Steve Lamb has been at River Cottage since the very beginning and has seen it develop from a light entertainment TV programme to a foodie destination that both educates and celebrates all the positive aspects of food – from growing, sourcing, cooking and eating. His role defies categorisation – he teaches, writes, presents, and represents River Cottage both in the UK and abroad. He is also guardian of the culture and the brand. In short, he’s the man to talk to about what River Cottage represents…
- It always seems that River Cottage has been much more than a cookery school and a restaurant. What would you say was (and still is) the ultimate aim of it as a project?
River Cottage’s aim is to engage in positive food experiences. We follow and promote a set of principles which guide the company and helps set the culture within the team. We celebrate the seasons, good local produce, organic and wild ingredients as well as sustainable, traditional and innovative methods. All of these aspects can be applied and lend themselves to the different elements of our business.
- People’s approach to food has changed dramatically in the time that River Cottage has been operating. What do you think that’s down to and what role do you think River Cottage has played in contributing to the change?
People have become more educated about food and the power of the consumer has shifted so that every detail – from welfare to cooking techniques – form part of the everyday ritual of purchasing food. Producers now have to be more transparent and it has become easier to see where the difference in quality is. We have always championed the ingredient whether it has a high or low status. There will always be a challenging dish on our menu and quite often made from thrifty cuts such as offal and there will certainly be an emphasis on vegetables. If anything – although we didn’t invent this, our approach has probably helped sustain the view of quality based on provenance. Of course, our forays into serious food campaigning such as the work we did for the plight of poultry farming or our ‘fish fight’ means that we can reach a big audience which helps.
- What do you think are the five most important things any would-be chef or cook should know?
1. How to follow the seasons which will lead to creativity.
2. Knowing where your ingredients come from – traceability and provenance.
3. You don’t need to work 100 hours a week getting shouted at in a small kitchen to be a successful chef!
4. Leave your ego outside the kitchen but sharpen your senses as well as your knives.
5. Experience as many types of cuisine as you can but master the basics
- Why do you think people are so interested in cooking nowadays? My hope is that it’s more than just a lifestyle fad…
It is more than a fad – you’re alright! There is a great deal of pleasure to be had either working in this industry or just being a domestic cook and it supports really vibrant foodie communities up and down the length and breadth of the UK. There is a generosity of spirit and enjoyment (along with a good deal of dross) but food is not a prohibitive industry and anyone can find a level within it.
- Do you have a River Cottage rule book – i.e. what are the most important things you hope anyone who comes takes away with them?
There isn’t a rule book but everyone knows the principles – however we encourage individualism and creativity. It’s not like some weird cult in the countryside! I hope that people take a sense of learning, enjoyment as well as feel inspired and confident to continue their journey to the good life in their own domestic set-ups.
- What do you think are the keys to running a sustainable kitchen? And what do you advise people at home who are trying to improve their sustainability.
You have to be good at making sure food waste is kept to a minimum and that your ingredients are sourced well. Being thrifty – making your own stocks and sauces as well as learning some preservation methods not only improve your skill base but also widen your repertoire.
- Could you identify a recipe that you think best demonstrates what River Cottage represents – (at this time of year)?
Slow roast shoulder of venison with seared venison fillet with celeriac three ways (pureed, fried roots and salted crisp leaves) and a sweet rhubarb relish. (Recipe coming soon to NSCG Recipes…)
- And maybe a recipe that teaches someone how to cook. Something fundamental, like?
Learning to cook has a lot to do with preparation as well as instinct. I think any dish that involves taking something from scratch and then turning it into a balanced finished meal will give you some sound principles, particularly if the ingredients require different techniques and timings in order for them to be ready simultaneously. Anyone can cook a steak – they might do it badly or really well but you don’t need to know too much about cooking in order to have a stab at it but understanding the ingredients and being sympathetic to how best to treat it will make you a better cook.
- What’s your (personal) favourite thing about cooking/food in general?
I love the energy that is driving food in the UK and the fact that it has no borders or limitations. There is an increasing respect for those who are looking to make positive changes in the industry. Cooking for me is many things but I particularly like the act of coming together in a kitchen to create a meal on behalf of others.
- We have to accept that a lot of people will buy their food from a supermarket. What would be your advice if that’s the only option. Are there some things to look out for (especially with meat) and are there certain tricks that we shouldn’t fall for…?
Supermarkets are not the problem – they are just buildings with shelves in them. The issue is that they can be run by unscrupulous people and shopped in by people who care less about issues of welfare or quality. So despite that rather negative situation it does mean that at least we are able to either change or affect our shopping habits. I would advise everyone to read labels and choose the highest welfare produce they could afford when it comes to meat.
Interview by Adam Coghlan