“Change starts at the kitchen table. It starts with your shopping habits”

Categories: Features

Gill Meller, group head chef at River Cottage and author of bestselling cookbook Gather, on connecting with the landscape, championing producers and working with Hugh

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Andrew Montgomery

Tell us a bit about your background
I grew up in Dorset. For a period when I was young we lived in this lovely little market town called Bridport, which is a thriving food hub. When I was eight or nine, we moved out to the countryside and it opened my eyes to a new way of life. One which involved being outside, spending time in the woods and the fields, mucking about as kids do—not thinking about food or cooking at that stage, but just being part of a landscape. It has very much become part of what I do, who I’ve become and my thinking. It wasn’t until I was much older that I started cooking properly, when I was 18.

What were your experiences of food growing up?
My dad had a vegetable garden so we would naturally eat seasonally. We enjoyed a healthy and varied diet. My mum—and my dad, to an extent—was a really good cook, so food was very important to us. Although she wasn’t an elaborate cook, she had a very natural flair for simple, honest food, but done really beautifully. I always loved and appreciated good food, even though it was somewhat subconscious.

How did you get into cooking?
I needed a job, to be honest. I had just finished college, where I was studying art, photography and graphics, and purely out of necessity got a job in a kitchen. It was a coffee bar, owned by some friends, and I started making salads and soups. People really loved the food—customers were coming back—so I began to think a bit more about cooking as a profession. What was just a way to earn some money turned quite quickly into a real passion and as the months and years went by, I developed a real love for it. It was very organic. I had no formal training whatsoever; I’ve learnt everything I know from working with other very talented chefs and foodies.

How did you go from there to River Cottage?
After a few years working in different restaurants and pubs, I decided I wanted to go out on my own so I applied for a Prince’s Trust grant to set up an outside catering business, specialising in local, organic food. I ran this business for two or three years and it was actually quite successful. It opened my eyes to food production—I met a huge amount of very interesting people, local farmers and growers, who were doing things I hadn’t thought about before.

I met Hugh coincidentally, at a party. Of course, I’d seen the River Cottage programme and I was a big fan of the River Cottage Cookbook. I thought it’d be wise to introduce myself and we got talking about food and cooking. He gave me a call a couple of weeks later, looking for somebody to come and help out with a programme they were making for Channel 4, about the regeneration of an old dairy farm, which actually became the original River Cottage HQ. I was very pleased to be asked to go and join the team. As the business grew, my role grew and quite quickly it turned into a full-time head chef position. That was about 12 years ago.

Gill Meller

How did you find it, being on TV, thrown into the limelight?
As a young chef, I found it really exciting. I had this amazing opportunity to work with somebody I really respected. That kind of thing doesn’t happen often, particularly down in Dorset. The transition from running my own small business to working in River Cottage was a big learning curve for me. There were all sorts of authorities and experts and teachers and tutors that I got to work with on a daily basis, which you would never have the opportunity to do in a traditional kitchen. It was from those people and from Hugh that I learnt everything I know today, really—not only technical skills, but about the value of good ingredients; valuing the growers and farmers, understanding what they do and how to treat produce in the most respectful way. It was a fascinating journey and it helped build my outlook, my own set of principles. It’s defined who I am as a cook today.

It’s easy to forget that when you were starting out—certainly when Hugh moved to River Cottage, bought a pig and set the whole thing in motion in the late 1990s—that emphasis on provenance and ethical eating was pretty groundbreaking…
Definitely. Views have changed, diets have changed—the whole world has changed dramatically in the last 15, 20 years: River Cottage was a trailblazer—a pioneering movement in food. Hugh was championing the benefits of wild food, showcasing the wonders of home curing meat and home smoking fish and celebrating the bounty of the seasons. These were ideas that were embraced by the wider community of foodies because they felt new and exciting. The idea of getting back to your roots was captivating, particularly for those people living in cities and urban areas. It’s all down to Hugh’s passion for homegrown, ‘real’ food.

Would it be fair to say we still have a long way to go?
One hundred per cent. It’s the minority that are truly interested in where their food comes from and how it’s been produced. For the majority, for one reason or another, they don’t have it at the forefront of their mind when they’re shopping, cooking or eating. It has to do with education, economics, geography, how you’ve grown up. What you ate as a child, how you were cooked for—or not.

