01 Nov

“A good chef understands the food production system” – an afternoon with Gill Meller

Globalist Kitchen has invited Gill Meller to cook for two nights in Budapest in October. Being a chef who focuses on local and seasonal cuisine, we were excited not only to try his dishes, but to ask him why sustainable food is important for him. We had the chance to steal Mr. Meller from the kitchen during one of the days he spent in Budapest. In a short hour we felt like we’ve been transported to a parallel universe: somewhere where food is not simply the fuel of the body that should be bought the cheapest way possible, but the key element of a happy, healthy life – and a happy, healthy society. He’s what we’ve talked about, accompanied with pictures of the meals he served that night.

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Photo: Géza Talabér

How do you like working at River Cottage?

One of the things that attracted me to River Cottage was the ethics and the principles that the company was based on. They were very honest, and the idea behind it was to be respectful to our environment and nature. That was a real attraction.

I think in the early 2000s in the UK, people were beginning to open their eyes to some of the issues surrounding hospitality, the waste we produce in catering, the impact the unsustainable food production has on our landscapes and on our environment. So when River Cottage started to become popular, I think people saw its attitude towards food as a positive thing. River Cottage was trying to get a message out to the people: we don’t have to produce and eat our food in the way that we do! There are alternatives to that. Plus, it was projected in a really simple way so people could understand it. It helped people change their attitudes towards where their food is coming from, how far it has traveled, who has produced it, how it is has been grown. So the knock-on effect was that when people went shopping to buy their ingredients, they thought about River Cottage and what they’ve learnt, and they made more considered choices about the various things they buy and how they cook them. Part of the success was that we managed to translate the idea in a very non-patronizing way, so people didn’t feel like they were instructed.

Some people changed their thinking, and that’s good. Some didn’t, obviously. But as the business and the brand has grown and became more well know, the message has traveled further away.

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Photo: Géza Talabér

I’ve been at River Cottage for 12 years. I’ve learnt nearly everything I know about food and food production while working there. I cooked for many years before that, but my eyes weren’t open to the reality of food. So I’m keen on explaining to people about food – where it comes from, how it was produced – when they’re cooking. It’s particularly important when you’re a chef, because I don’t believe you can fully understand how to really cook good food if you don’t understand everything about the ingredients before they come into the kitchen.

So at the cookery school where I work we try to instill that mentality on the chefs and students who come to their classes. In a funny way, the cooking is the least important part of the story, because anyone can do the last bit – which is putting food in a pan and cooking it. What’s much more interesting is what happened before that. That part is very important for me, and in my own writing and work I try to think about that a lot more. It’s as important as the finished dish.

Salt cod, tomatoes on toast with rosemary and olive oil

Salt cod, tomatoes on toast with rosemary and olive oil Photo: Géza Talabér

River Cottage and I are really big advocates of sustainable food production, sustainable restaurant services, and ethical procurement of ingredients. Right down to how to run the kitchen if you’re a head chef. You need to think about more than just the food on the plate, how much money you make in the restaurant, or what your bonus is at the end of the year. You need to think about everything. You’re responsible for so much more than just good tasting food. You’re responsible for where it comes from.

People look up to chefs. They look for guidance and how things should be done. It’s a responsibility you need to take seriously if you’re in that position. You need to lead by example if you want things to be better in a society that’s quite unsustainable, particularly with food.

A lot depends on educating people. You’ve got to want to embrace this way of thinking and change your methods. Otherwise it won’t happen. You need a new generation of forward thinking foodiez who are interested in going right back to the source.

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Roast pumpkin with wild mushrooms and barley Photo: Géza Talabér

How about restaurants?

There might even be a new generation of chefs who enjoy doing it because they believe it’s a better way of working. Better for the environment, people, and everything else.

In River Cottage we try to minimize all food waste, and try to use every part of every ingredient if possible. If we can’t, it goes to the compost, or to the biomass system to produce energy.

So many parts of hospitality can be looked at to increase its sustainability and minimize its carbon footprint. Everything from the construction of the building, the way the fuel is used for cooking, the way the heat is recycled. Everything can be done better. You just need really ambitious, educated and forward thinking restaurateurs.

Do people in the UK require restaurants to be more sustainable?

I think in the UK it’s more driven by the restaurants themselves. They don’t want to be seen as unsustainable or wasteful because that’s embarrassing. If you’re put into that bracket, than you can be exposed by critics, food writers, and by other chefs. It wouldn’t take long for you to suffer the consequences of having an unsustainable approach to food. There are loads of restaurants in the UK that pride themselves on zero waste, 100% efficiency, brilliant stuff, good staff environment, or no long hours. It’s all about looking after your people that work for you, the environment, and the food in a gentle and normal way. That’s how hospitality should be.

Jerusalem artichokes with, ham and buckwheat

Jerusalem artichokes with, ham and buckwheat Photo: Géza Talabér

What would be the first step toward a more environmentally conscious kitchen?

