We arrive with kid goat meat from Just Kidding and Ewes’ clothbound cheese from Quicke’s, hoping that Gill can work his magic and create a dish for us. He knew we were coming of course, but didn’t know what we were bringing. He welcomes us, takes the ingredients and sets about making the dish.
Gill Meller is known for his time as head chef at River Cottage and now for his best-selling cookbook ‘Gather’. He invited us to visit his place in Devon and what a place… Set in the grounds of an old estate, Gill has transformed the old summer house. He has dug back into the hill and the building now nestles into the slope, to create a beautiful, clean and modest space housing a kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. The kitchen is lit by sky-lights that punch up through the green roof above the dining table and this is where Gill starts to prepare lunch.
He picks some chard and herbs from the fridge, sits a heavy frying pan on the stove and fires up the gas. The chard is blanched, and then gets gently fried in plenty of olive oil, garlic, chilli and a good pinch of salt and black pepper. Whilst that’s happening, he grates the cheese and prepares the chops. We head outside where the sun is shining and Gill is going to cook; there is a variety of cooking equipment such as a pizza oven and the very new ‘egg’ BBQ, but Gill opts for the Swedish griddle heated by the wood fire, which has been slowly warming up in the pit below it.
The griddle is a large, solid, circular piece of metal called an OFYR that sits above the live flames and Gill says, “It’s made like this so everyone can sit around it and cook food right where they sit. It’s a great social way to cook and eat.” He lays the chops down and as they start to sizzle away we take a moment to look around. We are surrounded by trees, behind us the summer house sits snugly in the side of the hill, the slope heads down to the coast and peering over the trees the ocean is visible. Gill pauses from turning the chops, looks up and says, “Listen to that, the birds you can hear are a pair of hawks that nest nearby.” They dart in and out of sight in this beautiful part of the world.
“Cooking is the last bit of the story, the final jigsaw piece. What’s really important is what comes before that. The story of the ingredients, where they’ve come from, who’s grown them. And without those great producers and farmers, I wouldn’t be where I am now. My food is simple for a reason, if you have great ingredients you don’t need to do much to them. It’s about having respect for everything from the ground up.”
Gill grew up in Dorset, he says, “Dad had a veg patch and mum was always cooking. We always had friends and family over and the kitchen was where it all happened.” He never thought about going into the food business, choosing to study art, design and art history at college. At nineteen, when his first daughter came along, he took a job in a coffee shop to earn some cash. It was here he started cooking. He recalls, “I was just preparing sandwiches and soups and people were really appreciating the food. From that very basic beginning grew a real love for food and cooking.”
It was after a campervan tour of France, Spain and Italy with his new young family that his passion for food grew, “The trip definitely gave me more of an appetite for food. I was cooking with local ingredients and speaking to local producers; this charged me with a real curiosity to experiment with different ingredients.” When he returned he got a variety of chef jobs in local restaurants and had been cooking for about three years when he applied to the Prince’s Trust for a grant to set up an organic catering business called ‘Kitchen’. He says, “I’d cook for parties, weddings and farmers’ markets with the focus on locally-sourced ingredients straight from producers in the area.” It was a few years down the line that a chance meeting with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall changed the direction of his cooking. “At the time he was well known in the food world. I’d read his book ‘The River Cottage Cookbook’, which opened my eyes to his way of cooking. I really liked his raw, fresh and rustic approach.” Shortly after the meeting in 2004 with Hugh, Gill started working at River Cottage on the show. The business grew really quickly in the first few years, as did Gill’s role and responsibility within the business. He became head chef and has worked there ever since.
Gill says, “The job has constantly evolved over the past ten to twelve years so I’ve never wanted to leave. But I’d always been interested in doing something of my own.” That opportunity came when he was approached by Sarah Lavelle, a commissioning editor at a London publisher who proposed the idea of a book. He was working with the photographer Andrew Montgomery at the time doing editorial work and together they came up with the idea of ‘Gather’, his first book. “That became the beginning of my break away from River Cottage. I still work with them on a freelance basis but my time is now focused on my projects, so I’m spending less time in the kitchen and more time food writing.”
We wanted to meet Gill because of his approach to food, he says, “Cooking is the last bit of the story, the final jigsaw piece. What’s really important is what comes before that. The story of the ingredients, where they’ve come from, who’s grown them. And without those great producers and farmers, I wouldn’t be where I am now. My food is simple for a reason, if you have great ingredients you don’t need to do much to them. It’s about having respect for everything from the ground up.” He smiles, picks the last chop off the griddle and says, “Right then, let’s go and finish the dish.”
He takes the grilled chops inside and lays them on the bed of chard which sits on a large serving plate, then he sprinkles the Ewes’ cheese over the warm chops and adds a last pinch of salt before we sit down and tuck in. From what we’ve learnt in this short time, the dish is a perfect example of Gill’s style. Locally-sourced veg, kid meat from the Midlands and Ewes’ cheese from Devon, all beautifully brought together in a simple dish that is packed full of flavour and loaded with great back stories.