Root Camp – a field-to-table cookery school.

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Root Camp is a residential field-to-table cookery school for teenagers aged 15-21.  Across varied UK venues and further afield, they work in the kitchens creating simple, healthy, cost effective meals from scratch that they eat together as a group. They also spend time doing activities ‘in the field’, which range from planting and harvesting, fishing, and foraging, to beekeeping, spoon carving, and more.

Locavore spoke to Sanjay Bhattacharya, office manager and chef for Root Camp, about their courses, the role of education in sustainability, and their plans for 2018.

Root Camp has evolved and expanded greatly since its inception.  How did the original idea come about?

It all started when Cassia Kidron, the founder of Root Camp, saw that her eldest son and his friends could really not put together a meal. When she was younger, hosting friends for a meal was really important to her, and she wanted to pass the ability to do so on to her son and others, as well as teaching them how to cook and eat healthily and sustainably. Root Camp grew from these informal cookery classes, that she ran with friends, to the first ever Root Camp in 2010, which also introduced our “field to table” approach.

You are a cookery school, but also offer much more than that, such as foraging, growing, and bushcraft skills.  How do you think that an understanding of the wider aspects of food and its provenance can improve people’s lives?

At Root Camp, we strongly believe that the best way to cook and enjoy food is to understand where your ingredients are coming from. That doesn’t just mean exploring the fields where we grow and harvest, but also getting to know the people behind the scenes – the farmers, producers, and artisans, who all toil to get the best ingredients possible onto your shelves.

Once you meet those dedicated people and see the efforts they go to, it’s hard not to appreciate them more – and means that when you do cook with their produce, you feel really connected to the whole journey it has taken. We think it creates a connection that many people have with their food, and in turn improves both your life and that of the producer.

You work with a wide range of venues, suppliers, and chefs.  How do you choose who to work with?

As a charity that has held a very strong set of beliefs relating to food sustainability and provenance since the very beginning, we always seek out like-minded individuals – and most often they find us too! We start by talking to our venues and visiting local farm shops, who always have strong links to good producers, food-makers, and artisans, and move on from there. So there is a word of mouth element to how we build up our community.

We’ve been introduced to large numbers of venues, suppliers, and chefs through the first chef we worked (and continue to work) with, Sylvain Jamois, amongst our other chefs who also suggest suppliers and friends who they work with.

Our most important method for choosing who to work with is simply through chatting with them – it’s very easy to learn common ground and share ideas if you’re having a cup of tea together! We don’t exclusively work with smaller producers or huge chefs and suppliers – in fact, part of how we choose who to work with is on the basis that we need to provide participants with a well-rounded view of how food production in the UK really works. Big agriculture does have a part to play in that, though we do find that as a farm gets larger and more industrialised, they can be less willing to have us come and visit!

You yourself attended the first ever Root Camp in 2010.  How did the experience affect your thinking around food and sustainability?  And did it influence the path you took in later life?

Yes, I was part of the first group that spent a whole week at the Rill Estate, working on the fields of Riverford Organic, whose main farm was nearby. As a young 14 year old, I vividly remember planting garlic, which involved lying face down off the back of a trailer, poking solitary cloves into holes that you dibbed with your other hand. It was dull, muddy work – and gave me a huge insight into, and appreciation for, the manual labour that goes on behind the scenes.

We pressed apples, harvested leeks and strawberries, and cooked great meals all together – it was a great time. That first Root Camp definitely changed how I looked at the world – whilst I had always enjoyed the outdoors and visited farms before, as well as tended my small veg patch at home, I don’t think I’d really linked the two different scales of food production together.

Before I came on the Root Camp, I was definitely a keen cook – but it did wonders for my confidence, and I think did inspire me to consider the world of food as a serious option for my career. Now, I regularly teach cooking life skills to the young and old at cookery classes, and keep Root Camp running day-to-day, both of which I can link clearly to that very first course!

What happens on a typical day at Root Camp?  Or is there no such thing as ‘typical’?

There is always a consistent structure to a Root Camp – we get everyone up at 7am, which is early for some. We give the group until 8.30am to shower, dress, and have breakfast (toast and granola, that they’ve made the night before, though we’ll occasionally do porridge too).

After breakfast we split them into their two groups (which are the same for the whole week) and one group will crack on with lunch – perhaps a quiche, some salads, and a sweet snack. They might also get some stock ready for the afternoon group to use, or bake some bread for breakfast the next day. Whilst they’re busy cooking, the other group will spend 3-4 hours hands on with a local expert – they might visit a community farm, go mackerel fishing if we’re on the coast, or explore the woods and fields around the venue with a forager, hunting for edible mushrooms. It’s all down to what the area has to offer, and the seasons!

