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The future of the planet is in our pans: Interview with eco-chef Tom Hunt

[A reduced version of this article appeared on Bouteco.co on March 27, 2017]

Tom Hunt: Eco-friendly chef, author of The Natural Cook, founder of the roaming restaurant Forgotten Feast, Chef and founder of Poco Restaurants (London and Bristol), ambassador of the Soil Association and champion of multiple charities – Feeding the 5000, FareShare, FoodCycle and Street Smart.

In 2016, the London branch of Poco was awarded the “Restaurant Of The Year” award at the Food Made Good Awards. Only recently, Tom was named runner-up in the 2017 Workplace Hero category at the prestigious WWF Earth Hour Hero Awards.

Tom’s coherent mission is to champion “root-to-fruit eating” – reducing waste by using produce in its entirety. But that’s just one part of the vision. Tom Hunt is passionate about reconnecting with the origins of our food, purchasing and cooking eco-friendly ingredients, supporting sustainable food production, and championing local, organic farming. Not a small feat. Yet, a smile, good humour, and an infallible determination permeate his work and his energy.

His ethos of bringing people together through knowledge and appreciation of food nourishes his emphasis on communal eating. It goes without saying that his restaurant proposes sharing plates – championing new and unique approaches to local British ingredients.

Tom recently returned from a trip to Nepal in support of Action Against Hunger, visiting local projects and raising funds for the cause. The chef sat down to talk about what consumers can do to match his valiant effort to reduce the UK’s 20 million tons of annual food waste.

The ultimate goal is to create a more conscious and joyous global community and to achieve a more sustainable future.

Tom Hunt CateringThe Natural Cook char-grilled Courgette, radicchio, olives & mozzarella. Image Courtesy of Tom’s Feast.

Tom, your life seems to be comprised of an incredible whirlwind of projects supporting sustainable food and zero-waste initiatives. What does a typical day in your life look like?

My ambition and drive is to improve the environment by helping people reconnect with their food. The ultimate goal is to create a more conscious and joyous global community and to achieve a more sustainable future. To that avail, these days I’ve taken a step back from chef life and am focusing on the broader vision and purpose. I spend most of my days online, doing interviews and finding ways of making connections for the cause. Other than that, I write 3 or 4 articles a month, do recipe creation, shooting, and styling and visit the restaurants. As an optimist and a food entrepreneur, I’m always devising new ideas and projects. I’ll throw an idea out there and see if anyone catches it.

What is the project you are most excited about at the moment?

There are two things that I’m particularly looking forward to bringing to life. I’m working on a new book proposal – I have a concept I want to explore and propose to publishers: looking at food holistically and marrying health and sustainability in a recipe book.

There is also an idea that I’ve been developing for a couple of years, a “Handmade Restaurant”: it’s the working title for a restaurant in which everything is handmade – the walls, the cutlery, the crockery… the idea is to look to the past and see what we can bring forward into a sustainable future. There will be nothing made by machines, no fridges! Everything will be cooked around the central fireplace and because of the lack of electricity, all ingredients will be day-fresh, fermented or cured. It’s going to be hyperlocal and we’ll be focusing on indigenous products. It could potentially be nomadic, but I’d be looking to pilot it in one location for a year or so.

We can eat meat sustainably, and I’m an advocate for good sustainable animal agriculture. However, I do believe we need to change the way we do it.

Acclaimed chefs such as yourself and Dan Barber are drawing attention to the fact that we should be paying attention to food waste. Do you think it’s important for other chefs to join the cause, or are you more concerned with educating home cooks and consumers?

I generally think of my audience as the public. However, chefs now have the privilege of being able to communicate with the public, so the more of us subscribe to cooking sustainably and talking about it the better. The chefs within the best restaurants in the UK are already offering a lot of high quality and therefore sustainable produce. However, the majority of the time they are not talking about the sustainability. Most of their focus – and not wrongly – is the taste and quality of the food, and that’s what they want to talk about. There are only a few of us openly championing sustainability.

Tom Hunt in the kitchen: eco-chef

You’ve recently turned vegetarian. Could you share your reason for the decision? Do you believe a sustainable vision of the future could incorporate animal protein?

We can eat meat sustainably, and I’m an advocate for good sustainable animal agriculture. However, I do believe we need to change the way we do it. Firstly, we have to eat much less of it and only on special occasions. Secondly, I believe that the price of meat will continue to increase as the cost of energy and production will rise. I hope this brings a natural shift towards eating more veg and pushes a diverse range of grains into our diet. Hopefully we will become more attuned to the idea of biodiversity and farming on a commercial scale and the necessities of that to create a more resilient and sustainable farming system. As part of this cost sensitivity, some people are already shifting to meat substitutes, although I myself am not a fan of imitation meat products. I like food to be intervened with as little as possible.

Going vegetarian was a very personal choice. My message is very much about reconnecting with food and nature to learn its true value, and I wasn’t being true to my own thoughts. I had to raincheck my own ethics and values. I realized I needed to really know the origin of the meat, and when you eat out a lot like myself, it can be very hard. So I really wanted to acknowledge my connection with the animal. It’s worth saying, If I were offered meat in a Nepali village because they’ve slaughtered it to celebrate our arrival, I would share the meal out of respect and gratitude.

The main point I’m trying to communicate through my “root to fruit” eating philosophy is: Eating for pleasure and reconnecting with our food’s origins will help us truly value our food, reducing waste, making healthy and sustainable dietary improvements cost-neutral and more accessible.

