Tom Hunt is an award-winning chef, food writer, climate change activist, and author of The Natural Cook. He writes for magazines and newspapers such as The Guardian, Telegraph, Foodism, Olive Magazine, and Vegetarian Living.
In 2004 Tom founded his festival cafe Poco, which has grown into a multi-award-winning restaurant. In its opening year Poco was awarded Sustainable Restaurant of the Year by The Sustainable Restaurant Association.
During his formative years Tom worked with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as a course leader, cook, and food stylist, at River Cottage HQ and on the River Cottage TV series.
Locavore caught up with Tom about his eating philosophy, the importance of small farms, and his upcoming appearance at the River Cottage Food Fair over the Bank Holiday weekend 26th/27th of May 2108.
What is your earliest food memory? And what inspired you to become a chef?
As many chefs, I have very fond memories of cooking with my grandma, growing up, of visiting her on Sundays to hang out. We’d often cook different dishes together – lots of cakes – and I have happy memories of visiting her on pancake day, flipping pancakes to hit the ceiling.
I studied fine art, but at the same time I was equally passionate, perhaps more passionate, about food. When I finished my degree, after spending five years studying fine art, I felt it was time to give food some serious time.
I was well into my career when I started at River Cottage. I was very fortunate to be there at that time, just before the HQ was built. We were working very closely with Hugh (Fearnley-Whittingstall). I gained a lot of responsibility quite quickly, becoming a sous chef, and was running courses and cookery demos. That was really the beginning of my career in demonstration and teaching.
How would describe your cooking style? You talk of a ‘root to fruit’ cooking ethos.
Root to Fruit Eating is a philosophy that I developed, initially, as a response to the global food waste scandal, the atrocity of food waste across the world. But that has developed into a holistic, sustainable approach to food, based on three key principles – eating for pleasure, eating whole foods, and eating the best food you can. I’ve built up a structured manifesto around that ideology, to communicate to home cooks and industry professionals how to lead sustainable, conscious, businesses and lifestyles.
How did your thinking around sustainability evolve?
If you’re truly living a sustainable lifestyle, it’s not really about a definition of sustainability, it’s about good food. About living consciously, and having some awareness of your impact on the world through your actions.
I’ve lived on a permaculture farm, and on various communities and co-ops, through my life. I think being in that environment led to these ideals. A lot of the ideas in sustainable practice are reminiscent of leading that kind of conscious lifestyle. I feel like that’s always been there, through my parents, and the people and places that have influenced me through my whole life.
Sustainability is more and more in the national consciousness. Do you think that there is meaningful change afoot? It can sometimes seem a little ‘issue of the week’.
We are bombarded by the media, the government or NGOs, communicating these issues around sustainability, it can be relentless. The nature of the media is to grab onto a headline and run with it – immediate news – and then “what’s next?”.
But all of these issues are completely interrelated, pointing towards the same thing, describing to us how humanity is impacting on the earth, and affecting climate change. So although they’re different issues, they’re all connected to this key important message that we’re responsible, and can do something about it.
Do you think there is a danger of preaching to the choir, to an extent?
I don’t think so. Firstly I think we’re seeing a huge revolution across many demographics. People are awakening to the ideas of our impact on the planet. But I think, crucially, we are not preaching to the converted, because they’re converted only in the sense that they have acknowledged these issues but they haven’t changed their lifestyles in the majority.
It’s a very important time in history, because of this enlightenment that is happening, a wider understanding amongst people from all walks of life. It’s one step, it’s then the actions that those people need to take, to make real change happen.
So there’s no such thing here as preaching to the converted. It’s really a case of “brilliant, people are understanding and agreeing on these issues, now what can we all do to make these changes and improve our world?”.
You’re appearing at the River Cottage Food Fair in May. What will you be doing there?
Well, I’ll be back at River Cottage HQ, which is always fun, and I’ll be talking about sustainability whilst demonstrating my food philosophy, and cooking different dishes over the fire pit. Each one will represent one of these three key principles of root to fruit eating. I’ll be making a soda bread with dulse seaweed; for me making your own bread is one of the most symbolic things you can do when you learn how to cook. It marks the idea and importance of cooking from scratch.
I’ll also get into the practical side of eating whole foods, of complete consumption. That means eating the whole ingredient, whether it’s beetroot leaves, or the skin of a vegetable, or the stems of some herbs. Making them taste delicious, and eating that important nutritious fibre, but also whole grains and so on.
I’ll also be talking about eating for pleasure – in a way you can’t have sustainability in a way without pleasure. That sort of engagement with our food is really very healthy. For this I’ll be using some of the rarest chocolate in the world, to describe the connection between taste and biodiversity within produce.
What plans do you have for 2018?
I’m focusing on my second cookbook. I’ve just completed a proposal which I’ll be taking to publishers over the next few months, hoping to publish next year. That’s one of two main projects I’ve got going on.
The second is that I’ll be helping launch a new restaurant at the Bankside Hotel in Blackfriars. I’ll be helping devise the concept, and acting as their sustainability consultant, essentially designing a sustainable restaurant in central London.
You work with some innovative suppliers, such as the Severn Project and Grow Bristol. Do you think that small-business innovation can affect coherent change, in the face of the global issues we face around food and sustainability?
Firstly, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the small farmer. 70% of the world’s food is produced by farms smaller than two hectares. Only 15% of those have livestock, or even machinery. Most of the developing world feed themselves in that way, and it’s really only in the industrial world where we’ve moved, to the extent we have, to industrial farming. So these projects that you mention, I see them as part of this huge global network of small farmers that are feeding the world.
The impact that these small farms have is huge, in the sense that they’re providing the world with food in a way that supports the local economies, communities, even the local ecologies. Practising agro-ecological farming methods, which generally these small farms have to do. Because it’s not a monoculture as such – a small farm demands that you take on a poly-cultural system where you must grow a larger variety of species of plants, perhaps integrated with livestock, promoting domestic biodiversity. They’re so important for the future of humanity, to maintain an equilibrium with nature that’s necessary for our survival.
What are your hopes and fears for the future?
The industrial world is waking up to the idea of sustainability, of needing to understand the effects of our farming methods and decisions on nature and Mother Earth, and how it’s costing us financially. Those invoices from Mother Earth are being seen, and costing governments and industries money. It’s starting to come to some climax, where the ice caps are melting and it’s really becoming very obvious and very costly.
The industrial world is therefore being forced to change, developing into a new post-industrial revolution. I think what’s happening is the cost of using vast amounts of nitrates and fertilisers and fungicides on the soils is starting to outweigh the benefits. The cons are starting to outweigh the pros. What we will start to see is a revolution within industrial farming, taking on some of those key methods from small farms. Which will save money, but also prevent as much damage.
For Tom’s website, click here.
The River Cottage Food Fair is on 26th and 27th of May 2018. For details, click here.