Growing up in NSW’S Murrurundi and how his television role completely changed his life.
The cooking show host and organic gardener tells Kylie Walker how a last-minute application changed his life completely.
It’s been a busy year so far for Paul West, the chatty, bearded host of television show River Cottage Australia. He and partner Alicia Cordia welcomed their son Otto at the end of February. His first book, The River Cottage Australia Cookbook (Bloomsbury, $45), was released in April, and in May he was lined up to appear at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. April also saw the launch of The River Cottage Australia Cooking School. The third series of RCA is about to start on Foxtel. And, of course, there’s the eight-hectare farm near the village of Central Tilba on the NSW south coast, where the show is filmed, and where Paul, 31, has spent the past two years learning how to be a farmer. As he writes in the new book, there have been plenty of setbacks — plants decimated by wind, hail, birds and insects, not to mention escaping goats and foxes attacking his chickens. And lots of physically demanding work. But it’s been worth it. “The show pretty much flipped my world on its head,” he says. “I was living in a little house about 40 minutes out of Hobart and trying to grow my own vegetables, and produce as much as I could for myself, while working as a chef. And then I heard they were casting for River Cottage Australia. I filled out an application at the 11th hour, on the last day, and the rest is history… I’m very humble about being a part of it, because the show is about things I’m passionate about. It’s about growing food and cooking it, and sharing it with your family and friends, which is something very close to my heart.” With the arrival of Otto, Paul and Alicia have moved to a more baby-friendly house. It’s only about 100 metres down the road from the farm though, so Paul doesn’t have much of a commute to work. Paul grew up in the small town of Murrurundi, in NSW’S Upper Hunter Valley. “I left home when I was 17, when I finished school, and moved to Newcastle, to what I thought was the big smoke. I went to university to study business, but dropped out after six months. It wasn’t for me. I did all kinds of jobs after that — everything from planting trees in the Northern Territory to cleaning navy boats on Sydney Harbour.” At 21, while backpacking around Australia, he had an encounter that would change his life. Joining a scheme called Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), he arrived at a farm in Tasmania. “I stayed with a Frenchman called Giles, and he was great. He had an orchard and a huge vegetable garden. I’d never seen a way of life like that — picking fruit from a tree and eating it, pulling things from the ground and eating them. I realised that I really liked what he did, but I couldn’t grow things.” After more WWOOF-ING to build his gardening skills, he moved back to Newcastle and got involved in permaculture groups and community gardens. “And then I thought, ‘Now that I know how to grow stuff, I should learn how to cook it.’ So I took on a chef ’s apprenticeship.” Cooking took him from Newcastle to Melbourne — where he met Alicia — and then to Hobart and, eventually, to our television screens. “I feel blessed that I do this for a job,” he says. River Cottage Australia is on Foxtel’s Lifestyle Food channel from May 26. For more information on the cooking classes, visit keofilms.com.au/cook
I WAS BORN in Muswellbrook — my birthday is January 27, I wasn’t born on Australia Day because no-one does anything on a public holiday! I grew up in Murrurundi, which back then had a population of 900. We were right on the edge of town, on a one-hectare block. I’ve got an older half-brother, Simon, who’s 14 years my senior — he left home when I was about two — and a sister, Nicole, who is two years my junior. Nicole and I squabbled, as siblings do, but we got on and still do, to this day. And I was very protective of my little sister. If I got up to mischief, it was with the other boys in town. We had the run of the town, pretty much — all the kids knew each other. We’d play footy, we’d go climb rocks out in the bush, we’d explore old buildings and shacks. I played rugby league for most >
of my childhood and one season in the under-18s for the Murrurundi Mavericks — there’s not really any other sport in the Hunter Valley. At least there wasn’t in those days. I had a couple of dogs — Diggley, a cattle dog, was the best. I had him from when I was 10 until I left home, and we were great mates. Now I have Digger, he’s my constant companion. He’s the first dog I’ve had since I left home — when you work as a chef, the hours mean you don’t really get to have a dog. Mum and Dad had a business in town, so Nan — June Guy, my mum’s mum — always got babysitting duties on school holidays. I remember, I’d hang out with my mates and come back, and there’d always be a cake or a plate of jam drops that she’d made. After I started my own journey in food, I tracked down all those old recipes. Unfortunately, she passed away before I got to tell her of my appreciation, but the recipes live on. I think everyone is a product of their environment. My mum and dad ran a shop where we had everyone coming in, from Kerry Packer to local blokes who wore stubbies and thongs year round and lived in corrugated-iron lean-tos. We’d have millionaire landholders covered in dirt from head to toe and if you looked at them you’d think they were some old farmer who didn’t have two bucks. So I had a very egalitarian outlook on society. It taught me you’ve always got to judge people on their character more than how they present themselves to the world. My parents, John and Cathy, were hardworking — and they still are. Unstoppable. Mum, in particular, really put a lot of effort into community and sport-based stuff. Growing up in the country, the biggest thing I took away is that you have to have time for everyone, and
“I’m glad my son is going to grow up in the country. I’m so excited about that.”
you don’t judge people quickly. In a small community you’ve got to be a little bit more accepting and understanding of people, whereas in a huge city you can align yourself with whatever subculture you like. In a small town, you have to have a bit of tolerance for everyone. So I like to think I’ve got time for everyone. I love being surrounded by the natural world and, although I didn’t really appreciate it then, it’s something I’m glad I had the benefit of growing up with. Because we backed on to the bush, often I’d be out exploring in the bush, all afternoon until sunset. Now, I live on eight hectares and I’m a two-minute drive from the beach. I’m glad I grew up in the country and I’m glad my son is going to grow up in the country. I’m so excited about that.
FROM FAR LEFT A pensive Paul, five, at home; aged seven, at Diamond Beach; with his maternal grandfather, Alan Guy, behind his parents’ shop.
BELOW “I’m six, on the verandah at home.” RIGHT With Nicole on a camping trip; happy siblings — “We got on, and still do.”