DAMIAN CLISBY - HEAD CHEF AT PETERSHAM NURSERIES
“We have rejected the traditional concept of a market place where people met each other and were sociable; instead everyone races through supermarket checkouts and goes home to watch Gogglebox. People watch a TV program of people watching a TV program. That really upsets me. I think we have to slow down, slow down and value what we have”
Growing up, Damian Clisby always looked forward to visiting his grandfather’s farm in Ireland, where he would help smoke freshly caught wild salmon and learn about different cuts of meat. These experiences inspired a love of food and interest in how it can be used as a medium to bring people together. As he grew older, Damian starting helping his parents and grandfather with the cooking and by the time he was 18 was working in the kitchen of the iconic seafood restaurant J Sheekey. Despite having no formal chef training, Damian has gone on to work in some of the finest kitchens and with some of the finest chefs in London. Since 2014 he has been Head Chef of Petersham Nurseries, where his focus is food that is inspired by what is growing in the Petersham gardens, the changing seasons and the surrounding environment. Over lunch in the Petersham Nurseries restaurant I spoke to Damian about his passion for organic, sustainable produce, the Petersham Nurseries philosophy, his involvement in the business’s plans for expansion, the Slow Food Movement and his inspirations.
Where does your passion for food and cooking stem from?
I think my childhood visits to my grandfather’s farm in Ireland is where my love of food and spending time around people comes from. My grandfather would wake up at five in the morning and I was always really eager to get up early so I could see what he was doing in the kitchen. I have really fond memories of the smell of my grandfather’s stock pots and enjoying good food with family and friends at his table that everyone had helped prepare. It was such a great communal experience, which sparked my interest in cooking and how food can bring people together.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a chef?
My first job was in a tiny little bistro restaurant in Chiswick with this bonkers Australian guy called Shane who took me under his wing. The restaurant burnt down in the end, which was nothing to do with me I should add! That was a bit of a blessing in disguise because then I got a job at a restaurant where I met Tim Hughes (currently Chief Director at Caprice Holdings); he was a real inspiration, not only in terms of his cooking, but also how he behaved with other people and was driven to achieve something. I ended up working with Tim a J Sheekey’s, which is an amazing fish restaurant. It was wonderful telling my grandfather about it because he had eaten there as a young boy when it was just a small fish shop. I still love J Sheekey’s to this day and like to sit at the bar there, it has a lot of charm and elegance.
What persuaded you to join Petersham Nurseries?
I like its naturalness, its organicness, and its creativity. It is a unique set up, everyone here is quite interesting.
How would you describe the Petersham Nurseries philosophy?
Simple, organic, natural, balanced, textured, and accessible. In terms of my approach to cooking here, I am trying to value amazing produce for its simplicity. I am not trying to turn a carrot into a jelly or foam or a soil. I think people are cottoning on to that attitude.
Have you always been interested in organic and sustainable produce or is it something that has developed over time?
It has developed over time. If I am honest with you, during my early career I did not care where the produce I was using came from, I did not understand about that. I have realised over time that as a chef I can have an influence on making people think about where their food comes from. Good organic produce should not be expensive, what is important for me is that it is accessible to everyone, not just the middle or upper middle classes. It is incredibly ironic that in our society everyone wants to go to a farmer’s market at the weekend but if you look at Thailand or India everyone wants to get out of the markets and buy their produce in air conditioned shops like Seven Eleven or Tesco.
Where do you source the organic produce you use at Petersham Nurseries from?
We take edible herbs and flowers from our own gardens and for the past two years have formed a close partnership with Harry Boglione (the founder Francesco Boglione’s son) who runs an organic farm in Dorset. It has been a wonderful experience because Harry shares our philosophy and we can work together on growing different varieties of produce. Our partnership is still in its infancy which makes it so fun, we are always learning.
What is on the menu at Petersham Nurseries this Christmas?
We are doing a lovely venison and porcine stew with wet polenta. We had some game birds a few weeks ago, and I have also bought some amazing Dover sole that we will do. It really depends what is in season and available. We have been doing a lot of supper clubs recently; one that is coming up is a lovely salad with pink radicchio, fresh crab and orange, which is really zingy and fresh so I am looking forward to that. We have also done some really fun, successful workshops; the edible flower one always goes down well. Thomas Broom-Hughes (Head of Horticulture) will talk through the flowers and then we will do a wonderful dish where we roll the flowers into some pasta; it is important to remember that it is not style without substance. If something is on the plate it has to have purpose.
Has the business changed a lot since you first joined?
