Interview: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – the Reluctant Revolutionary

His culinary brand has redefined rustic cooking in the UK, and his name is synonymous with ecological activism at the very highest echelons of public power, but Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is proud to say he’s never forgotten his roots.

In the world of gourmet dining and culinary celebrity, it is often the most exotic and intriguing ingredients that make it to the menu. But while his fellow foodies may strive for Michelin-starred success off the back of weird and wonderful gastronomic concoctions, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has carved out a space all his own among the pantheon of cooking greats which eschews such stereotypes in favour of a back-to-basics philosophy and a whole-hearted embracing of traditional British food.

Alongside this idiosyncratic exception to the norm, Fearnley-Whittingstall’s early career in cooking was unique among his contemporaries only due to his apparent ineptitude within the kitchen. Indeed, he has often credited a lack of discipline with his relinquishing of past posts such as sous chef of the capital’s iconic Italian eatery River Café.

But what Fearnley-Whittingstall may well have lacked in the more traditional arena of celebrity chefdom, he more than made up for once he stepped away from the flash-in-the-pan environment of the kitchen. Having plied his trade in the world of food journalism – inspired no doubt by the successful writing career of his mother, Jane – Fearnley-Whittingstall made the move into television with Cook on the Wild Side, acting as an introduction for the British public to this new, wild-haired and bespectacled advocate of ecological eating.

“I don’t particularly see myself as a celebrity chef,” the 52-year-old shrugs. “I haven’t done a lot of cooking in the restaurant world. I am really a journalist who got lucky. I did do a stint in a restaurant and wrote about food for a long time, and I made some TV programmes which more recently have had a campaigning element to them as well. But I have just found a way to do the things that excite me, and hopefully, they also excite other people too.”

The humility Fearnley-Whittingstall expresses seems genuine and is part and parcel of his trademark, as is his inherent ability to transform basic produce into hearty, healthy meals. Having moved out of London to pursue an ambition to experiment with self-sustainability, he not only set himself up as a vegetable-growing, livestock-owning smallholder in Dorset, but at the same time established his now-renowned River Cottage brand.

Over a dozen series and a hatful of written accompaniments – the most recent of which, River Cottage Much More Veg, was released this past October – the Fearnley-Whittingstall-founded company can be considered a small, yet ever-growing, empire. Now with three restaurants and a cookery school accompanying the original River Cottage smallholding and stretching across the west of England from Dorset to Bristol, the brand has simultaneously capitalised on the current demand for locally-sourced produce and, in turn, aided in the promotion of this environmentally-minded lifestyle through its loyal customer base.

As a result, River Cottage has become an important cog in the ever-moving landscape of farming and food production that accounts for swathes of the nation’s countryside and rural economy.

“I’m not really interested in high-end food, the rarest or most expensive cuts of meat or exotic foods – so many of them are imported or out of season anyway,” explains Fearnley-Whittingstall. “I’m much more excited about the first-discovery apples or the purple-sprouting broccoli when it comes through in February – that’s what gets me going. That applies to my chefs too: we don’t grow all of our own food at River Cottage; we don’t have enough space. But we do work with lots of other great producers and local growers close to River Cottage HQ in Devon and we love what they do – we love cooking with what they produce.”

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his Garden Cottage
Image: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

This infectious enthusiasm for growing, cooking and, of course, eating has catapulted River Cottage recipes to the top of culinary book lists across the country. But in some ways, it could be argued that Fearnley-Whittingstall’s company is taking on a far more expansive role to his fans. Back-to-basics cooking, an understanding of different kinds of naturally-occurring edibles, and a desire to acknowledge the people and processes behind the food are all ideals that lead us to step out of the kitchen or away from the page and delve further into a commitment to buying responsibly-sourced and organic foodstuffs.

There’s no denying River Cottage’s recognised successes in the parallel spheres of food production and environmental advocacy, but the ever-understated figurehead shies away from the suggestion that what was once a vehicle for his rural pursuits could now be considered something of a lifestyle brand.

