TV Chef and Author
Photo Credit: Walter Van Dyck
In the UK it is common for events to have an official “Ambassador” and we both chose and were chosen by TV chef Valentine Warner to take on the honors for the first ever edition of The London Produce Show and Conference. We asked Liz O’Keefe, the co-ordinator for the culinary and media programs at the event to chat with the Chef about growing up in rural England and changing attitudes to cookery and food, and to allow him a chance to challenge the UK fresh produce industry to join the food revolution.
As Liz put it: “Having ventured from a London cooking and catering career to TV presenter, chef, food writer, and broadcaster, it’s clear that Valentine Warner is mad about his fresh produce. He grew up in the heart of West Dorset, the son of a dairy farming diplomat, eating from his immediate locality where everything, wild or cultivated, was simply viewed as “edible or nonedible.”
Warner’s eating fresh philosophy, Explained Liz, is the perfect pairing for the London Produce Show, where he is championing good-quality fresh produce through cookery demonstrations as well as taking part in industry debates.
As his fourth book What to Eat Next has just been published, Warner has decided opinons and we asked Liz to give us a preview of what he would say at The London Produce Show and Conference:
Q: Fresh produce is close to your heart. When did you first become interested in it?
A: Living in a rural setting, on a farm and with an abundant kitchen garden at hand, eating fresh was always about bringing the outdoors indoors. We collected our milk every night, grew our own vegetables and ate the meat we reared. Dad would always walk into the house with mushrooms, rosehips or blackberries and the like in his hands. If I ever went fishing and caught some unfortunate little thing, my dad would make sure I cooked and ate it. What deepened my interest in good produce was that both my parents were exceptional cooks.
I have always been very interested in producers, and over the years I have visited a lot of growers. Working in restaurants greatly increased my fascination with seeing things at the source. Producers are more often than not curious and riveting people. There is so much to learn from experts. One of my favourite producers is Forge Farm in Oxfordshire. They cultivate the most delicious organic pumpkins and squash, making it clear that using good ingredients is one of the key things to successful cookery.
Q: How do you view the fresh produce industry in the UK?
A: UK producers generate an enormous amount of good-quality fruits and vegetables, yet many of them remain unknown — which is why this kind of event is such a great opportunity. It seems that I am constantly unearthing new suppliers on my travels around the UK and always aim to share this information as quickly and as widely as possible.
We are a nation of excellent growers with a long history of green-fingered brilliance. Getting great produce into the public eye is not easy, though. I think because Britain is a small island, its easier to see the accelerated speed with which public tastes are becoming squeamish and unadventurous. If only we approached our food like the European small suppliers, we would have an easier time. Mind you, markets are once more becoming popular so there is hope.
Q: Do you think that understanding of the UK fresh produce industry and producers in general can be improved?
A: There is always room for improvement. Its a very complicated question to answer. On one hand, we are driven by a supermarket culture that decides what the public likes according to what we buy, but Im not sure we really are aware of what we even could like.
How should a large retailer really educate people when selling? Its quite worrying, in fact, how little retail buyers know about the very thing they are hired to buy for big companies — I once met an olive buyer who hated olives!
A lover of the old ways, its taken me some time to fully understand how the Internet can be used to its best effect. I think the new future of online information and selling could be a great example of technology and information helping the very fragile things one worries it will steamroll. Supermarkets could help considerably more with information and ideas of how to use the wonderful produce that we have.
Q: The fresh produce industry can be very seasonally driven. What is your idea of seasonality and how do you apply it to your cookery?
A: For a start, I would just like to say that we seem to forget that every country has seasons; its just that I dont want to eat foreign strawberries in winter — they are all about the summer for me, and Ill wait.
Mother Nature provides us with the very things that we should be eating at a certain time of year — iron-rich brassicas and roots to take us through the mean months, then a wonderful bloodletting of berries, peas and the like to waltz us through a hot summer.
It makes sense to eat the things that are growing at the time they grow. Asparagus, for example, has a short season. I want to eat as much of it as possible. Therefore, its the job of the seasonal cook to enjoy it in as many different recipes as possible in order to avoid boredom. The asparagus departs and you can start a passionate affair with the next thing to come along. Of course, some imports are wonderful, too.
Q: Whats your favourite fruit or vegetable to cook with?
