“The action of cooking food is only a fraction of the story”

Gill Meller has had more than one food lightbulb moment that has shaped his cooking. Find out what has occurred between his early 20s and now…

“The action of cooking food is only a fraction of the story”

There are several meaningful milestones in my life that have helped shape the way I cook. They are just moments from the past, memories now, but they will always be important to me.

These ‘lightbulb’ moments make up a rich tapestry of experiences that have, over time, been sewn together by the thread of taste, the words of a person, by my mistakes, by a community, by the knife and by little things that affirm and reaffirm the direction I’ve taken, the choices I’ve made and what I believe in as a chef.

I had one of these poignant food experiences in my early 20s. I hadn’t been cooking for long, when my wife Alice and I decided to buy an old camper van (with an emphasis on old) and drive it down the length of France and over the mountains to Spain, then (God knows how it made it) around the coast to Italy.

 

''These ‘lightbulb’ moments make up a rich tapestry of experiences''

We had our eldest daughter with us, Isla, who was just two at the time and we had no real money to speak of. I would have loved to eat in some of the wonderful looking brasseries and trattorias we saw along the way, but as things were, I cooked our meals over the tiny gas cooker in the van. Our budget didn’t stretch to meat or fish, so I cooked vegetables instead.

We’d find incredible produce being sold in small village markets or from stalls by the side of the road. We bought the most beautiful fruit, vegetables, beans, salads and herbs that looked like they’d only just been dug up, cut or picked. What’s more, in most cases, they were home grown, inexpensive and always extremely delicious.

''I didn’t understand that the act of actually cooking the food was only a fraction of the story''

When I was younger, I thought I knew about cooking, but I was only just beginning to learn, I didn’t know what it really meant, I didn’t understand that the act of actually cooking the food was only a fraction of the story. My time in the old van opened my eyes; the simplicity of the food I was making and the way it tasted when I ate it answered a question I’d found complicated to answer. I learnt that at the heart of all good food are great ingredients and that where they’ve come from and how they’ve been produced means everything. I learnt that, more often than not, the simplest approach is the best and you don’t have to spend lots of money to eat well.

The trip in the little van, with my young family, helped to underpin a food philosophy I’ve tried to employ within my cooking, writing and teaching ever since. It turned out that not having a lot gave me so much. Funny that!

Gill Meller is head chef and tutor at River Cottage and a columnist for delicious. magazine. He published his first book, Gather, two years ago to great acclaim and his second book, Time, has just come out. Look out for an extract from it in the November issue of delicious. magazine.

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