“I don’t know about that,” he says. “We have a full-on cookery school that’s based in Devon, and three restaurants, but I think that it’s always about connecting to the source of your food and understanding where that comes from. Then there are things like getting involved in making your own cheese and we can show you how to do that, or curing your own charcuterie or smoker, or making a new pizza oven in the back garden and things like that.

“But everything such as that is about taking yourself away from dependency on industry-produced food and not becoming self-sufficient. Some of the projects are about getting closer to self-sufficiency, but it’s an unrealistic goal for almost anybody in this day and age.”

That being said, Fearnley-Whittingstall’s occupation has provided him with space within which he can create his own countryside idyll. Alongside the Eden-esque gardens that make up the River Cottage grounds, he has found owning his own slice of verdant landscape an uplifting experience. He is also quick to elucidate on the many benefits available to those who may have cultivated their own countryside retreat away from prior City careers – such as the rewards one can reap from owning livestock, or taking time out to tend a garden.

“It’s not something you can undertake lightly – it’s a big commitment,” he reminds us. “But having said that, if you’ve got the space and you’ve got the time for just a little bit of daily contact, chickens are the best place to start. Little backyard chickens, two or three birds; make sure they have some space to run around in. Chuck them a few leftover greens or peelings from the veg you’re prepping if you can – that keeps them very happy along with quality grain-based food. That pleasure of being able to collect your own eggs in the morning… I’ve met many people who are urban chicken-keepers and they love it. It gives you that sense that what you’re cooking with and eating has been produced by yourself.

“What I would say for those who haven’t got the time or space to look after chickens is this: when you have got a bit of time, everyone can go foraging. I’m looking out of the window of my office at home – there’s a sloe bush and the berries on that are lovely, dark berries. I’ll be making plenty of sloe gin and vodka this winter and maybe slipping them into a few other things as well.”

Interview: Tony Williams of Watchfinder

This is Fearnley-Whittingstall’s foremost intention: the discovery and harvest of fantastic produce and the delight taken in edible experimentation. But with a brand as strong as River Cottage at his back – not to mention the 17-strong repertoire of directorships he has assumed at one time or another during his career – there’s more to the man than just a passion for food.

Indeed, when it comes to successful chefs, it’s often hard to differentiate between the gastronomic genius and the canny businessman. Many of his contemporaries have seen restaurant chains rise from their celebrity, and in most cases, the drive and determination that has seen them streak ahead of the culinary competition has also come in handy in the boardroom. It’s fair to say that, by comparison, he has practically none of the manic energy and wild-eyed willpower of, say, a Gordon Ramsay, or the technical expertise and chemical knowledge of a Heston Blumenthal. That would not be the Fearnley-Whittingstall way.

Instead, River Cottage has succeeded because of its gentle approach to being outstanding. The food served in its trio of West Country canteens is of the highest standard, as is the teaching that turns aficionados into full-blown culinary creatives at the firm’s Axminster-based cookery school. And the overwhelming endeavour of advocating community spirit and a sense of resourcefulness – over the high-octane perfection that has become the foundation for other high-profile chefs – pervades throughout Fearnley-Whittingstall’s entire business, from the cookbook-writing to the vegetable-tending.

“It’s a collaborative thing, I’m not at all shy about being clear on that,” he declares. “I work very closely with my former head chef, Gill Meller, who is still a big part of the River Cottage team. He has recently written his own brilliant solo cookbook. I work with Gill and my food editor, Nicky Duffy, and we have been working together for a long time. There’s lots of getting together, brainstorming and going off and cooking different things, sending each other pictures, meeting for tasting sessions and doing it like that, which I love: lots of experiments.

“Then there’s Will, our head gardener, and his team who will see what’s arrived in the kitchen and what variety it is. They can always get on the phone to Trill Farm, which is next door to us, and tell them what’s delicious or what we might be getting next year. There’s a lot of fun to be had there.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall demonstrates once again that he’s under no great pains to take more than his fair share of credit for the success of River Cottage. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the trusted team that has worked tirelessly to develop his idea into a reality has – much like the concoctions of fruit and vegetables he has recently been revelling in – developed naturally around him, bringing like-minded souls together to deliver a legitimate business enterprise.