A: This very much depends on what type of mood I am in and whats around to use. Although I do understand the importance of list-making, you really do need to see whats best, and I think this is much easier to do in a market, as opposed to a supermarket. Markets are all about furtive squeezing of tomatoes, nibbling and petty thievery…I mean tasting. A few of my favourite things happen to be bitter treviso lettuces, fennel, beetroots and, my favourite of all, broad beans. I especially like them when theyre very small and you cook them in their pods. I also really love peaches.
Q: How can we get consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables?
A: Shopping as a supermarket nation, I think its hard to realise differences in variety. Asparagus just becomes asparagus, a vine tomato is just a vine tomato. I love saying to people “try this one over that one” and watch their faces light up as they exclaim, “This beetroot is totally different than any of the beetroots Ive eaten before.”
Unfortunately, old-fashioned things that might be perceived as ugly, like the Egremont Russett apple or the hairy little gooseberry, have fallen out of favour and, with it, disappears so many wonderful tastes replaced by the shiny but bland. So, for me, its really about trying to excite people with storytelling, smells, tasting, etc.
I think the British concept of vegetarianism has not done vegetables any favours — a tired old procession of bakes and butternut squash risotto. Put simply, vegetables are second nature, a common approach in many of the places we like to visit, be it Italy or India. There is an understanding that you dont necessarily need meat or fish to make a meal. A brilliant combination of tomato, salt, olive oil and some good bread is one of the most pleasing things. Salads can be genius, but are often considered boring.
Lastly, I would just say it all starts with the kids. Children are far more interested in things than theyre often given credit for; and cooking is storytelling, drama, theatre — all the senses, fire and knives. Enlightening their minds is surely how to get more people in the future to love, respect and enjoy the very thing that keeps us alive but waste mindlessly.
Valentine Warner will be taking part in the London Produce Show’s opening cocktail reception on June 4 at the Grosvenor House hotel, Park Lane, London, as well as featuring in the Perishable Pundit’s “Thought Leaders” Debate Panel starting at 7:30 a.m., the Chef Demonstration Kitchen at 10:30 a.m. and the Media Masterclass at 3 p.m. on June 5 at the same venue.
There is something of a love/hate relationship between the produce industry and chefs. On the one hand the connection is strong, perhaps stronger than ever. With all the pressure on the restaurant trade to serve healthier food, fresh produce is the chef’s best friend. Everything else is negative. Use less salt, sugar, fat. Only produce rich in colors and textures is applauded — use more.
On the other hand, the chef’s adoration for all things local, obscure varieties and general romantic attitudes toward food puts chefs on a path in which they are increasingly aligned with a small sector of the population, a sector both affluent enough to be exceedingly choosey about what they buy and committed enough to study and care about all the intricacies of fresh produce varietal choice and growing regions.
Yet the industry and chefs must find an entente.
Here is the problem. It is often written that produce has been bred to produce high yields, fruit easy to transport and with long shelf life. These are the “bland” varieties that Chef Valentine alludes to in the interview.
There is truth in this and although much new varietal development is heavily geared toward flavor, replacing all the produce out there with high flavor varieties is a project for generations and even then is unlikely to develop into a produce assortment of the kind of subtle flavor differences Chef Valentine yearns for.
So the produce industry, this means that the route to increasing produce consumption goes right through the idea of using culinary techniques — to make the produce we actually have and can grow in large quantities and sell at affordable prices — to make produce more delicious and appealing.
For chefs, although a tiny minority may be willing to abstain from eating the bounty of the world to focus only on local, all sales data indicated that consumers want fruits and vegetables from wherever they are most delicious that time of year or they want things produced in green houses or stored in controlled atmosphere. And an awful lot of people want quality food at an economical price.
The rise of the celebrity chef has corresponded with a decline in common home cooking. Instead TV shows provide a kind of culinary tourism for people where cooking is a rarity or a special event. In the long run this is a path to lesser relevance.
So chefs need to engage with real people, on budgets, not that interested in the foodie culture and the industry needs to engage with chefs that have the technique to make fruits and vegetables seductively desirable.
You can see this culture clash play out on the culinary stage and conference platforms of The London Produce Show and Conference where we encourage all to say their piece.
If you would like some additional information, here is a small brochure we prepared of the event.
Or you can check out the website here.
You can register for the London Produce Show and Conference right here.
Here is info on the spouse/companion program right here.
Finally, though the exhibition hall is sold out, we still have some wonderful opportunities for sponsors to step in and become Charter Sponsors. If you would like to receive more information on how your organization can be part of this great new industry institution, please let us know here.