• UK chef Gill Meller at work in his kitchen (Andrew Montgomery)Source: Andrew Montgomery
Gill Meller’s debut cookbook, Gather, has been praised for distilling modern British cooking. SBS chats to the unassuming food hero about working with River Cottage, not “messing” with ingredients and his visit to Australia.
By
Yasmin Newman

29 Jun 2017 - 4:07 PM  UPDATED 12 Jul 2017 - 3:07 PM

Gather is a cookbook that you’d gravitate to in a bookstore. It’s a hardback with an old-world bound-looking spine and a cover depicting a rustic kitchen scene in attractive muted tones. Very Kinfolk. You’d flick through it and instantly be swept away to the English countryside, or seaside, or farm in all the rich, textured detail shots and think to yourself how you’d like to make this intriguing country cake or that hearty but modern interpretation of a stew. It is a top-notch cookbook on surface value alone.

But it’s Gill Meller’s poetic – and persuasive – descriptions of the food he’s created, and the simple (often three-to-four-ingredient) dishes with decidedly unique twists that set this debut title and its author apart. The Boston Globe said, “He may be the UK’s next big star” – and they may well be right. Gather has been praised by the likes of Nigella Lawson, and critically acclaimed worldwide.

Meller's book, Gather, features beautiful recipes such as this beef shin with smoked dulse

 

Meller, who’s been with the celebrated River Cottage for more than a decade, now working as head chef across the “breadth of the business” (restaurants, cooking school, TV series, cookbooks), didn’t set out to be a chef at all. “I fell into the kitchen because I needed a job,” says Meller, then 18, chatting to SBS Food during his recent visit to Australia. He and his now-wife Alice were expecting their first child, and he scored a job at a coffee shop in his hometown to support his growing family. He soon traded up to a nearby restaurant, and a few years after that, scored a coveted Princes’ Trust grant to set up his own organic catering business. “Cooking was something I developed a passion for as opposed to having from the outset.”

A couple of years later, he read a cookbook that would open his eyes even further: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Cookbook. Published in 2001, the book detailed the chef’s back-to-basics approach, from growing your own vegetables to eating found and foraged food.  “I was really into that book,” he recounts. “It was like a whole new world of food.” Fate stepped in and not long after, the two met. “Hugh asked if I’d be interested in working on a new project of his,” says Meller of the former failing dairy farm that’s now River Cottage HQ. “Working with Hugh has been integral to my own development – not just my skills, but my food philosophy, and where I sit in the world of food.”

When asked what else he has learned from his celebrated mentor: “To never think you know it all. To try new things, take on new opinions, learn all the time and find better ways, whether that’s how you cook a dish, where you source from, or how you talk about the food you love.”

Meller's brownies put a rustic twist on the classic favourite. Try them here

 

Meller has listened, and become his own man. In our conversation, the chef lights up as he dissects ingredients and details his recipes (“picked with abundance in the UK, dulse is one seaweed that brings a huge amount of umami, which is magnified ten-fold when cold-smoked…”), or lays the case for some of the more unusual local ingredients championed in his book (“squirrel is culled in such extraordinary numbers, it just seems crazy to me to waste that meat, instead of eating what is truly wild and absolutely delicious…”). And you find yourself hanging on every word, much like you do when reading Gather.

The chef, whose promotional trip to Australia is his first antipodean adventure, says he wasn’t aware how passionate people are here about their food, and how rich and vibrant the scene is. He highlights some of the fish that he hadn’t tried before, such as barramundi. “That’s been really interesting.” (You can follow his food trail on Instagram at @gill.meller.)

However, it’s unlikely that Australia will make its way into Meller’s repertoire, at least not overtly. Here is a chef very much informed by his own beloved surrounds – the orchards, fields, woodlands, moors and harbours of Devon (also used as the chapter names in Gather) – and the passionate producers who work there.

Using as few ingredients is key, as in this blue cheese salad

 

“When you’re using such great stuff, you don’t mess around with it too much,” he says of his uncomplicated approach. He references the very first recipe in Gather, a stunning salad of blue cheese, honey, thyme, dates, fried onion and seeds. “It’s an assembly of great ingredients that work so well together – it’s so simple I wouldn’t even call it a recipe.” Using the best local produce is also about respect, and meaning. “For me, having a relationship with your suppliers goes some way to giving food a story – there’s so much that happens to what you eat before it reaches a pan, and if you know this, you’ll make an honest plate of food.”

In this way, Gather is more than just a cookbook – it’s a manual for a slow, thoughtful life.

More from Gather


 

Try your hand at making fresh, homemade pasta using Gill's simple recipe

Use your fresh pasta to make this vibrant and hearty rabbit pappardelle

Stewed for five hours, this beef shine with smoked dulse is beautifully tender

 

Recipes from Gather by Gill Meller (Hardie Grant Books, hb, RRP $49.95). Photography: © Andrew Montgomery.

River Cottage Australia starts on SBS from July 3, 6pm weeknights. If you miss an episode, catch up on SBS On Demand.

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