“I think these things do evolve,” he agrees. “At a party in Dorset, I bumped into Gill, who was telling me he had just set up a little kitchen where he was cooking locally for people’s dinner parties. I really liked the food he was making. I popped around to see him one day and he was making a delicious game terrine and some homemade chutney. It was early days at River Cottage and I asked him if he wanted to see what we were up to.

“Obviously since then we’ve recruited chefs for the restaurants and I would get them in and ask them to cook, taste what they can do, and talk to them and find out what they are interested in. But often these things are, to coin a term, organic. They just sort of happen. You run into people, you get talking and you think that it might be fun to do things together – sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, it’s great, and that’s how you end up with life-long collaborators.”

The team Fearnley-Whittingstall has hired to keep River Cottage relevant, fun and innovative is only half the story. No brand is complete without customers – regardless of the brains behind it – and with River Cottage’s approach covering dining, cooking tutorials and food production, it’s unsurprising that each facet of the brand has attracted a loyal customer base.

Then there’s the original building itself. Situated as it is among the picturesque surroundings and rolling hills of Devon, the company now offers weddings and other events at the Cottage. And even more in keeping with Fearnley-Whittingstall’s love of community spirit and togetherness is the festival organised annually by the team. It appears the business model centres on the idea that by giving back to the followers of his work, River Cottage’s immaculate branding benefits in the long term.

But despite all the hand-grown ingredients and idyllic examples of rural living, Fearnley-Whittingstall explains that – unlike many successful businesses – there was never a demographic in mind when River Cottage’s quest for good eating first began in earnest.

“I never had customers in mind, we were never targeting people in any way and there’s never been a grand plan – I just kind of put stuff out there,” he reveals. “But one thing that I am always excited about is when we have a River Festival – which we do in the spring and the late summer every year, and people come literally from all over. It’s often very much a family thing; people come with their kids, their parents… there’s often three generations there. People from the city and people from all walks of life – I am always completely delighted about that.

“I have the impression sometimes that people assume we have some kind of fairly middle-class demographic, but it actually doesn’t seem like that to me. I have met so many people from such different backgrounds and I love that.”

Yet regardless of River Cottage’s standing among artisanal foodies and the like, along with those who admire his quiet, unassuming empire-building, Fearnley-Whittingstall will never be one to consider himself a businessman at heart.

“I think that all of the things I do fold into each other in various different ways,” he muses, going on to typically play down his achievements. “It’s very nice of you to say that it’s all very successful, but we have a cookery school and three restaurants – that’s hardly an empire. I think the real privilege is to be able to make TV shows and to write books that I hope do reach and influence people and the choices they make.”

Of course, River Cottage’s successful ‘influencing’ of first its customer base and then a wider audience relies heavily on its figurehead’s public profile. Central to this is his reputation as an ecological activist and advocate. From the earliest incarnation of River Cottage as a brand to its current status, Fearnley-Whittingstall has instilled a ‘more than profit’ approach at the core of his business. This ideal isn’t just reflected in the way River Cottage allows local growers and farmers to benefit from having their wares and know-how delivered to a larger consumer base, but also in his characteristic enthusiasm at championing various culinary cause célèbres.

Food Obsession

From calling for an end to battery farming to his recent televised ‘war on waste’, Fearnley-Whittingstall is one of the food world’s most outspoken individuals. On the one hand, he credits his success on screen with allowing him the time to step away from River Cottage and its many subsidiaries and personally whip up support for campaigns that are close to his heart. However, his celebrity status has also raised the stakes in terms of what draws his activist eye – and the continuing good work of River Cottage has only made its founder determined to take on veritable giants of the mainstream food industry.