Since I arrived we have grown the business hugely and embarked on lots of new projects. I like progression and with new projects you can feed people’s tenacity. We have taken part in more off site events like Frieze and Wilderness and put in new infrastructure, which has helped grow the business by 15% year on year, which is huge. When Skye left, I think there was a difficult period for the restaurant when it was not sure of its identity. You have to give Skye a lot of credit, for putting the restaurant on the map. The Michelin Star was probably the best thing to happen to the restaurant but also one of the worse. People would write reviews and say it is a disgrace my shoes were covered in mud. If you can’t buy into the charm of this place when you visit, then that is a real shame. I like to think that we are giving it its own identity again now. I am a huge driving force but it is not Damian Clisby at Petersham Nurseries, it is all about the strength of the Petersham Nurseries team; we are all very protective of that. What is so good about working here is that it is evolving every day.
What is it about the Slow Food Movement you like?
I like the connection the Slow Food Movement gives between the end user, the grower and the restaurant. It is about more than just food and I hope to see it grow into a larger cultural movement. I was recently at Terra Madre, the Slow Food festival, and we went to some amazing talks about land migration and conflict. You have to be careful not to get too political about it but I think it is a great movement that promotes the value of good produce that people have put their heart and soul into growing for generations and generations. I have got the most amazing beans sitting on my desk at the moment; they are an indigenous bean from Italy that were around before the Borlotti bean. I just think about the effort that has gone into growing them, the people that have had to look after it, nurture it and harvest it. There is an amazing connection between people and the land, which I think we have lost. It is mind blowing when you see so much convenience and junk food in the supermarkets. When you hear the number of stories of Indian farmers committing suicide every year because their prices are always driven down it is shocking.
Do you think people generally undervalue food?
I am almost 40 and I think my generation and the generations above have the attitude of we want everything now. When you walk around the supermarket there is every type of summer berry that you can imagine and asparagus that comes from all over the world. We can’t just eat asparagus when it is in season and enjoy it for what it is. People also expect to pay too little for their food. Why not eat meat once or twice a week and pay twice the price for it but know it is good quality. I think that is a better way to look at eating. Another problem is that people generally do not know how to cook anymore, they do not have the skills. In order for everything to be convenient we take the skill out of things so no one has to do anything. Soon we won’t have to park our cars, we won’t even have to drive them. I think it is odd.
It seems you are particularly passionate about fish. Do you think current fishing methods are unsustainable?
I am really passionate about fish, I think we all should be because it is a real worry what is happening. The current fishing methods are unsustainable, numbers are dwindling and if you go down to the local supermarket you see this awful, tired looking fish that no one gives a damn about. I am part of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and have suggested banning polystyrene boxes as part of our plan to promote sustainability. Even if that took two or three years, think of the effect banning fish coming to London in polystyrene boxes would have on every other global city. But just putting in polystyrene boxes is an immense task as it needs to apply throughout the whole supply chain.
Do you think feeding the world on entirely organic produce is possible?
If we waste roughly 40% of what we produce today, then of course it is doable. You need to look at who is telling you that it is not doable, it is big corporations that control the growing. Misinformation is a huge issue. One of the supermarket’s near where I live have just introduced a new sushi bar. When I saw it, I thought what the hell is going on here, that is not sushi, that is smoked salmon on a bit of overcooked rice. So what we are doing now is peddling mediocrity. The supermarkets control the way people think and they have the opportunity to advocate fresh, sustainable food; why didn’t this supermarket put in a massive counter with sustainable fruit and veg, which would really hammer the message home? Because it is inconvenient for margins. I think supermarkets are uninspiring, dull places to be. When you walk into a decent butchers or fishmongers, there is character, you think this smells a bit funky in here. When you walk into a supermarket, there is no smell, and actually, what should be an enjoyable, interesting process, is ruined by stressed shoppers who do not acknowledge each other. We have rejected the traditional concept of a market place where people met each other and were sociable; instead everyone races through supermarket checkouts and goes home to watch Gogglebox. People watch a TV program of people watching a TV program. That really upsets me. I think we have to slow down, slow down and value what we have. As a race, we are not interested; my brother could not care less, he just says I have one life and I will do the best I can do. I think what about your children’s future.
Where do you find inspiration?
I read too many cookbooks. I picked up this old Parisian book in Turin funnily enough so I am trying to read that. I am reading a lot of Nepalese cookbooks because I am going on a charity trek there in the New Year. I might be walking down the road and suddenly think I would like to try something. For me it is an ongoing process; if we walk through the nurseries and it is a bit milder and we think a dish is not right as it is too heavy for the weather we can change it. If you work at a restaurant and see the same thing on the menu for 6 months it must be mind-numbing as a chef. In terms of chefs I find inspiring, I like different ones for different reasons. I love Alain Passard for what he does with vegetables, Tim Hughes for what he did for me, Adam Byatt’s cooking at Trinity, the simplicity of Nathan Outlaw’s food, and Tom Hunt who has something called root for fruit.