Gill Meller

12th April 2018

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Maria Bell

12th April 2018

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Maria Bell

Turning into the driveway of Rousdon Estate in East Devon, we find ourselves facing a sprawling Victorian estate house. A dog-walker directs us to the Summerhouse, where Gill Meller lives, but tells us to “keep our eyes peeled, because it’s underground”. With this cryptic description in mind, we wind down a steep farm track towards the thrashing waves of a private bay. Cut into the side of the hill and facing the slate grey sea is Gill’s house, hidden in the earth beneath a roof of grass.

Inside the author and chef welcomes us with a quiet, boyish charm which belies his age (he is 36). The house is light and airy, burrow-warm, with skylights looking up at the ashen sky, pale wooden textures and surfaces, and a lingering scent of incense. Every detail is considered and beautiful, from the reclaimed gym floorboards which form the kitchen sideboard (the estate house was a boarding school for many years and Gill salvaged numerous items when it closed) to the enormous wooden table which has been signed underneath by every visitor lucky enough to have been a guest here.

Gill’s career spans over 18 years, and for 11 of those he was Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s right-hand-man. He still teaches at the River Cottage cookery school, and remains a collaborator, developer and stylist on all of the River Cottage books. In 2016 his first full-length, solo cookery book Gather, inspired by the different landscapes Gill lives and works in, was published to great acclaim, winning Best Debut at last year’s Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink awards. Now working on a follow-up called Time, which he hopes to be released in September this year, Gill splits his time between teaching, recipe writing and testing for magazines, and his own projects.

His collie Tinker in tow, Gill leads us down the hill towards the bay to forage some wild garlic for a mayonnaise. Back at the house, he nips out occasionally into the howling gale to check on our chicken roasting in his wood-fired oven. Once the bird and beetroots are done, we sat down to eat. The chicken is tender and flavoursome and the smoky, salty and earthy salad, adorned with dollops of green-flecked mayo and crispy beetroot leaves, provides the perfect accompaniment.

Continued below...

Briefly talk me through your career.

I studied art, photography, graphics and art history in Weymouth, and when I finished I met Alice (now my wife). We fell head over heels in love, and soon after she found out she was pregnant. I was 18 at the time, a kid smoking rollies, and I needed to get a job. I started working in a local café, then before long I found myself in charge of the kitchen.

What sort of things were you cooking?

It was just simple things – soups, salads and sandwiches. But customers loved what I was making, and I welcomed the feedback. It felt like a good way of making money but I still didn’t really think of myself as a chef, or think cooking was what I wanted to do, necessarily. But I did (and do) love the fact that cooking, unlike art, for example, is one of the few creative things you can do which gives you instant gratification. Then when Isla, our eldest daughter, was two we bought a cheap camper van and travelled around France, Spain and Italy for a few months. That was when I really started to cook properly, we were on a budget and I would just pick up a few good things from a local market and create a meal based around them. That was a pivotal point in my understanding of food, and opened my eyes to cooking led by ingredients.

Is that how you would describe your cooking now – ingredient driven?

Yes. I tend not to think about things in terms of planning or the finished dish. I just peer in the fridge or look at what’s fresh and what’s around and then create something out of it. Lots of salads or vegetable stews, simple things. I love tumbling salads together. I think when you have that connection to the produce and know about where it’s come from it informs the way you use it. There are so many chefs who cook without really knowing what they are cooking or why, and it’s not their fault, you’re just following instructions.

Kitchens are a representation of the people that cook in them; they almost reflect their owner’s personalities, like people say dogs look like their owners

Yes, I know when I started cheffing I just did what I was told (mostly) and didn’t think beyond that: where the ingredients came from or why we were doing what we were doing with them.

Yes I was the same. I think it’s the bravado or the arrogance of youth. When you’re young and you just do things without thinking. Then part of the journey of a chef is learning what food is, how it’s produced and how best to treat it. Maturing as a chef is about appreciating your ingredients, honing your style, learning from others and from reading and seeing other chefs around you, but ultimately staying true to yourself and refining and cementing your own approach. Even though I grew up with proper homemade food and home-grown ingredients, I never really thought about those things until later on.

So was food important growing up?

Yes, food was always a big part of our lives. Mum always cooked fresh homemade food, nothing complicated. We’re talking the 80s and 90s so the industrialisation of food production wasn’t the same as it is today. We never ate junk food. We had chickens and a vegetable garden which Dad looked after. Always a lot of friends around for lunch or supper. Mum was just a phenomenal (but not elaborate) cook. Food was always what brought the family together; Sunday lunches, weekend breakfasts. My mother died last year so now we have my dad over a lot and we cook for him.

