I’ve been living down in Cornwall for the past two years, having lived in London for the previous nine. Straight out of university I got a job working for a legal and financial translation company in the city, I only lasted a year and can honestly say it was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. Good preparation for becoming a chef, perhaps.
Alongside working Monday to Friday, I also started working the weekends at a farmer’s market in West London, near where I lived. First, I was helping to sell produce from various farms around the South of England, but I soon got talking to a friend-of-a-friend who wanted to start a street food business and the following week I was running a Scandinavian/BBQ Street Food stand on the same market. I had no professional cooking experience whatsoever, but I loved it: The rush of having a queue of customers, the theatre of cooking in front of expectant people and also the camaraderie with the other traders.
I loved talking to them about their farms, the way they grew vegetables, raised their animals and how they made cheeses and charcuterie. I soon recognised this connection to food was pretty rare in London. Having packed in my city job I went to work firstly in a couple of decent old school Gastro Pubs in West London and then at Elliot’s in Borough Market. I enjoyed working in London but I felt that the connection to production was lacking, if not missing entirely.
Even working in decent kitchens and making good quality food, working ‘closely with suppliers’, as the soundbite goes, was never more than a lot of late night Whatsapp conversations, the occasional telephone call and thousands of close-up pictures of fish gills. I wanted more.
My move away from London wasn’t exclusively for professional reasons. The lack of both freedom and the outdoors whilst living in London eventually led me to consider potential alternatives, quickly settling on Cornwall where my parents already lived. Mere days after my fiancée and I decided we were finally going to move I saw the job advert for Fitzroy. I don’t believe in fate, but if I did...
Moving to Cornwall was without doubt the right decision. Even without taking into account the past 12 months – when we have been grateful day-in, day-out for being able to swim in the sea in the mornings and go for walks in the countryside – I have always felt at home in Cornwall. But working in hospitality in Cornwall (and I imagine a great deal of other countries that aren’t Greater London) is a different kettle of fish.
In our first year, we spent a huge amount of time trying to build up a network of decent suppliers, not to mention trying to entice customers. The problem wasn’t the quantity of decent suppliers – for Cornwall is blessed with a myriad of truly sensational food producers – it was more getting hold of their produce on a consistent basis, with so much food going, as they say down here, ‘up country’.
From being in London where absolutely everything you could ever want is right at your fingertips all the time (often to the detriment of the planet), to being in Cornwall where if you wanted to get decent vegetables you had to drive over to the farm early in the morning to not only collect, but to help pick them too. I absolutely loved it. The connections we built up in those first 12 months not only made Fitzroy but also really informed our cooking.
Every restaurant/pub/bistro these days says they ‘cook seasonally’, but sometimes this only means they serve asparagus in Spring and game in Autumn. There is so much more to it than that and it took moving to Cornwall and being geographically a lot closer to our food suppliers for me to learn that.
Alongside building up a greater understanding of food production there is an inevitable rise in consideration for the environment. When you work closely with people who sell excellent quality food (be it market gardeners, fishermen, farmers or producers) you notice certain over-arching traits. Normally they’re at least a little bit mad, but I’ve also come to realise that the tastiest food comes from those who care about the planet. I’m not talking about the warm feeling you get from doing something good (although that does help), I’m talking about objectively better tasting food.
Something else that came as a direct result of having spent so much time with food producers was a desire to do some food producing myself. One of the things that prompted this was the notion of seasonal trade as well as seasonal produce. Having found ourselves with a lot more free time over winter, we started spending more time on farms and in fields, visiting new friends and old, and occasionally lending a hand/getting in the way of their daily activities.
One such trip was to Trefrawl Farm, a beef farm just on the other side of the Fowey Estuary. As well as the novel experience of getting a car ferry, the trip was memorable for speaking to Ed and Nic about the concept of soil life and how important, not to mention difficult, that was for all farms. The other reason it was memorable was because they took us to meet their four Berkshire piglets who were being housed in a disused walled garden, telling us of their plan to turn it from an overgrown eyesore into a productive vegetable garden. Unfortunately (for them at least), they were far too busy with all their bovine, porcine, ovine and galline commitments to undertake a project of that size, so they asked if we knew anyone interested.
I confess that at the time I was too distracted by the piglets to fully appreciate what they were suggesting, but eventually I clocked their hint and grabbed the opportunity. We had to wait until the pigs went off to the abattoir before we could really get cracking. Not only were they delicious, but this gave us time to put together a plan for what we wanted to grow (which subsequently changed fairly dramatically), how we would grow it (which mostly changed quite dramatically) and a rough idea of what it would all cost (which changed very dramatically).
