PROFILE Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
England’s celeb chef/sustainable farming campaigner is handing over the reins to a rookie with sparkle for an Australian experiment, writes Debbie Schipp.
IT’S early March in picturesque rural Central Tilba, on the NSW South Coast, and despite meeting only days ago, River Cottage founder, celeb chef and sustainable farming campaigner Hugh FearnleyWhittingstall and his rookie Aussie River Cottage recruit Paul West are getting along famously.
The pair is, you could say, like two (sustainably-grown and seasonal) peas in a pod.
About 15 years ago FearnleyWhittingstall (pictured at right with West) quit London for the country, set up in a gamekeeper’s house, named the place River Cottage and made an art form of sustainable, tasty self-sufficiency, and a swag of television series along the way.
The River Cottage experiment is now being repeated in Australia, with West at the helm.
West, 29, hasn’t got a patch of television experience but, like Fearnley-Whittingstall, opted out of high-level cheffing and chose a rural existence with sustainable agriculture and a love of food at its core. Which, Fearnley-Whittingstall says, made him the obvious choice as the keeper of Australia’s River Cottage.
The project has been established on 10 hectares in the rolling hills around Central Tilba, with the first crops in, and the first animals taking up residence under West’s – and the cameras’ – watchful eyes.
Over dinner, cooked with local produce, at a property adjoining the River Cottage Australia farm, Fearnley-Whittingstall enthuses his new mate West ‘‘picked himself for the role’’.
‘‘For me the absolute no-brainer with Paul was the sparkle, the twinkle in his eye,’’ he says. ‘‘I saw it in the first little taster tape that he did. He was cooking and talking to camera and he was relaxed.
‘‘And now I’m working with him, I’m seeing him talking to other people – potential contributors to the show – and he’s totally engaged.
‘‘It reminds me so much of the early days of the first River Cottage 15 years ago – putting feelers out, finding out about the locals, getting connected with the stories and the food provenance around here.
‘‘The thing I have enjoyed the most is seeing how rapidly Paul has connected and is hungry for the connections of the area – he wants to put down roots here. I remember that feeling with the original River Cottage in Dorset.’’
For his part, West, 29, a long-time River
Cottage fan, appears in his element.
A chef by trade who, until this gig, had his own dreams of establishing a farm garden at his home in rural Tasmania around cheffing jobs, has worked in ‘‘just about every aspect of food production’’.
‘‘I’ve done wholesale, retail, high end fine dining, cafes, planting food, and for me the best part about it is the growing of it and the sharing of it,’’ he says.
But he admits to being a little starstruck meeting Fearnley-Whittingstall.
‘‘You spend all this time watching someone – it’s so strange to be then working beside them.’’
Fearnley-Whittingstall appears in the first episode of the Australian series, handing over the reins to West, although ‘‘you might see me later in the series if you’re lucky’’.
‘‘The dilemma for me this week is, here is a guy with so much promise and passion and affinity with the land and genuine cooking ability and willingness to learn that even after three or four days I thought: ‘I just need to let this guy go and do his thing’.
‘‘I feel right here in this community that is totally the right moment for that for Paul, just like it was for me in Dorset.’’