Consumers are often faced with having to choose price over quality. Is this a false argument? Do you have any recommendations on where to shop to reconcile budgeting for environmentally minded people and passionate home cooks?

I think you’re right, there’s definitely a bit of a false economy. The focus of all my writing and study is around trying to create replicable ways of eating and shopping for home cooks and consumers. There is a false dichotomy in having to choose quality or price. There are several reasons for this:

  • Buying seasonal produce at markets, if it’s abundant, will always be priced competitively with grocery stores.
  • Supermarkets are built to encourage spending. When you go, you often buy things you might not need or even things that are packaged into quantities that force you to buy more than you may want – making you spend more.
  • On average we waste 30% of the food we purchase. If we invest in buying higher quality produce that we truly value, we will waste less and make a saving, creating a budget for purchasing higher-quality, healthier and more sustainable food. The main point I’m trying to communicate through my “root to fruit” eating philosophy is: Eating for pleasure and reconnecting with our food’s origins will help us truly value our food, reducing waste, making healthy and sustainable dietary improvements cost-neutral and more accessible. This should also help regenerate the environment and improve the lives of the people connected with food production across the world.

Kale Tom Hunt ChefThe stems of the kale are given new life. Image courtesy of Tom’s Feast.

You recently joined forces with a group of like-minded chefs as part of the wastED London pop-up at Selfridges. Was there a chef or dish that you found particularly special, if so, why?

[Tom smiles and pulls out the one-page paper menu from the night.] That’s the back of the menu, a map of all the different things they are using. On the other side is the actual menu. What was inspiring was the innovation: here are a group of Michelin-starred chefs from world-class restaurants – look what they can do when they put their minds to an environmental issue. 90% of each dish truly is a byproduct or an ingredient that people would never use, like the bloodline from a tuna or the core from a broccoli or an old battery hen [laughs]! WastED has one pre-set menu and invites guest chefs to do their own dish, which they provide the ingredients for. They didn’t have as many vegetarian dishes as I would have liked to see, but they do work with some incredible ingredients.

I guess there were two dishes that were incredible. The spiralizing trend results in vegetable cores going to waste, and the juicing trends results in the husks and pulps getting discarded. WastED turns spiralized cores into a very pretty dish and the fruit and veg pulp into a vegetable cheeseburger.

My own dish was inspired by Dan Barber’s “Rotation Risotto” – I did an English twist on this by proposing a “Rotation Porridge” using spelt and rye from trial crop grains sourced through Gilchesters organic farm, topped with clover, which is their rotation crop.

If you think that every 7 weeks we produce our own body weight in rubbish, you see that just by reducing the packaging that you consume, you can have a huge impact.

Crab bruschetta tom hunt cookCrab Bruschetta. Image courtesy of Tom’s Feast.

You have undertaken a 30-day, no packing, minimal waste challenge. What are a few learnings that you can share? Are there any small things home cooks can act on immediately to help reduce waste?

Of course, in the industrial food system we live in, there is really no such thing as zero waste. It’s just a great way to communicate the idea. However, if you think that every 7 weeks we produce our own body weight in rubbish, you see that just by reducing the packaging that you consume, you can have a huge impact. This journey has taught me of the power and impact of the individual in achieving sustainable outcomes.

To embark on this journey you have to do a few things:

  • Make the conscious decision to commit to it. Abstaining from things can lead to discovering real ingredients and will force you to step away from the supermarket and reconnect with individuals who can support your way of life.
  • Increase your surrounding food community. You have to buy directly from suppliers or farmers if you want to make an impact.
  • Know it isn’t difficult. Buying from local markets is not self-righteous nor something reserved for people who have a lot of time. I go to the market once a week and do a bulk-buy shop once a month.
    Before you buy something, tell the producer about your commitment to reducing waste – the people who care about the food they are selling will understand. They won’t take you for a lunatic and you won’t run into the awkward situation of having to ask for packaging to be removed. One of the hardest things is dairy products. In these cases, as a hack, ask if you can bring your own packaging. But at the end of the day the aim is to reduce our impact, so if you have to buy milk in a bottle that’s just fine. Just by not going to the supermarket you will reduce a whole bin load each time.

I think the majority of major supermarkets have taken up the challenge of reducing their waste. However, lots of the time their solution is to send food to anaerobic digestion instead of stopping it from actually spoiling and feeding it to people.

Which businesses are making a real effort to champion the cause? How can consumers support the initiatives?

I think the majority of major supermarkets have taken up the challenge of reducing their waste. However, lots of the time their solution is to send food to anaerobic digestion instead of stopping it from actually spoiling and feeding it to people. I think they need to improve in that respect. The charity Fair Share in the UK is significantly helping with food waste reduction, and you can help them by volunteering.

What ingredients should we be looking out for in April/June?
In April look for radishes and spring onions; In May asparagus and royal new potatoes; in June buy beans, courgette, courgette flowers and my unsung hero – turnips. Turnips are a great way of demonstrating “root-to-fruit” eating because the leaves are so damn good!

On a lighter note – Oil or butter?
[chuckles and smiles…] Definitely both! It depends on what I’m cooking and how I feel. I love to top things with fresh raw olive oil, it can transform anything into something delicious.

Follow @TomsFeast or visit his website to keep up-to-date with the chef’s ventures.