The mechanics of philosophy
At the vanguard of sustainability, there is no doubt that Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (henceforth HFW) has highlighted such causes as the fish fight and chicken welfare. His media presence and underlying ethos gives credibility to his battles but he is still a business and needs to make profit.
HFW is the masthead for a growing organisation that, not unlike the Virgin empire, bases its growth on principles.
Practicing what you preach renders you open for microscopic examination and with a growing business plan, it would be easy to compromise, to cut corners if you would.
I spent the day with Andrew Green, River Cottage Canteen and Deli development chef, the man who oversees the current three sites in Axminster, Plymouth and the newly opened Bristol. He has been with the group for over a year, joining after selling his own restaurant Greens’ dining room in Bristol. His background is well suited to his role as he understands the necessity of balance between creativity and business acumen.
His primary role is to ensure the kitchens of River Cottage adhere to the ethos and set down by the company; a challenge when you consider each site buys produce within fifty miles, strictly observes the common fish policy and purchases organic only. No central buying here.
Each head chef has the freedom to be creative with the menu as long as it works within the season, the philosophy and Andrews guidelines of practicality and taste.
We traveled over 500 miles on that day visiting the sites and the HQ at Park Farm. This office, sustainably timber clad, generating its own power through wind, sat overlooking grove and coppice near Musbury, East Devon.The twenty or so occupants, busy with all things RC from the cookery school to the chefs school (that they have just lined up with the government), relaxed and pretty akin to how you imagine the HQ of google to be; young, fun, but efficient and profitable. Andrews meeting here encompassed analysing the refuse collections from each site, checking that the recycling pickups matched the invoices, to the next meeting with the sustainable fisheries coalition.
We journeyed on to Axminster where staff levels and margin management were discussed with the head chef before heading down the M5 to Plymouth. A meeting with the Cornish seaweed company over lunch showed the diversity of his role. His palate engaged with the pepper dulse and sea spaghetti and poignant questions regarding sustainability and packaging followed. All boxes ticked, Caro and Tim, the harvesters of the weed, agreed to send samples.
The Bristol site was packed when we arrived late in the evening and although it had only been open to the public for three weeks, it felt as though it had been there for years.
Our supper, which emulated lunch, was the infamous sharing board. Andrew needed to check quantities and comparing the two, found Plymouth to be far more generous. The quality of the food is pretty high but that comes at a cost as all the ingredients are expensive. This is where the profit can be lost, as margins suffer through over generosity, a note to diary and the day was done.
With the next site on the horizon, Andrews abilities will be tested again. After the launch of the Bristol site which he did all the procurement for, I asked if Winchester would be easier as he had a blueprint in the other sites,
“no, all the sites have their own quirks, like Winchester for example could be semi-powered by water, so we need to evaluate each site on its own merits and act accordingly”
He explains that Winchesters suppliers will nearly all be new as the fifty mile radius will not cross over with any of his current suppliers.
‘that is one of the lovely parts of my work, sourcing new ingredients and meeting producers. There are some fantastic folk out there, like the millers at the local City Mill where some of the flour we use will come from”
The customers at River Cottage, Canteen and Deli may be there for a taste of HFW but the proof is in the pudding and Andrew Green and his teams are keeping the sharp end of the stick, sharp.