restaurants, we’ve had to be more mindful about sourcing ingredients. That’s partly as a way to survive – with prices increasing and ingredients getting more expensive, it’s been much more important to use what you can get more carefully – but it’s also because customers are now more aware about where their food comes from, and so are more discerning about what they want to eat and which restaurants they want to support. Using quality ingredients and treating people well is a big part of that. It’s really important to us to support independent businesses, especially if they are individuals, and we work hard to build good relationships with our suppliers and be flexible about what we can take from them. If we listen to them about what they have a lot of (or not much of), and work with that, there’s a lot less wastage and it’s better for everyone.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR PLANS FOR SUMMER AND BEYOND?
I’m going to be wrapping things up in London in the next few months and moving to Paris in September which is exciting. Aside from Groundswell I’ve got a few plans in the works for some pop-up events in London and beyond – one of which is to put on some Italian dinners focusing on regional cuisines, with the Ham and Cheese Company in their space under the Bermondsey arches. I’ll hopefully also get some time for a little break down in Cornwall and otherwise will be eating a few last big meals in London before the move. If all things go as planned and I can work my way through the inevitable mountain of French paperwork, I have some plans to open a small restaurant in Paris but have only just begun the process.