When I meet Paul West, cook and host of food and farming TV show River Cottage Australia, and his wife Alicia and their new baby Bowie, I offer full disclosure: I haven’t seen any episodes of the hit series. He laughs, and isn’t bothered that I haven’t watched it - in fact, he’s excited to share his journey with a new audience, as he will be when SBS begins airing the series – previously only available on subscription TV (catch it from the very beginning on Thursday and Monday nights, starting 8.35pm October 5).
“I want people to know they can have this incredible experience in their own home and in their own communities. Many people who watch River Cottage Australia live in cities, and I want to show everyone that what I did on River Cottage is totally achievable in the backyard or on the balcony,” he says.
Sowing the seeds of a food career
Paul West has been chef-trained at a hatted restaurant, but his love of food didn’t come from working in a fine dining kitchen, or from his upbringing. “I didn’t have one of those family love affairs with food,” he says. “Food was never something that I understood as a source of excitement, creativity and exploration, or that could be a career path.”
But while hitchhiking around Australia more than a decade ago, Paul became a WWOOFer – willing worker on organic farms - on the property of a retired French carpenter, Giles, who had created a slice of Provence in Tasmania. WWOOFers tend to work four hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation, but Paul loved it so much he worked an eight-hour day in Giles’s small market garden and orchard, and tended to his livestock. “He was on about 20 acres and tried to grow as much food as possible,” says Paul. “Every meal was an occasion, something we took the time to enjoy, and they all featured some component from his farm,” he says. “I was directionless at the time, but I looked at the quality of life of this 65-year-old man and thought, ‘He’s got the secret to life.”
Paul lights up when he recalls this life-changing time. “Working physically, eating nutrient-dense food, and conversing daily was incredible,” he says. His soul was nourished, his skin was glowing and he developed a purpose: to be Giles.
To get there, Paul worked at Melbourne institution Vue de Monde, in the bistro connected to the restaurant which served classic French food with roots in peasant farming, growing and cooking. (He knocked back the chance to work in the main restaurant kitchen as he wasn’t interested in their focus on molecular gastronomy at the time.) However, after two years of 16-hour days he called it quits. “I wanted to be outside, reconnected to the land and cooking for the people I loved,” says Paul. “I was cooking 250 meals a day and didn’t look in the eyes of one of those people for whom I was cooking. And I had no time to even cook for myself.” His daily ‘diet’ consisted of one small meal at 5pm, a piece of toast at midnight and half a dozen cigarettes. He was yearning for balance: a salary, sure, but also sunshine and a social life.
The happy medium was struck when he and his partner Alicia moved to Tasmania. Paul was still working 70-80 hours a week as a chef but had time and space to plant vegies and fruit trees, and have a few chickens.
Becoming a host on the coast
A media career was never something Paul aspired to and when Alicia’s cousin alerted him to the casting call for River Cottage Australia, he almost didn’t put his hat in the ring. “I ummed and ahhed about applying because I was really happy with where I was in my life.” But in the end he emailed his application at 11.45pm on the last possible day. It wasn’t just indecision – the cut-off date was in December, the busiest time for a chef in Tassie.
After a few trial runs in front of a camera – something he’d never done before - Paul landed the hosting job and took to it like a duck to water. One might think that presenting to an audience of thousands would be daunting for a bloke from a small town of 900 in the Hunter Valley of NSW, but it’s his down-to-earth nature that makes Paul so likeable and helped him gain thousands of fans across the country.
He was moved to the River Cottage farm at Central Tilba, a town of 200 people located a five-hour drive south of Sydney, where he’d never been. “Being from a small town myself, it wasn’t a culture shock for me,” says Paul. “But I was blown away by how beautiful it is there – it’s one of the most underrated places in Australia,” he says. Alicia chimes in, and calls it “paradise”. It wasn’t just the area’s scenery that captivated the couple, but the strong community. “They celebrate their unique character,” says Paul. “My favourite memories working on the show are the people of Central Tilba – they welcomed me like family.”
New life in Newy
While his four years living on the River Cottage farm are now over, he’s delighted his message will reach even more people. “Being on the River Cottage farm allowed me to intimately experience the transition of the seasons, which increased my awareness of the natural world,” says Paul.
Paul has returned to Newcastle, near where he grew up, for his family. He and Alicia have two boys – Otto, 2, and Bowie, three months – and they’re after some consistency for their sons. Paul also sees it as an opportunity to embrace a different type of food production. “I’m really excited about urban-based growing, and Newcastle is great for that,” he says. “There are a lot of community gardens and people here growing their own food.”
It might not be the sprawling 20 acres of the River Cottage farm, but the Wests are exploring how they can live off the land in a more urban setting. “Our backyard is just shy of the classic Australian quarter-acre, so I’m starting to turn some of it over into garden beds and, once the weather warms up, we’ll get chickens.” (“No point getting chickens in winter,” he says, “They’re usually off the lay.”) “Then I’ll start to look at finding other people around Australia who are into urbanised growing like I am, and celebrate them. Hopefully SBS will think it’s a great idea for a program!”
The ultimate family show
If you’re after a feel-good foodie show to please the whole household, River Cottage Australia might just be for you. “It has something for everyone,” says Paul. “Kids love our dog Digger, the animals and my shenanigans; dads love the builds; and mums love the cooking – or vice versa, I don’t want to generalise!” I know I’ll be tuning in.
River Cottage Australia Monday and Thursday nights on SBS from October 5.