“I’m making a new series at the moment about the obesity crisis – the crisis of our age,” he declares. “What it’s rooted in is that the food industry is full of inexpensive ingredients and they’re pretty obvious: sugar, refined carbohydrates – especially wheat and things like potato starch and soy – cheap animal fats and vegetable fats. These can be spun into endless combinations and then given a sort of zap of some flavouring and they’re made to be almost dangerously palatable. But they’re just not good for us and for so many people they are becoming the basis of their diet. At the absolute best, they should only be treat foods – cakes, biscuits, chocolate bars, sweets, creams, sugary drinks. Every single one of those things is a treat and they’re not delivering any goodness. They have a bit of energy, but it’s not delivering any other goodness.

“That may very well be a sweeping statement and you could pick holes in that – cakes have got eggs in and there’s goodness in that, etc. – but the highly-refined industrial versions of those are so dangerously palatable and they deliver very little, so unless they are eaten in conjunction with healthy fruit and vegetables and not too many more of these treats, they’re going to make you ill. They are making people ill! That is a crisis and we need to realise that. We can cook our way and eat our way out of this crisis if we make the right decisions.”

As enthusiastic as Fearnley-Whittingstall is, he’s under no illusions regarding the scale of this endeavour. But with his years of experience working under the River Cottage name only serving to further empower him, it’s not just the food itself that he is setting his sights on.

“There is an enormous money-making machine with the power of mass marketing behind it,” he says. “There’s the power of scientific research that says if they test it on certain people, and they put a certain bit in a certain place and put it all together, then a lot of people are going to buy it and they’re really going to love it. Is it going to do the consumers any good? That’s not really the sellers’ problem, but that’s not people deciding to do wrong things; it’s just a consequence of people finding out that they can make money by spinning these foods in a seemingly endless and attractive way.”

It’s not just about going up against big corporations. An avid supporter of and campaigner for the Green Party, Fearnley-Whittingstall has capitalised on his reputation as a friend to farmers and food producers to bring their cases before the political powers-that-be.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
Image: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Aside from providing a platform for those who earn their living through local markets and help invigorate Britain’s organic food industry, Fearnley-Whittingstall is hoping that River Cottage can set a benchmark when it comes to ecological understanding and promoting the links between what we eat and the world we live in. Foremost in his mind is the threat of climate change; he is determined to see the nation develop into a leading global force for tackling global warming and our shifting climates.

And while his implicit ties to politicians and even royals make him personally able to extol the virtues of ecological industrialisation and food manufacturing, he is just as determined to see his brand continue in its ambitions of getting ordinary people to take up the baton too.

“I think that everybody has to step up,” he explains. “We’ve made some interesting commitments. We’ve talked about and finally showed support for electric cars, for example, and we need to do all of these things and even then it may not be enough.” Political influence is essential: “I wish there were more Green MPs. I wish the major parties would show a much greater concern for environmental issues,” he says.

“But one thing we have to remember is that a lot of the power rests with the voter and the consumer; we need to take these things seriously. This is important stuff but I think that with the rising generation, politicians are not going to be let off the hook on this matter. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be easy for young people at all, and if that is the case then it will be due to our generation not being as good as it should be. And I hope that the next generation will do better than us and they will do more for their children than collectively what we have done for them.”

But as always with anything that Fearnley-Whittingstall puts his name to, you can be sure that the success of his involvement with eco-friendly campaigning and the wider future of River Cottage itself will not be measured in monetary value or celebrity status. Instead, the humble environmentalist’s reputation rests on the positive actions and development of the thousands of customers around the UK who have used River Cottage or his many TV programmes and written works to buy into the philosophy that has been central to his career evolution.

“The most satisfying thing of all of the things that I do, which is really lovely, is when somebody comes up to me in the street or at a book-signing and tells me their story,” he smiles. “It’s when they say that they found an allotment or they now keep chickens in their back garden, or they taught themselves how to make salami, or came on one of our courses, or that they saw the TV show 20 years ago and moved to the country. Whatever it might be, I love that. It makes me feel so proud of my team and all that we have managed to do and that it has in some small way made a difference to people’s lives. That’s wonderful. It’s a great feeling.”

River Cottage Much More Veg by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Bloomsbury, £26) is out now.