GILL MELLER - CHEF, FOOD WRITER, FOOD STYLIST AND COOKERY TEACHER
Gill Meller is a chef, food writer, food stylist and cookery teacher who lives and works near the small fishing town of Lyme Regis, in Dorset. For the past eleven years he has worked at River Cottage, working closely with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to promote their passion for food integrity and consumption of local, seasonal produce. I speak to Gill about his food philosophy, his time working at River Cottage, the local food producers he works with, his passion for outdoor cooking and his new book Gather, which is inspired by the changing landscapes in which he lives and works.
Gill had an idyllic country upbringing and was always fed fresh, local produce by his parents who were passionate about growing their own vegetables and cooking tasty, nutritious food. However, while he was interested in good food and earnt pocket money washing up in the kitchens of local restaurants as a young lad, Gill was not planning to work as a chef and studied photography and art history at university. “It was not until I was an adult that I realised some of my childhood experiences had sown a seed,” Gill says.
He essentially fell into cooking purely out of a necessity to pay the bills after finishing his degree. A new local café was looking for someone to help them develop their food menu so Gill started working with them on making salads and grilled sandwiches. “It was my first real experience of preparing and serving food and enjoying it. Initially I was just making recipes up but it did not take long to know the stuff I was making was nice and people were enjoying them. The more I cooked the more my passion grew,” he says.
At the turn of the millennium Gill moved to a little village just north of a town called Bridport on the South West Coast. He soon discovered that the surrounding area was a hub for the organic food movement. “I started to become aware of lots of really interesting food producers, farmers and growers. I formed relationships with these people because the produce they were selling was so delicious and I found their passion for ethical food production really intriguing and refreshing because I did not know too much about it,” Gill explains. As he became more involved with the local food producers and cooperatives Gill was inspired to set up a business selling organic food for weddings and parties. “I tried to buy all my ingredients from these great organic suppliers and make a point of promoting that and them,” Gill tells me.
In his eagerness to learn more about organic, sustainable food production, Gill bought various books, including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Cookbook. “That was a turning point, it completely blew me away, I had never read anything like it. I was living in the area where Hugh lived and met him by chance at an event. Several weeks later he called me to ask if he could come over and speak to me about his ideas for the River Cottage television series. He came up to my little kitchen on the farm where I was working and asked me if I wanted to help. That is how I first became involved with River Cottage,” Gill explains.
Gill has now been part of the River Cottage team for over ten years, appearing regularly on the River Cottage television series cooking alongside Hugh, teaching at the River Cottage cookery school, and helping source the sustainable food used in River Cottage recipes. He has also contributed to many of the River Cottage books and authored The River Cottage Handbook: Pigs and Pork in 2015. Unsurprisingly, spending so many years at River Cottage has had a huge impact on Gill’s food philosophy. “During my time working at River Cottage I have learnt more or less everything about the fundamentals of sustainable food production and cooking with seasonal produce. My personal food philosophy is in large part inspired by the principles that Hugh personally has and the area I live in, as well as the very unique operation that is River cottage,” Gill tells me.
Gill feels very fortunate to work at the River Cottage, a rural farm that has been redeveloped to include a kitchen, dining area, and vegetable gardens. “I feel incredibly lucky to have a close relationship with the gardener, understanding what they are growing and when, getting involved in the daily harvest, and then planning my menu based on that. I also work closely with the stockman who is looking after the animals on the farm and a whole host of independent authorities, specialists and teachers from the area who come and teach courses on specific areas of food and cooking. It is a privilege working in those circumstances; you are constantly exposed to these incredibly knowledgeable people so learning something every day from these masters,” Gill says. “I don’t know if I would still be in this job if I was working in a kitchen where you couldn’t meet the producers that are selling the ingredients. It would be difficult to connect with what you are really doing if you could not understand where the stuff was really coming from and the passion and hard work that has gone into what you are cooking. Going to hear them talk and hear what they are doing inspires me to create different dishes or explore the ingredients a bit more. Integral to the way we cook at River Cottage and at home is that understanding of where the food comes from and how its been caught or grown or harvested,” he adds.
Gill now works on a freelance basis with River Cottage, which has given him time to work on his new book Gather. “The book is very much about food from the landscape. Each chapter reflects a food producing landscape I know. I suppose it has got something to do with where I have lived as I have grown up. I have always been on the coast and countryside. These very beautiful and ever changing landscapes that I have lived in have not only inspired me in their own right they have inspired the way I cook. In the book we have chapters like woodland, sea shore, harbour, garden and orchard. It connects to either the producer that works the landscape for a living growing vegetables or sowing wheat or throwing nets for his fish or it has got to do with some of the things that grow naturally in these landscapes that you can find for free depending on the time of year. These individual landscapes are all productive but only at certain times of year and that has interested me as well. By engaging with your food producing landscape you engage with the ingredients at the very beginning of their journey, you get right back to the source as it were in a rather nice way,” Gill explains. The book contains over 120 original recipes, which all rely heavily on fresh, seasonal produce and usually consist of three or four tasty ingredients which are put together in such a way that they complement each other.
When he can, Gill enjoys escaping the kitchen to cook outdoors. “I find it invigorating and exciting cooking outdoors. It feels very natural and timeless cooking over the open fire; you don’t want for anything complicated you are just trying to manage the heat and enjoy the experience. It is so much more engaging and real than sticking something in the oven and setting the timer in my view. For instance, a simple blackberry sauce cooked in an old pan over a fire and served with barbecued venison is pretty tasty. Just simple stuff; just because you are outside and cooking some wild meat and have gathered the blackberries yourself what is a simple dish is much more rewarding and complex than that because there is much more of a story behind it,” Gill says.
Ultimately, through his book and cookery classes, Gill hopes to encourage people to not only eat healthy, nutritious food but also think about where their food comes from. He has huge respect for the food producers he works with in Dorset. “Because we are on the coast there is an awful lot of really switched on, small time fishermen that pride themselves on how their fish is caught and how it is sold and who it is sold to. These people are the real activists for modern day fishing, big supporters of sustainable fishing and fishing methods. Then immediately in land you have these hubs of enthused organic farmers and growers and non-organic farms but all with the same mentality. It is great arable land around here for growing crops and interesting mills and farmers growing wheat and barley and rye. There are really interesting people exploring different ideas and growing different stuff,” Gill tells me.
While Gill does not think organic food is the be all and end all (there are plenty of other farmers not using pesticides and growth hormones in their food production), as a consumer, if you are looking for a symbol that represents integrity in food production you cannot do better than organic. “No matter which way you cut it there are certain standards that organic food producers have to meet; organic is a safe bet, you know the food has been produced by people who truly believe in producing only the finest ingredients,” Gill says.