The first thing to do if you’re interested in changing your approach to cooking in a restaurant kitchen or at home is to try and shop seasonally and locally. The ripple effect of this is so big! You’ll see the results on the local economy, on food miles, and on good farming practices. The food is often much fresher (as it has been grown locally and doesn’t travel far), and nearly always tastes better (because it’s actually in season and it’s become ripe at the right time of the year with the sun and the weather all doing what it should do). So everything tastes better.

We shouldn’t eat things that are grown in another country and flown thousands of miles! We could be eating something that’s been grown locally and feeds into our own economy and helps the farmers and growers who try really hard to make a living. That’s what I try to do anyways.

What we hear sometimes is that ‘I need salad in the winter to be healthy’. It’s hard to explain that your imported tomato grown in a greenhouse in December has less nutrients that a locally grown beet.

I think people are much more aware of what they eat, and they want to be healthy. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t eat seasonally. You should just think a little bit more, try to balance their diet in a sensible way. You look to other forms of plants to get your nutrients from: eat more grains and pulses over the winter months and you’ll be fine.

One of the things we’ve been encouraging much more over the last 5 years is to eat less meat and eat more plant based foods. Not only it is unnecessary and not that healthy to eat meat all the time, but global meat production is completely unsustainable anyway.  And a lot of food grown globally is fed to livestock, and it can’t continue the way it does. So we always encourage people to eat much better, but less meat. When I talked to this restaurant I tried to get them to understand that I was after free range goose for the main course. Which I think we have. I hope.

It’s more expensive to buy ethically raised meat so it’s hard to change people. But if they see the conditions some of these farm animals are raised in they might change their mind.

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Crab soup Photo: Géza Talabér

How about insects, the protein of the future?

I tried grasshopper pate, crunchy crickets and ants. Scaling up meat production isn’t an option, so it’s probably a good idea to start getting used to insects. As a society, if we’re not familiar with a type of food, we don’t like it. But if you take a prawn, it’s exactly like an insect! If you look at the anatomy, honestly, it’s pretty unappetizing stuff. And then if we look at the land based insect, we don’t like it because we’re not used to it. But it won’t take long to change people’s minds.

Do you think people cook more or less nowadays?

I think in the UK people are cooking a lot more, as they are more aware of the problems that come from consuming huge amounts of processed food. By cooking at home you can have a healthier, more rewarding lifestyle. Most of what we eat globally is highly processed wheat and refined sugar. Maybe some highly refined fats and corn. That is pretty much what makes up our diet. It’s just not normal for us to eat like that! It has a huge effect on our health, and in turn it has an effect on the whole of society – public health and its financial side.

And the farmers.

Yes! They suffer directly from it. So we need to change our diets, we need to be cooking more at home, eating less processed foods that contain all kinds of chemical based stabilizers, an God knows what. And we need to go back to how it used to be before the industrialization of food production.

We need to try growing some of our own produce, however small space we have, and cook simple fresh food a few times a week for our family. It will have a knock-on effect if everyone does it. I think if you do make the effort to cook at home – even if it’s very simple – it can taste great because you put the effort in it to make it yourself. You went and bought the ingredients, you thought about how they cook together, you spent time with it. It’s a nice thing to do.

The problem is to inspire people to do that when we live in a so fast, pressured society with relentless schedules. For many people it’s impossible to take the time to cook for themselves and make money at the same time. But whatever small steps help.

You need to care about what you eat. It’s a very difficult challenge.

Smoked goose, celeriac and apples

Smoked goose, celeriac and apples

Before I let you go, let me ask you some personal stuff. What are the three foods you always have in your cupboard?

Rye flower: I like the flavor.

Free range egg from the farm just the corner of our house – so good!

Seasonal vegetables. We have a box delivered every week from an organic farm. It’s nice because you don’t know what you going to have, and it makes you think of new dishes and combinations.

Yoghurt sorbet, plums, brown butter shortbread and poppy seeds

Yoghurt sorbet, plums, brown butter shortbread and poppy seeds Photo: Géza Talabér

Anything you don’t like / you love?

I love really fresh scallops – harvested by divers, of course. I love proper sun-ripen tomatoes with salt and olive oil. I love really good slow cooked pork belly. And I really like a lovely, homemade, proper artisan goat’s cheese.

I don’t like tripe, or anything deeply intestinal. There’s a French sausage called Andouille, which is basically intestines wrapped up in the colon of the pig. Disgusting, but people love it.

I haven’t seen half of the world’s wonderful cuisines. I’m sure I’d find food that I wouldn’t like.

Thank you for your time and good luck for tonight!

If you’re interested in Gill Miller’s recipes, you can order his cookbook on Amazon!

We thank Globalista Konyha for the great dinner,
the opportunity for the interview, and the photos!