I don’t know about you, but, food-wise, there are many ways in which I’m inspired by my home county. Kent’s known for its hops (raised in an oast house, perhaps it’s no coincidence I drink beer and write about it too), cobnuts never fail drop off the radar each autumn, and apples and cherries, famously produced there, are my fruits of choice. Had I not grown up in the area, it’s unlikely I’d gravitate towards these things when cooking, or eating, or thinking about food in the same way.
We talk so much about the provenance of ingredients, so why not provenance of chefs? That is, gaining an understanding of a chef’s food based on where she’s from. Receiving an expression of their surroundings, as a reflection of their food, and thus appreciating it better – maybe, even, as much as they do. Moreover, if chefs from the same region are successful, does that region – and the quality of the food grown and the strength of the food culture within it – have anything to do with their success?
Looking at 25 of the UK’s top chefs, from both the young and upcoming (such as Anna Tobias, Ruth Hansom, and James Cochran) to the older guard (Michel Roux, Angela Hartnett, and Heston Blumenthal), some things can be learned. In many cases, but not all, the area in which a chef is brought up does have a clear and direct influence on their food. Though he sources from around the UK, Cornish seafood plays a large part at Cornishman Tom Brown’s Cornerstone. James Cochran’s 1251 is a powerful expression of his background, from the buttermilk jerk chicken (he’s part Jamaican), to the Whistable oyster cream (James was brought up in the Kent coastal town). Tomos Parry, who heads up Shoreditch sensation Brat, though vaguely adoptive of Basque cooking, sources mussels, oysters, and ham from his Welsh homeland.
These chefs, and many like them, say something about their place of origin. And much like the modern dining scene, they’re all from a diverse set of social circumstances. That said, there could be construed a few trends. Of the 25 chefs sampled, very few are from London. One of the majorities are, in fact, from Birmingham: April Bloomfield, Ben Chapman, Brad Carter, and Glyn Purnell. Unsurprising, maybe, given Birmingham has a strong and growing food scene – having really taken off in the past ten years, it’s carrying a certain momentum. Its restaurants are showing why, as are the city’s street food vendors. Those popping up at Digbeth Dining Club, easily match (and in my estimation often exceed) their London-based counterparts. Lots to show that there is, actually, more to that part of the country than Cadbury’s and the Balti.
Much like Birmingham, what’s not often reported on is the number of critically successful chefs from Scotland, like Isaac McHale, Tim Kitchin, or Adam Handling. Noteworthy, perhaps, given Scotland’s reputation for unsophisticated and deep fried food, but also, perhaps not, because of its ties to wild food, and a combination of world-class products (langoustines, salmon, whisky, etcetera) with a growing awareness among Scots’ over where their food is coming from.
Still, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between a particular region and it being a talent farm for chefs – Wales, for instance, is no more or less reliable in that respect than, say London or Scotland. Though it’s natural for chefs to express the regions of the UK with which they are familiar, where they go to study or learn their trade is a more reliable contributor towards their ability or intrigue. Casting an eye over chef’s menus, especially the well-travelled ones, there remains something to be said about a cook’s (like any persons) emotional connections with home and the food they grew up on. Maybe it’s not what made them a good chef, but there’s no reason why it wasn’t what made them pick up a pan in the first place.