Alex Bluett is a nomadic chef. After years spent in kitchens, from small restaurants to big chains, he decided to pack some pans and knives and head out to the woods. Based in Bristol, he now roams the land, catering weddings and off-grid parties, and is in the process of setting up his own event space on the Cornish coast. He has written for the Guardian, and is featured in the Signature Chefs series of recipe books. Locavore spoke with Alex about his plans, the culinary freedom that the limits of wild cooking can bring, and the role of sustainable, local food in the modern world.
You describe yourself as a nomadic chef. What do you mean by that?
I guess the nature of events and pop-up catering is nomadic – borrowing a space for a finite amount of time, returning it to the owner, or to nature, as it was found, and then moving on to the next space. I also often find myself catering events without a kitchen, cooking in a field or forest with little more than a fire, a few good pots, and some good wood. I think that feels quite nomadic. In the wild, you can more easily alter your style of cooking and your ideas with the seasons, and in that lack of permanence a creative freedom can be found.
After training to be an electrical engineer around 15 years ago, I thought the natural progression following would be to go and work in professional kitchens… I think like many of us I found myself in a job that I didn’t enjoy, and I wanted to follow a passion which for me was food and the areas that surround it. Starting at the bottom in good places and working up through various roles was key to my development. A slow and varied career progression helps create a rounded knowledge base and build confidence. I learnt so much at Fishworks many years ago, Woods Brasserie in Cardiff which, unfortunately is no more, and on a managerial front being Head of Food at Friska. However, since becoming self employed, I’ve encountered new areas of learning and challenge.
You have a new project called Off the Beaten Track. What are your plans for this?
I am in the process of building two new event spaces on my grandparents’ old farm. One is a glass lean-to with incredible views, the other is within a secluded orchard which my family have known for generations. Both are a stone’s throw from the beautiful Cornish coast. The plan will be to offer food and eco-camping in a unique location, encompassing and embracing seasonal changes. All produce will be grown on site or sourced from local ethical suppliers.
Do you have a signature dish?
Signature dishes tend to be tied to the location, event, or restaurant – my menus tend to evolve this way. I’ve had signature dishes that range from wood-fired lamb to octopus dashi. There’s probably a burger and a roast dinner in there too.
What would be your desert island ingredient? And your desert island piece of cooking equipment? (Assume you have the means to make fire.)
Assuming there would be fish in the sea, animals in the forest, and wild herbs and vegetables to forage, I would probably have to go with a good quality butter. I eat and cook with far too much of it and it’s something I would truly miss. I have a big cast iron paella pan that I love cooking over fire with. It’s so versatile and seems to somehow add a greater depth of flavour. That, or a good pair of metal tongs.
You say you are passionate about food, the culture surrounding it, and sustainable food systems. How would you describe sustainability in the era and culture of modern food, and how does this influence the way you work and cook?
People appear to be becoming more aware of the food they eat, and increasingly conscious of their environmental impact. Moral compasses are beginning to point in the direction of smaller local shops and producers rather than supermarkets. Sustainability can be initiated by engaging with someone’s interest in food, its welfare and its production. A key challenge we have for the future is how to provide enough food for a growing population in a responsible and ethical way. Sustaining this with current agricultural techniques could be considered somewhat unrealistic. Education regarding, and affordability of, produce will be key to the success of any future model.
Seasonality is fundamental to good food practice. When an ingredient is in season it is at its best, being locally produced, abundant, and inexpensive. Buying produce out of season is a habit that large supermarkets have created, with perpetual summertime. The food miles associated with this are huge and the ingredients will never be at their best.
It is important for me to source as much of the produce I use as locally as possible, from farms where the ethos is that the animal has only one bad day. Trying to cut down on packaging is paramount, and recycling everything that I possibly can is key to creating a healthy kitchen and workplace. The age old practice of “waste not, want not” I guess!
What are the differences you’ve found since moving from a large business to flying solo?
To support local independent producers that are in line with my ethos is important because that, in turn, supports and strengthens local communities. Being sustainable also sits under that moral flag when looking at how we, as businesses, affect the environment, produce, and people that surround us. It’s much easier as a sole trader to be local and to be sustainable as, ultimately, I only have myself to answer to. That makes the decision much easier to pay more for the highest welfare produce from trusted local suppliers, recycle all that I can, and pay my staff over the living wage.
You’ve worked with some companies that are using innovative technology, such as Grow Bristol. Do you think technology can offer solutions to the challenges of improving sustainability in a world of growing demand for food?
Grow Bristol is a fantastic example of how technology can help us to overcome the growing obstacles within food production. Technology helps us to be more accurate, efficient, to manage waste and extend shelf life. Closed-loop agriculture (or as close as you can get) is an incredible example of the future landscape of food production, and it will be fundamental in the management of growing food demand.
Bristol has a thriving and ever-expanding food scene. What are your favourite places to eat there, and who are your favourite Bristol chefs?
I’ve been enjoying eating at the Cargo shipping containers at Wapping Wharp recently. Lots of variety and a great place to hang out and soak up the atmosphere. I still need to try Box-E which I hear is outstanding. Outside of that I would have to say Pasta Loco are doing some pretty special things, and Bellita is a favourite for small plates and fantastic wines.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
The reason I do this is to see the enjoyment my food gives people. The nature of events means that, generally, there are just a few menu choices, so the customer puts their trust in my ability to please them. Most people like having decisions made for them in a hosted environment so they can just sit back and enjoy, but the levels of expectation are much higher – I think in turn the satisfaction of that achievement is much greater.
Follow Alex’s adventures here.