Things can’t change without education; without people knowing the benefit of eating well and sourcing ingredients well—not just for yourself, but the community you live in, the environment in general. The ramifications of a good, healthy, sustainable diet are absolutely massive—greater than anyone can even imagine, in terms of global agriculture and the way we feed our swelling populations.

Do food markets and local retailers have a role in addressing that?
Absolutely. It starts at the kitchen table—and that starts by changing your shopping habits. Instead of going to the supermarket, go to your local high street and visit the butcher, fishmonger, greengrocer. It starts by going to Borough Market and meeting producers and growers who are making all this amazing stuff, and being inspired enough by their stories to buy some of their wonderful produce, take it home, cook it and tell that story to the people you’re feeding, who might in turn do the same thing. It’s ripples in a pond. If we’re going to change the way society thinks about food and cooking and where ingredients come from, it’s got to start on a micro level.

If you’re shopping at Borough Market, the ingredients are always going to be that much fresher—and that much tastier. As an example, hand-dived scallops: that way of harvesting shellfish is really a way of managing the sea bed. It means you’re selecting scallops that are the perfect size, leaving the ones that aren’t, and there’s no damage to the aquatic system. As a result, those individual scallops are treated with much more care—they’re kept better, they get to market quicker, which means they’re fresher, they’re sweeter. The whole thing is about respect. It’s about a diver or fisherman making a choice that is ultimately better all round. And it’s those people we need to support—the people who are working the land or out on the sea, and are doing right by it.

Can chefs have a genuine influence on people’s cooking and eating habits?
The majority of people live lifestyles where food is a necessity, not a priority. It’s these people that we need to reach out to in one way or another and yes, I think chefs are great people to attempt to do that. They are leading the way. They are on the front line. People look up to chefs and are guided by them, whether that’s in a cookery school environment, a restaurant, or by what they’re seeing on TV. We are in the spotlight and we need to make the most of that position.

River Cottage has become a big brand, with a huge media presence. Is food production still at the heart of what you do?
It absolutely is. Everything at River Cottage starts with food production and it starts with people; it ends with putting down a really lovely plate of food on the table, and it covers everything in between. The foundations of the business are real food, produced with integrity, in a sustainable and ethical way, and celebrating all that that encompasses: the land, the process of cooking, sharing food and making the most of what is available in the hedgerow, in the sea or in the garden. And by following these ideas, you can live a simpler, healthier, more rewarding lifestyle—and I say that without any pretention. Integrating good food into your life is only going to make things more enjoyable. It’s a circular, enveloping way to live.

Last year, with the release of your debut cookbook, Gather, you took a step back from River Cottage. What are you up to now?
I took a step back from the day to day work, but I teach regularly on the cookery courses and am working directly with Hugh on the various projects he’s got on the go. I have tried to strike out on my own to some extent with my cookbook, which was the product of many years of thinking about and working in food, as well as many years working on cookbooks for River Cottage. I have a good balance between my commitments to River Cottage and doing my own thing, and I’m enjoying it. I’m half way through my next book. It’s quite different to Gather—that was really about the landscape and being outside, while the new book is about coming in, celebrating the kitchen as a place we grow up in, as the hub of the home.

Borough Market has invited River Cottage to visit for a month-long residency. What can we expect from your nose-to-tail workshop?
The nose-to-tail philosophy of eating is usually taken to mean making the most of a pig, or meat in general, but that’s not necessarily the way I see it. It’s really about changing your mindset when it comes to waste, and using as much of the ingredient as possible, whether that’s a radish or a rabbit. Making a lovely salad with the radish leaves is not only an exciting thing to do, but it tastes great and you’re not wasting any of the plant. Likewise with rabbit: if you’ve made a lovely stew with bacon and mushrooms, the leftovers can be made into a rabbit rillette, for example. Food waste is one of the biggest concerns we have as a society, and globally—I want to bring a bit of that thinking to my workshop, and encourage people to make the most of what they have.

What’s next—is your own restaurant in the pipeline?
I don’t think so. I’m not sure I want to commit my entire life to trying to make a restaurant succeed. I really enjoy food, I really enjoy cooking and you don’t need to run a restaurant to live and work and be in food. The next few years are really about establishing myself as a food writer and trying to create some really lovely recipes to share. It’s great to be doing something you love, and for it to be so varied. I’m happy with the lifestyle I’ve got.