The Big Interview: Foodies Festival founder Sue Hitchen

Sue Hitchen recalls how her shock at the British diet kick-started a gastronomic phenomenon.

Dumbed-down childrens meals inspired Foodies founder Sue Hitchen to change the culinary culture. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

It’s been 15 years since Sue Hitchen created Foodies Festival. A “lightbulb” idea for an inclusive food and drink celebration that came to her in the shower one day, the movement has snowballed from its first outing as part of the Edinburgh Festivals into a UK-wide offering of locally-focused carnivals which have proven to be just to the public’s taste.

Spearheading culinary trends, the family-friendly experience is now a staple ingredient in every foodie’s calendar, and this summer pulled in record visitor numbers to its three-day event in Edinburgh, attended by more than 31,000 people.

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Celebrity supporters from day one have included the likes of Michelin-starred Scottish chefs Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin, who cooked for the crowd at the inaugural event, as Foodies mixed professional cookery demonstrations with street food stalls, live music and kid-friendly activities to create a winning recipe.

Independently from the ticketed event, each Foodies Festival attracts more than £250,000 for the Scottish capital’s economy through guest spending in local businesses such as bars, restaurants, hotels and taxis. Ahead of this weekend’s Christmas event at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Hitchen is reflecting on the impressive transition in Britain’s food culture during the past 15 years.

Two decades ago Hitchen founded – and still edits – Edinburgh Festivals Magazine, a bible of comedy, music, theatre, books, dance and arts on offer during the festival season. She was inspired to create a family-focused event anchored around food to change British attitudes towards children’s eating.

“I have four children, we lived abroad for some time, and while they were very young they became adventurous about what they would eat,” says Hitchen. “We always encouraged them to try different types of food and join us for meals, where possible. And so we were quite shocked when we came back to the UK to enter this culture where children’s food was very much dumbed down. And often they were eating separately from the rest of the family.”

The key ingredients

She imagined an experience where families could enjoy cooking and experimenting with food. It’s no exaggeration to count Foodies among the influencers contributing to the rapid evolution seen in children’s cuisine.

Hitchen recalls: “I thought, ‘We have to do something that encourages people, and mainly children, to discover their palates, try new flavours, taste new foods and go through the journey of exploration of food rather than being reduced to just eating sausage and mash, or whatever.’ I know that’s not all-encompassing in terms of what families feed their children. But back then, children’s food wasn’t what it is now.”

Foodies now hosts ten annual events in summer, including ones in Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge and multiple sites in London, while Tatton Park in Cheshire boasts a winter festival. The figures make fine reading for host locations: the festival brings with it between £11 and £13 additional spend per visitor into the economy.

With new experiences added every year it has swelled to feature a Street Food Avenue, Children’s Theatre and a Cake and Bake Theatre, while chart-topping boyband Scouting for Girls, Brian McFadden and Keith Duffy’s Boyzlife, and the Neville Staple Band, led by The Specials’ frontman, were musical headliners this year.

The list of celebrity guests has likewise blossomed to read like a who’s who of Michelin-starred chefs and TV cooking personalities: Gary Jones, who leads the kitchen at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Sunday Brunch’s Simon Rimmer, last year’s MasterChef winner Kenny Tutt and Great British Bake Off victor Candice Brown to name a few.

“I realised as soon as we opened the doors that it was going to work because literally we had queues of people from the first minute,” says Hitchen. “It wasn’t just mums and dads on their own, families came in and children enjoyed it.” Hitchen later moved the event outside, as “eating in the fresh air is just a whole different experience, being out and being able to smell the barbecues. And children just have a better time if they can run around, they can explore. I have families come up who tell me about how their children have tried venison for the first time, have tried oysters for the first time.”

Street food revolution

She introduced Foodies Magazine, a monthly glossy for Scotland’s food and drink, several years later to meet year-round appetite from visitors, who were frequently requesting take-home recipes and provenance stories from producers. The latter is a further trend that has gained traction since the launch of the festival, with shoppers keen to know where – and who – they are buying from. The street food movement has likewise heated up. Hitchen, who was born in Nigeria to Scottish parents, spent the first ten years of her life in West Africa, later living in Saudi Arabia and Spain before choosing to settle in Scotland, where she found the gastronomy scene ripe with forward-looking producers looking to sell their wares and meet the public.

“We were very instrumental in really promoting street food,” says Hitchen. “When the festival started 15 years ago there wasn’t a street food movement in the UK and I was approached by people who were saying: ‘My grandma has this recipe, it’s been going down through the family and this is food that you wouldn’t discover in a restaurant. Can we come along and cook at Foodies Festival?’”

The events have grown to showcase 30 street food vendors a time, sprouting an abundance of businesses which have used the festival stalls as a springboard. In Scotland alone, these include Montreal bagel outfit Bross Bagels, which has just rolled out its fourth Edinburgh outlet in two years, and The Buffalo Farm in Kirkcaldy, whose owner Steve Mitchell is pushing to become Scotland’s first producer of buffalo mozzarella.

“We’ve been very involved in helping companies in every location actually launch their products. Some of them have tried out their first batches with us and then had response from visitors and improved their product. ”

Hitchen even offers subsidised rates for start-ups to present at Foodies, agreeing a package which allows them to take a stall and pay solely for the cost of the infrastructure. Foodies also partners with Musicians Against Homelessness, a venture which gives all its funds to homeless support charity Crisis, and works with local food banks in every area, encouraging traders to donate at the end of events.

The future of food

Through collaborations with local chefs and businesses, events in each location have naturally developed their own accents, which Hitchen believes is crucial to Foodies’ success, believing it’s vital that it remain a user-led experience. Equally important is to stay at the forefront of fashions in cookery and wellbeing.

“We have to make sure that we’re identifying food trends in advance and bringing those into the festival,” she says. “So hemp was a big thing this year, then there was jackfruit as well. We work with nutritionists who talk about healthy eating and we’ve also incorporated yoga into our festivals because there’s obviously a big interest in that. So anything on the fitness and health side we will also embrace.”

Upcoming festivals are set to treat guests to à la mode offerings such as non-alcoholic spirits, with Hitchen currently speaking to producers of botanical-infused faux gin, and emerging superfoods such as tamarind, as West African cuisine comes into fashion.

Veganism also remains a key craze, as official figures show the number of Scots following a plant-based diet has increased five-fold to 2016, at 6 per cent of the population, with a further 14 per cent considering it.

“We always make sure there’s vegan food on offer and will obviously be embracing more vegan products. But by the same token, in Scotland, we have to appreciate our cattle farmers and just make sure that people are still committed to eating meat if they choose to. We don’t want our local farmers to suffer.”

Equally, Foodies embraces international cuisine and has partnered with tourist boards in the Basque Country and Trinidad and Tobago in recent years, creating lively, colourful breakaway areas dedicated to regions and nations. There’s also scope for launching Foodies abroad, but Hitchen is, perhaps wisely, waiting to see how events unfold in the political sphere before agreeing to anything. “At the moment I’m just waiting to see what happens over the next few months. I have been talking to venues in America, Canada and Europe, and Australia, but I’ve sort of put it on the back burner over the last couple of years. The potential is definitely there.”

The spirit of endeavour is also alive and well in the UK, with the festival targeting a tremendous push of moving into two new towns or cities a year going forward, and a second site in Scotland firmly on the cards.

- Foodies Festival Christmas is at the EICC, Edinburgh, from 22-24 November

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