A growing CONCERN FOR ALL
It’s early March in picturesque rural Central Tilba on the NSW south coast and, despite meeting only days ago, River Cottage founder, celebrity chef and sustainable-farming campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his rookie Aussie River Cottage recruit Paul West are getting along famously.
They are, you could say, like two (sustainably grown) peas in a pod.
About 15 years ago FearnleyWhittingstall quit London for the country, set up in a gamekeeper’s house called River Cottage and made an art form of sustainable, tasty, self-sufficiency, creating a swag of television series along the way.
Now the River Cottage experiment is being repeated in Australia, with West at the helm.
West, 29, has no television experience but, like Fearnley-Whittingstall, he opted out of high-level cheffing and chose a rural existence with sustainable agriculture and a love of food at its core.
Fearnley-Whittingstall says it was this that made West the obvious choice as the keeper of Australia’s River Cottage, which has been established on 10ha in the rolling hills around Central Tilba. The first crops are now in and the first animals are 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 says West, “picked himself for the role”.
“For me the absolute no-brainer with Paul was the sparkle, the twinkle in his eye,” he says.
“And now I’m working with him, I’m seeing him talking to other people 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 around here 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 15 years ago.”
West, a long-time River Cottage fan, appears in his element. A chef who until this gig had his own dreams of establishing a farm garden at his home in rural Tasmania, West 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 of this time watching someone – it’s so strange to be then working beside them,” he says.
Fearnley-Whittingstall appears in the first episode of the Australian series, handing over the reins to West.
“The dilemma for me (shooting that first episode) 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 it is totally the right moment for Paul, just like it was for me in Dorset 15 years ago.”