Serving up an organic feast
Katy McGuinness talks to River Cottage head chef Gelf Alderson about his passion for sustainability ahead of his Irish banquet
First things first, where on earth do you get a name like Gelf? I'd thought that perhaps River Cottage's 36-year-old head chef might have ancestral roots originating in some far-flung Nordic land, but it turns out that the name came from somewhere much closer to home.
"When my mum was pregnant with me," he explains, "she used to tell my sister that she had an elf growing in her tummy. But my sister couldn't pronounce 'elf', and said 'gelf' instead. And when I was born, that's the name they chose - it's on my birth cert and passport. If my brother had had his way, I'd have been named after all the members of the 1981 Ashes-winning cricket team…"
Gelf Alderson arrived at River Cottage, as senior sous chef to Gill Mellor, four years ago and was promoted to the position of head chef a year later. The farm and cookery school associated with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have been in their current location on the Devon-Dorset border for the past 10 years, but the public first became aware of River Cottage in 1998, when Hugh's first television series, filmed at his then home, aired on Channel Four. Gelf remembers watching the programmes when he came home from school, and that they resonated with him even then.
"I was raised as a vegetarian by hippie parents, brought up in a holistic kind of a way. We grew vegetables and shopped in whole food stores. I grew up knowing where my food came from. So when I started working in restaurants I was surprised by how little people knew about meat, how it's farmed, killed and processed. It's still a problem, this ignorance, and it's hard to make people comprehend provenance properly. The understanding that many people have is very shallow.
"All the talk these days is about eating local. Local is all very well and good but you have to ask deeper questions, ask about the farming practices involved in the production of the food. Many chefs are still quite inconsistent about provenance - ask them about their pork and they will tell you what rare-breed it is and that it's free-range and fed on organic food, but ask them where the breakfast bacon comes from and it will be a catering vac-pack from the cash and carry. Provenance has to be the whole story, not just the bits that you shout about."
When he began his training to be a chef at the age of 16, Alderson worked in traditional hotel and restaurant kitchens.
"At the beginning of my career it was very much the era of 'wow', where food was supposed to dazzle and impress, and we'd use exotic ingredients from Thailand and Africa. But you reach a stage in your career where you have to make a decision to work the way that you want to work.
"Before River Cottage I worked at the Killerton estate near Exeter, which is owned by the National Trust. The estate has 6,500 acres, 15 tenant farms and two restaurants seating 230 people. My job was to figure out how to use the produce from the estate in the restaurants, and make the most of what we had."
Gelf is no longer a vegetarian. "It's very hard to build a chef's career without eating meat; you have to eat it to understand it and you need to be able to try all the dishes that you cook. But I do eat less meat than most people - a smaller quantity of higher quality meat - because I am conscious of its impact on the environment. My parents are still vegetarian - I don't think they regard me as a traitor! I would definitely miss bacon if I went back to being a vegetarian.
"At River Cottage, it's all about the ingredients, and we chefs are free to cook how we like. One of the big changes that we've made recently is that we no longer import pulses, so there are no more chickpeas and lentils in the kitchen, and we use beans that are produced in the UK. We make an exception for spices and citrus fruit, which are shipped rather than air-freighted, and 99pc of the ingredients that we use are organic.
"We use both rapeseed and olive oils, depending on the context. There is only one organic producer of rapeseed oil in the UK, and it can be too strongly-flavoured for some dishes. Yes, it's English, but the crop has a much higher environmental impact than olive oil. There's always a conflict in these situations."
These days, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is associated more with campaigning than he is with cooking, and he and his family are not based at the farm - its website is careful to manage expectations in relation to his presence or otherwise at events - but the ethos of River Cottage has grown and developed over the years, and the team that works there is committed to continuing his work and developing the brand.
Gelf says that in essence, the River Cottage mantras exhort people who want to eat in a sustainable way to source produce carefully and use it wisely, to minimise waste, and think about the food that they eat and its impact on the environment.
"Not everyone is going to change everything about what they eat wholesale," he says, "but little changes made by a lot of people can have a huge positive impact."
There are now four River Cottage canteens in the UK, and the chefs are frequently on tour. On September 10, Gelf will be cooking at the Airfield Estate, an urban farm in the Dublin suburb of Dundrum, for a one-off River Cottage Seasonal Dining Experience, with almost all the ingredients coming from the estate.
River Cottage's head gardener Will Livingstone will also appear at the festival, hosting a series of gardening workshops on growing through the seasons.
"I've never been to Ireland before," says Gelf, "and I'm really looking forward to it. The Airfield team has let me know what will be available, and I've written the menu accordingly."
Guests can expect a meal that focuses on the organic vegetables grown at Airfield, with small quantities of animal protein from the farm.
"The canapes are venison tartare with crisp shallots, yellow split-pea hummus with dukkah and beef sliders with rhubarb ketchup," says Gelf, "and the starter is roast beetroot, with pickled carrots, labneh, pea shoots, raspberries, and toasted hazelnuts. For the main course, I'm serving merguez-spiced Airfield estate lamb, with hot smoked onions, garlic and lemon kale, and creamed potatoes, with warm doughnuts, lemon and thyme curd, blackberry and red wine ripple ice cream, and fennel and almond praline for dessert."
The Airfield Festival of Food runs at Airfield Estate, Dundrum, Dublin, from September 9-11. With a theme of Food Sustainability: Local Seasonal Food, Climate, Health & Waste, it includes workshops, talks, food markets, dining experiences and activities for all ages. General festival admission is free, with some events ticketed. Tickets for the River Cottage Dinner are €65 and include a glass of bubbly on arrival. See airfield.ie
We have a pair of tickets for the River Cottage Dining Experience to give away to one lucky reader. The meal, curated by Gelf Alderson, takes place in Overends Restaurant at Airfield Estate on Saturday September 10 from 7pm to 11pm. To enter, simply answer the question below:
Where is Airfield Estate? a) Donegal or b) Dundrum
Email your answer, along with your name, address and contact details, to email@example.com with the words 'River Cottage competition' in the subject line by midnight on Tuesday, September 6.