On The Menu

Lunch with Gill Meller
Devon, March 2018

To eat:

Roast chicken with thyme & rosemary »
Wild garlic and chicken-fat mayonnaise »
Roasted beetroot, new potatoes, boiled eggs & anchovies »

To drink:

Tap water

Tell me about this house, and this kitchen.

We moved here three years ago. It was the summerhouse for the big estate, and comprised of a single room looking out over the sea. We built back into the earth and put in the rest. We used lots of salvaged things from the old school to build the kitchen; these kitchen drawers were from the science lab. My wife and I collect all the ceramics and occasionally edit them when it becomes too much. We use the kitchen for lots of cookery-book shoots, for Hugh’s last two books and for both of my books. I work mostly with Andrew Montgomery, who is as much part of the project as I am, and we’ve just finished shooting my latest one, Time, which follows the path of a whole day from morning through to night. There’s a big focus on kitchens as spaces as well as the place where people come together and the hub of the home. We have snapshots of different kitchens which are a representation of the people that cook in them; they almost reflect their owner’s personalities, like people say dogs look like their owners.

What sort of kitchens?

Kitchens I’ve worked in, kitchens of friends or family. Some perfectly ordinary, some totally bizarre. They are fascinating as spaces though, and reveal a lot about their owner.

In terms of working in your own kitchen, is there any wisdom you would pass on?

I know it sounds obvious but I would say always make sure you have really sharp knives. You will enjoy cooking much more if you are using a sharp knife. It is easier to cut yourself on a blunt knife so it is safer to use sharp ones. I sharpen my knives before I use them, every time. I just run them back and forth over the steel. I also always run the sink full of hot soapy water. I’m a firm believer in washing up as you go, and of economic cookery in general; if I use a pan for one thing I’ll wash it up quickly and then use it again. It just saves time and energy that way. It makes me happy to have a sink of hot bubbly water ready before I start. I suppose it’s one of those practises I’ve transferred from a professional kitchen into my own home.

This is an incredible smallholding, completely off-grid. They make phenomenal goat’s cheese
Gill on his favourite food places in Devon and Dorset »

Talk me through your daily eating habits

Well we’re always a bit all over the place. We start every day with coffee. Normally either Alice (my wife) or I will make it and we’ll drink it in bed together. Then Alice goes swimming in the sea down at Lyme Regis at six every morning. A common breakfast is eggs and some braised greens on toast. If I’m doing recipe testing there will often be a lot of dishes made and I will leave them on the table for people to pick at throughout the day. It’s quite tricky to have that discipline of sitting down and eating your tea at 6pm sharp. We try to make more effort on the weekends to eat at least a few meals together, a Sunday lunch or a proper breakfast or supper. We only eat meat a couple of times a week. When we do eat it I make sure it’s always sustainably and ethically produced.

Where do you stand on the current vegetarian/vegan trend?

As I get older I’m less interested in the idea of killing animals. I know that if we do eat meat, we shouldn’t cheapen an animal by charging so little for it, like a £3 supermarket chicken. I think we should be willing to pay the right amount to ensure the animal has led a decent life. I try to only buy from suppliers who I know have good ethical standards.
In terms of trends in general, I think it’s crazy the way the food industry is now governed by them. We are the first generation of chefs to be totally immersed in this global minefield of social media. It means we are constantly analysing our own styles and it can be daunting at times. Perhaps if I’d moved to London my style would have changed completely. Though
I’ve learned lots from many different sources, I’ve tried hard not to be influenced by people and to be true the style of cooking I believe in. To cook using the knowledge I’ve learnt from the land here, the people and the plants.

The skins and leaves of the beetroot turn delicious and crispy, and the inside becomes soft and chewy, with an incredibly intense flavour

So tell me about lunch…

I lit the wood-fired oven this morning. I like to light it at least once a week and cook with it. The flavour of food that’s been cooked in it is totally inimitable. It gives a smokiness to meat and vegetables which I love. I thought since I had guests it was a good excuse to have a chicken. This chicken came from Piper’s Farm. They are a great meat company, and I always find their chickens really tasty.
I put the beetroot into the oven at the same time as the chicken – whole, leaves and everything. The skins and leaves turn delicious and crispy, and the inside becomes soft and chewy, with an incredibly intense flavour. In terms of the salad, I’m a big fan of the anchovy, egg beetroot combination; salty, earthy, rich and sweet. I tumbled (I love the word “tumbled”) over some chopped wild garlic which grows all around here, and then thought we’d put some in a mayonnaise to eat with it too.

For more about Gill, go to www.gillmeller.com

Follow Gill: Instagram | Twitter

 

Posted 12th April 2018

In Interviews

 

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Maria Bell

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