THERE’S something strange about meeting Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the swanky surroundings of London’s Langham Hotel. In the lofty Palm Court on a busy Wednesday morning, businessmen are brokering deals over power breakfasts.
It’s the sort of smart, showy place people go to see and be seen, a place where what’s on the plates of the clientèle is arguably less important than the décor or the cut of the maître d’s suit.
In short, it’s not very Hugh. Hugh is earthy and back-to-basics. Hugh champions no-nonsense, fuss-free cooking and sustainably-sourced ingredients. Hugh once cooked and consumed a friend’s placenta (“it’s very tasty – at least it is when you fry it with shallots and garlic, then flambé and purée it”).
There’s no mismatched, rustic furniture here, no muddy boots, no road-kill on the menu (not for nothing, the nickname “Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall”). He arrives right on time in a rumply linen shirt and chinos, hair curly, springy and very much doing its own thing.
He is the antidote to a room full of suits, a bumpy, earth-caked organic carrot to their shiny, uniform, genetically modified veg. He’s toting a big spotty bag full of kitchen utensils, having come straight from the Radio 4 studios where he was whipping up some dishes on Woman’s Hour.
Unburdening himself and taking a seat, he orders a smoothie which quickly arrives in a rather ludicrous foot-high glass. It’s so precariously tall he has to lean forward in his chair and crane his neck up to sip at the straw, like a child enjoying his first milkshake. “Orange juice, strawberries and bananas,” he says, referring to the contents of the smoothie. “Three good things.”
I’m impressed. The interview has not yet begun and already he’s made reference to today’s topic of conversation, namely his new book and television series, Hugh’s Three Good Things on a Plate. The premise is simple: each recipe is structured around three strong ingredients.
Soups, salads, snacks, meaty mains and “luscious, indulgent puds” all pivot on that magic number. Some recipes feature only three ingredients while others are supplemented with bits and pieces from the store cupboard. The aim is accessibility and simplicity and he’s pulled it off, certainly when it comes to this hapless cook; I’m struck by the high percentage of recipes I actually want to tackle.
“The aim of the book,” he says, between sips of his smoothie, “is to try to completely demystify the alchemy of creative cooking. Because there is a clear logic to why dishes work together. Sometimes it’s a bit baffling, sometimes there are some nice and unusual surprises but the dishes in the book work because of their contrasting textures and flavours. Whether you’re talking about a summer salad or a hearty winter dish, you’re still working with the same principles.”
Some dishes are disarmingly simple: olive oil, bread, tomatoes. Others are more sophisticated, while some take a new approach to a classic trio. The BLT, for example, is completely reinvented with the lettuce braised in the oven alongside the tomatoes. His face gets a little more intense and animated as he describes the process, his hands coming into play a little more to aid his descriptions. When he talks about cooking he gets lost in long, enthusiastic descriptions of dishes and ingredients. Beetroot, eggs and anchovies is a favourite: “With the beetroot lightly cooked, still a bit of crunch in it, that sweet earthiness. You’ve got nice, yielding, creamy egg and then you’ve got the salty tang of the anchovies...”
The passion for food has always been there. One of his earliest cooking memories, he says, was making peppermint creams, yet another recipe, he points out, which calls for just “three good things: icing sugar, egg whites and peppermint essence. Four if you add the green food colouring.
“I had a very sweet tooth and I made sweets and cakes and the desserts at my mum’s 1970s dinner parties,” he adds. “The classic things like profiteroles, chocolate rum gateaux and pavlova. I remember standing on a chair and messing around with those peppermint creams but quite soon, certainly by eight or nine, I was able to get a cookbook off the shelf and make my own cakes and biscuits.”
That he ended up making a career out of his passion can’t have been much of a surprise, but it wasn’t necessarily in the frame. “I’ve never been a great planner. I’ve followed my nose and my instincts.” Born in London and raised in Devon, he went to Eton (he was in the year above David Cameron) then Oxford where he read philosophy and psychology.
His reputation for whipping up tasty dishes started at school and grew at university, and after graduating, a friend who worked as a waitress at the famous River Café in London suggested he try for a job in the kitchen. It was a boost in the right direction, but he was fired in a round of cuts and began writing about food for various newspapers instead.
One thing, as it often does for old Etonians, led to another, and a series of popular television programmes and accompanying books have ensured his place in the first division of telly chefs, alongside Jamie, Gordon. Heston et al. “It evolved,” he says of his career, “rather than having a kind of eureka moment.”
