An Interview with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

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Simon Wheeler

Ever the advocate of Great British produce, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a true believer in food being a crucial part of a community – and if you happen to visit his effortlessly welcoming eatery in Whiteladies Road, Bristol, you might even bump into the wire-haired West Country-lover himself. We caught up with the south-west’s most rustic of food aficionados.

An interview with chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Nothing quite encapsulates Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s love of homely cuisine and real salt-of-the-earth goodness than the enthusiasm in his voice when he begins to describe the benefits of - of all things - buckwheat. “Delicious!” the 52-year-old chef cries. “There’s so much more flavour in buckwheat than plain old white flour. And I’m discovering new things all the time - new oils, different grains, other flours. It’s all about discovery and creativity, which is terrific.”

This dedication to exploring every nook and cranny that Great British cooking has to offer - not to mention an instantly recognisable and syllable-stuffed surname - has made Fearnley-Whittingstall a staple of the nation’s pantheon of great chefs. Ever since he started out on the box with 1997’s Cook on the Wild Side, in which he ate roadkill and all that the countryside’s hedgerows had to offer, the London-born foodie has espoused the many virtues of sourcing the freshest ingredients and produce from the local area.

“It’s not just about growing your own: it’s about knowing where your food comes from,” he states. “It’s about getting it from other people who grow it brilliantly who live near you. It’s that sense of community where food is one of the great glues for a community that knows itself.

“How else are you going to meet people now who live around you? Through food markets! You’ll meet people who are growing and producing food that can become a central part of how you feed your family.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall’s relationship with organic home-grown produce not only gave rise to his River Cottage series, which ran in a variety of forms from 1999 to 2011, but also led to the chef establishing a restaurant chain based on the same underlying principles. There are now four River Cottage Canteens across the UK, including one in Whiteladies Road, and Fearnley-Whittingstall has promoted Bristol and the surrounding area as one of the country’s top culinary hotspots.

“I’ve been in and around the West Country for nearly 20 years now,” he remarks. “I can’t think of many downsides. There are so many exciting opportunities for locally sourced food here, especially in Bristol, where there are lots of great chefs working with the community to provide customers with the freshest ingredients.”

Hugh Fearley-Whittingstall

And if you feel inclined to visit Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Bristol establishment, there’s even a chance you could spot the man himself one day. “I don’t get to eat out that often, but when I do it’s quite often in one of our own River Cottage Canteens because I like to see how things are coming along in the kitchen,” he reveals. “Ultimately I’m the one who has to make sure it is what it has to be.”

But while the founder may be there to keep a watchful eye over his expanding restaurant franchise, he’s supremely confident in the undeniable quality of the cornerstone of his approach: the food. “Things that are at their best when they’re just picked will always be the most rewarding,” he surmises. “Peas and beans, or asparagus if you’ve got the space for it: shop-bought asparagus will never have the same crunch and sweetness as when you’ve grown it yourself. Tomatoes, too - the sweetness you get from the ones you’ve grown yourself that you leave to fully ripen is that much better. Even though people are a bit better at growing tomatoes now - they used to be very tasteless - those you grow yourself are still the best.”

It’s not just that local food makes for a fantastic dining experience, however. Fearnley-Whittingstall is sure that the future of British produce, of Bristol produce, in fact - and vegetables in particular - is inextricably linked with how our nation will adapt to new environmental challenges in the years to come. For him, the message is pure and simple: “It’s better for the environment if we eat less meat and dairy, because so much of the grain grown in the world is fed to livestock and the process of producing that grain uses huge amounts of water and energy,” he explains. “That is fine if it’s going straight into the human food chain, but over 40 per cent of the cereal crops in the world are now fed to animals for dairy and meat products. That, in itself, is not sustainable in the long term, if those industries grow at their current pace.

“But what is always good from an environmental view, in terms of the way it kicks back to agriculture, is diversity - eating as many different things as possible and supporting different, small scale agricultures rather than huge monocultures. And as an audience, Bristolians I have found to be more ambitious than almost any other, so let’s celebrate this: get out there, and eat!”