And it’s very relaxed – we don’t expect everyone to come back with a bushel of chanterelles, but anything that is gathered will be used! After returning to the farm we’ll all have lunch together, along with the chefs and team – it’s a chance to tell stories from the morning, and take a quick breather. The group that cooked in the morning will then head out. (All the groups will normally get to experience every activity, though not necessarily on the same day.)

The group that was out in the morning will then cook a dinner, incorporating both anything they gathered/made in the morning, and leftovers from the days before. After supper we may have a local storyteller, or a speaker who might give a short presentation. We also have film night each week, where we all choose from a mix of classics, like Ratatouille! Into bed from 9pm-10.30pm, so they make for pretty full-on days, though there’s always plenty of time to fit in some games and laughs.

How is Root Camp funded? 

Root Camp is a registered charity in both England and Wales, so unsurprisingly most of our funding comes from donations both large and small. We have a great network of supporters that provide bursary places for anyone who wouldn’t be able to afford a Root Camp without some outside support, as well as receiving funding from grant giving bodies like The Rothschild Foundation, and corporate groups that we’ve established relationships with.

Our courses start at £755, and compare very favourably with bigger, non-charity cookery courses. Profit from our courses is crucial to sustaining Root Camp and helping us develop more courses, but as we continue to grow and hopefully move into our own venue, we’d like to see our course prices drop.

Root Camp is an intense, full-on week, the chefs are top notch and the activities are rich and unique – however, this does all add up. Once we settle in to our own venue, we’re looking to establish permanent relationships with these providers, which will go a long way to reducing the cost of the courses.

Do you think the knowledge and training you provide is something that should be taught to young adults and children within the education system, or is it better coming through a separate organisation such as Root Camp?

In an ideal world, we believe that every nursery, school, and college would have a thriving garden and a small barn, maintained and nurtured by the students – and more and more schools around the UK are digging their own right now!

But for some, especially those in large cities, there will never be enough space near to them to call their own, which is why we think Root Camp will always have a place in the education system. Teachers who have come on Root Camps always extoll the relaxed yet informative way in which we educate, and by being separate from their schooling, it gives our participants a chance to experience themselves in an unfamiliar environment and social context – which can have a really positive impact on confidence.

We always say that people join the Root Camp family – and we don’t just say that. Our alumni have cooked dinners for each other, made friends for life, and will always keep great memories of the new people they met – which wouldn’t happen if the process was confined to their school.

What are your plans for Root Camp for 2018?

This year, we’re running more Root Camps than ever before – ten in total. That means more Root Campers, more recipes to write, and more bursary places to fundraise for.

First stop this Easter is Jamie’s Farm in Hereford, for a springtime course. We’re then off to Suffolk in June and July for four courses, one with Westminster Boys School, where we will be working with the local farmers, foragers, and preservers, surrounding Cottage Farm; our lovely converted chicken-barn. Post-Suffolk, we’re heading out to Jamie’s Farm in Monmouth, for another two courses.

We’re also running another Westminster trip in October, followed by two international Root Camps in Bologna, which are sure to be real highlights of the year – think visits to parmesan makers, traditional Italian dishes, and a fully immersive holiday! Root Camp as a whole is also looking for a permanent home to call our own – we’ve got plenty to do on that front, with not only house-hunting, but also fundraising for it!

What are your hopes and fears for the future, both for Root Camp and for the wider food world?

Sometimes, it feels like the food revolution that has burned so strongly in the UK is petering out, and that whilst it has been a great success, the biggest proponents of healthy eating, good cooking, and responsible farming are not yet being replaced by energetic, new faces who can take the reins and shift us back into top gear.

The UK faces a rising obesity problem – which will affect every facet of our society, and the food world needs to be doing more to combat this. We focus on the idea that by teaching young people how to cook, we can give them the tools to choose their own meals and eat healthily, but this needs to be brought in at all levels. I see Root Camp as an inspiration that other charities should jump on, bringing cookery classes to prisons, job centres, elderly care centres, and more.

There are so many issues that we can address through empowering people with good food and it sometimes seems to swamp us as a small charity! Fortunately, we’re growing – and as we do, we’ll be able to tackle more and more areas that we care deeply about.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

When I graduated from Imperial College London last year, I was surrounded by friends heading off without a sense of purpose. Some knew that they chose PhD placements as it was an opening they could get – regardless of whether they liked the topic or not! More chose the city, all well aware that they would work crippling hours for often far from glamorous companies, that do little to help real people out.

I knew I wanted to do something different and be somewhere where I could make an impact not just within my workplace, but in the wider world. Yes, we’re still a small charity – but we have the most wonderful courses and I’m dead proud every time I explain that I work for Root Camp. People love the idea and the vision, which means I know I’m doing the right thing. Plus, I’m happy – and how many 22 year olds in their first graduate job can say that?

For more on this year’s courses at Root Camp, click here.

Find them on Twitter here.

All photos ©Root Camp.