Sustainability and the provenance of the produce we buy and consume have always been issues close to his heart, and his River Cottage in Dorset (he lives nearby with his French wife, Marie, and their four children) is the physical embodiment of those two threads meeting his passion for cooking. The location for most of his television series, it’s the fantasy of anyone who’s ever hankered after the grow-your-own dream but is also partial to a lick of Farrow & Ball paint.
There’s a lot more to him than the dreamy lifestyle cooking stuff, however. His well-publicised and highly successful campaigns include one to encourage consumers to choose free-range chicken and another looking at the practices of the fishing industry.
His efforts for “Chicken Out!” – which saw him putting pressure on major supermarkets to stock chicken that has been humanely-reared – mean that 15-20 per cent of fresh chicken purchased in supermarkets in the UK ticks higher welfare boxes, up from around five per cent before the campaign, though he has his eye on the remaining 80 per cent.
A second series of Hugh’s Fish Fight is also on its way. The first informed viewers that half of all fish caught in the North Sea are thrown back overboard, dead. Over 800,000 people have signed a petition on his website calling for the problem to be addressed.
In short, with multiple campaigns and television series and more than 20 books to his name, he has his fingers in a lot of organic pies. He is, however, “mostly quite forward-looking” and seems thoroughly focused on the Three Good Things project. Indeed, he has a gift for linking back to the project regardless of what we’re discussing, not in that way celebrities often do when they don’t want to deviate at all from whatever it is they’re promoting, but more in a way that suggests Three Good Things has, at the moment, his undivided attention.
It’s no surprise that it’s never far from his thoughts since the book accompanies a whopping series of 25 half-hour television programmes occupying a daytime slot (“It’s the ‘what am I going to cook for supper tonight?’ audience rather than the ‘sit back and let the joys of River Cottage wash over me’ audience”). There’s a further 25 episodes in the pipeline if the first batch turns out all right.
Which, I’ll bet, it will. The concept is not dissimilar to Jamie Oliver’s hugely successful 30 Minute Meals in that it taps into our increasing desire for decent nosh married with speed, convenience and simplicity.
“There are often three stand-out ingredients on a plate,” he explains. “If there are more it’s often worth asking yourself – particularly as a professional chef – do they all need to be there? Is one of them a little bit redundant? You can be quite elegant and high-end with it – scallops, broad beans and chorizo, for example – but what about ham, egg and chips? Rhubarb crumble and custard? A baked potato with baked beans and grated cheese? Absolutely!”
His last venture saw him ditching meat and fish entirely and going vegetarian for four months, challenging himself to come up with veggie recipes that were not mere substitutes for meat-based dishes but exceptional in their own right. “It pushed my creativity a lot because, as much as I love my meat and fish, they had made me a slightly lazier cook down the years.”
Does he enjoy the challenge of working within restrictions he’s set for himself?
“I do. And what sounds like a rule or a restriction actually turns out to be a complete liberation. It’s amazing how tyrannical that piece of meat or fish is in the middle of your plate or in the oven and it basically deadens your creative thinking about what the rest of the meal is going to be. And that’s the liberation of moving meat and fish to one side. It’s slightly different with Three Good Things. Again what feels like a restriction does turn out to be a creative liberation because it’s inviting you to constantly reshuffle the pack, put things together that you haven’t before and take things that you know are going to work really well and put them together in a different way.”
He calls it “the ‘I could do that’ factor” when I tell him that, leafing through the book I found myself wanting to have a go at most of the recipes. He hopes, he says, the ‘I could do that’ factor “will turn very rapidly into ‘in fact, I will do that’.”
He reaches up and slurps the last dregs of his smoothie. “And these three good things,” he adds. “often have equal billing, I mean at least to the extent that if you pulled one out you know that you’d be weakening the dish a little bit. And at the same time you know that if you add one on you wouldn’t necessarily be strengthening it. That’s when you’ve got the balance absolutely right.”
Campaigner, television personality, father, author, champion of home-grown produce and the man who just might get me to cook more than two recipes from a single cookbook: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, it seems, has got the balance absolutely right.
• Hugh’s Three Good Things is published by Bloomsbury, price £25; the Channel 4 series Hugh’s Three Good Things will follow later this autumn.
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