TOM HUNT - ECO-CHEF, FOOD CAMPAIGNER AND FOOD WRITER
"My core purpose is to make the planet a better place by creating happy and joyous communities through the medium of food."
Tom Hunt is an acclaimed eco-chef, food campaigner and food writer. A passionate advocate for sustainable eating, Tom is the founder of a social enterprise called Forgotten Feast, a campaign working on projects aimed at reducing food waste and Poco, an award-winning restaurant with locations in Bristol and London that serves delicious seasonal food inspired by Tom’s ‘root to fruit’ food philosophy. Tom also works closely with charitable organisations including Slow Food and Action Against Hunger, bringing attention to important concerns in the food industry. I spoke to Tom about where his interest in sustainable food stems from, his ‘root to fruit’ philosophy, his interest in nutrition, some of his favourite current recipes, and his inspirations.
Where does your interest in food and specifically sustainable food stem from?
Food was always an important part of my childhood. I had a really sweet tooth and got into making pastries and cakes from a young age - I vividly remember making a delicious honey baklava.
My interest in sustainability started to develop when, aged eleven, we moved to a cottage in a small village. We had two goats at the cottage and it was my job to milk them every day before school. I also had an allotment where I grew peas that were delicious to eat. That was my first real introduction to farming and what food really is.
The next part of the story is that, aged fourteen, I started working at an intensive pig farm, which was a first-hand education in what intensive farming was about. I did not enjoy it and remember the best part of the job being when the pigs were unloaded off the lorry and allowed to run around the farmyard, free for a while at least.
How did your early work experiences influence your philosophy?
Ben Hodges and Connie Burchill were the first chefs I worked with; they were passionate about organic produce and ran an organic event catering and festival café business. They were the first and only ones certified by the Soil Association at the time. Everything was cooked from scratch using really nice organic produce.
Then I started working at the River Cottage as a sous chef and a course leader running demonstrations. The experience taught me about the joys of seasonal produce and how to get the best out of it. It also taught me the importance of sticking to your morals and ideals.
Shortly after starting at River Cottage, I simultaneously set up my own festival and catering business. Over time I have realised that it is not necessary to compromise. There is no point or need to take shortcuts, especially when it comes to produce. If you are clever, you can compete with some of the terrible chains out there just through diversifying – use more varied ingredients, more vegetables, more grains and less meat.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
'Root to fruit' eating is my food philosophy. It came about because I was asked to do a huge banquet using food that would otherwise be wasted. We were inundated with really good, organic produce, and I immediately saw that there was an opportunity to put together a series on initiatives. So I founded the Forgotten Feast, which is a campaign for sustainable food through celebration and dining but also with a focus on food waste and highlighting the broader issues in the industry.
Through ruminating on the problems of food waste globally I realised that my aim should be reconnecting people with the origin of their food so they value it. We are living in a world of convenience and efficiency and that is most people’s priority. Even people who care about the planet and environment are tired and want things to be convenient. Shopping for food and cooking should be done for pleasure and be enjoyable past times.
Even though I think about and work with food all the time, I feel a disconnection because I am not farming. I try to improve that connection by buying directly from farmers at markets – that also brings other benefits, like improving the quality of produce you are obtaining and environmental benefits. I have been trying to explore this in my writing and come up with ways of helping people make those connections if they want to.
Ultimately my core purpose is to make the planet a better place by creating happy and joyous communities through the medium of food. It is about being aware of the impact we have on the environment and the world, and the repercussions our choices make.
Is it fair to say that your dishes are mostly vegetable focused?
It has happened very naturally because I focus on seasonality. The majority of chefs will start with protein and build a meal around it. However, because of my absolute seasonal diet, I start with vegetables and add good quality meat.
Through buying meat off the shelf in a supermarket you can disconnect yourself from the fact it was once an animal kept in certain conditions. It allows us to accept intensive, industrial and conventional farming. If we were all seeing first-hand how those animals were being treated people would be less inclined to buy meat from intensive farms.
How has travelling influenced your cooking philosophy and style?
Setting up the festival café allowed me to travel each winter so I have spent a lot of time in Latin America, mostly in Central America, Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. I have also spent quite a lot of time in India and travelled through Europe. On my travels, I was inspired by peasant food which goes back to thrift and 'root to fruit' eating. A lot of what I am saying people have been doing for thousands of years.
I am hosting a dinner party this weekend, what would you recommend that I cook?
A mushroom and celeriac porridge is something I am really enjoying at the moment. It is a very simple starter; you don’t even have to make a stock. Firstly, sauté finely chopped onions, mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes and celeriac and then add your porridge oats. Then cook slowly for 15 minutes with water before adding a local hard cheese or parmesan - drop some butter in as well and then you would serve that with quite thin risotto. If you find celeriac with stems and leaves on, you can rub them with olive oil and salt and dry them in the oven which make amazing crisps which you can use to sprinkle on the porridge.
For the main, I would recommend one of the dishes I am serving at Poco at the moment, burnt leeks. You take the tops off and make a pesto with them - slice them finely, sauté them for 2 minutes and then mix them with blue cheese, chopped parsley and walnuts. Then serve it with charred leek batons. You can steam a whole cauliflower and do a few other roasted vegetables to serve with it, if you like.
For pudding, I am really into blood oranges at the moment. I have developed a recipe for an olive oil chocolate pot with goat’s curd cream. It also has quenelle on top, a wedge of boiled blood orange, and a kind of light sugar syrup.
Are you interested in the nutritional aspects of food?
Yes definitely, I think it all goes hand in hand. 'Root to fruit' is about a holistic approach to living. At the end of the day it is about balance and listening to your body. I am embarking on a new mini project studying gut health and how 'root to fruit' eating can impact that. We are doing samples with the British Gut Health Project and I will record what I am eating. I eat relatively healthily but am interested to see if I was to follow my idea of 'root to Fruit' eating, how that would that impact my gut. It is a just a home project to create a few inspirations for some articles and recipes.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
Francis Mallmann is a big inspiration for me; I just like that flamboyance but rawness of his cooking and the ridiculous confidence that he oozes.
Why are you called the eco chef?
I am a self-proclaimed eco chef, I choose to call myself that because when I began the Forgotten Feast I changed my outlook on cooking and life and decided the most important thing is the environment, even above taste. Everyone is shocked by that idea – of course taste matters, but not as much as the environment and our surroundings.
What do you admire about the Slow Food Movement?
The Slow Food Movement is incredibly inspiring for me. I go to Terra Madre every two years - there are 174 different countries represented there, from indigenous tribes to rich western farmers. It is an incredibly cohesive movement of small holders and farmers from around the world showing the strength of food culture. It is important because, especially in the UK and America, we are told GM and Monsanto is a necessary evil to feed the world but ultimately that is just rubbish. The vast majority of Africa is fed by small farms that don’t even have animals; we are living in cities where there are lots of issues to overcome but the world is generally fed by real people not machines and chemicals. Terra Madre is a real reminder of that and you cannot help but leave inspired and reassured that there is a good future ahead.