We couldn’t have picked a better time to start the project though. A couple of months in and the world was turned on its head by the Coronavirus - no longer were we allowed to run a restaurant. I am also the very worst person in the world at doing nothing. I crave routine and purpose. Fortunately, I found that in growing.
This small square of once derelict space now teemed with life; and not just plant life either. We always wanted it to be a haven for nature so we planted beds of wild flowers at intervals to encourage pollinators, we left in a few patches of ‘wild’ ground and allowed the trees to be home for the birds. I felt strangely protective over this space. I felt a connection to it in a very fundamental way. Not just the plants, which often become something like surrogate children, with you like the over-enthusiastic parent cheering them embarrassingly loudly in the stands at sports day, molly-coddling them and (sometimes quite literally) wrapping them in cotton wool. But also a connection to, bordering on an understanding of, the ground itself.
It’s funny, growing, because one of the main things I have learnt is that you are never truly in control. You put a semblance of order on things: plants grow in straight lines and up artificial trellises; things from the same plant family grow together; you know where things are planted and have (if you’re like me anyway) a hugely complex excel spreadsheet detailing planting dates, projected harvest dates, future rotations and succession plans. And yet all of that can come crashing down due to circumstances outside of your control. Regardless, I still feel a weird sense of ownership over the land, mingled with not an insignificant amount of pride in what has been achieved. Inside these four granite walls I have felt the happiest and the most relaxed, as well as the most disappointed and infuriated that I can recall in recent times.
Growing, to me, isn’t a huge step away from cooking. Both are ultimately the creation of food for people to consume; they both require huge amounts of patience, hard, physical and often unsociable work; both can be incredibly rewarding when things go right; and both can be crushingly disappointing when things go wrong.
That being said I am hugely looking forward to the year ahead. As I write this, we’ve started planting our first round of seeds for the coming season: with no covered or indoor space to sow we are usually a little later than many other growers. Planting seeds is one of the most enjoyable times for me. There is so much promise for the year ahead and I invariably get way too excited (if a little impatient). I love this time of year for that reason – there is so much promise. It might be a little dark and a bit cold, but you can feel the ground warming up and you know that the all of the warmer months are ahead of you.
For me that will necessitate a significant workload. We will be opening both restaurants 6 days a week as soon as we can which will mean me spending a lot of time getting the teams trained up, writing menus, placing orders, speaking to suppliers etc. Alongside that, I will also be trying to keep successions going in the garden so that we can have a constant stream of produce around which to build our menus, as well as keeping up to date with potting on and planting out of existing seedlings. Last summer once the lockdown had lifted, I managed to visit the garden 3/4days a week and then only very early in the morning to pick vegetables and do very small, quick jobs (pruning tomatoes, weeding the salad etc).
This year, with a much larger restaurant team in place, I am looking forward to being able to spend more time in the garden which will hopefully produce a greater variety of produce and for longer than we managed last year. What’s more, I know that even if I do have to work 75+ hour weeks again, I can still find enough time (and motivation) to keep on gardening.
One of the things I am often asked about my experience growing produce (alongside also working as a chef) is ‘what has changed for you? What have you learnt?’. The answer is a lot. Whilst I thought I had a decent understanding of what it took to produce food, I did not. Quite simply I was out of touch, but worse than that I didn’t realise I was.
Every single person should, at some point in their life, try and grow enough food for themselves, for a set period of time (say a month, a week, hell, even a day) in an environmentally sustainable way and see how phenomenally difficult it really is. We all know that we need to be more environmentally friendly in everything we do and food plays a huge part in that.
I will no longer say to a respected, environmentally-conscious supplier that their food is expensive. I will never expect them to knock down their prices and as a result their ethics, because I now know how exceptionally hard they have to work just to make ends meet.
It is our responsibility, as those in the food business, to try and encourage people to buy into this kind of food-sourcing. I hate the word ‘educate’ when used in conjunction with restaurants because it sounds so ‘preachy’. I know that people don’t go out for a meal to be ‘educated’. They go out to have a good time and to eat good food (and I simply cannot wait for that to return). It is our job, as chefs, to deliver that promised good time, all the while supporting those behind the scenes who work, quite literally, night and day, year round, for very little fiscal reward, just to make things environmentally that little bit better.