You may question why a classically trained chef that started his career at The Dorchester finds himself in a ‘staff canteen’, but this is a sure far cry from lumpy mash and gloopy gravy!
Chef Paul Collins draws on his 25 years of industry experience to produce some of the West Country’s finest food. Cooking seasonally and wholeheartedly supporting a plethora of fine producers that surround Yeo Valley HQ, Paul prides himself on creating honest food that has taken the most ethical route from field to fork.
ABOUT BEING A CHEF
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a chef?
Whilst on school holidays one year when I was about 10 years old, I watched Pebble Mill at One and saw Anton Mosimann create a beautiful dessert – it was at that minute I knew that I wanted to be a chef. The whole way in which he went about creating that dessert and the way he spoke of the food, I was hooked! 9 years later my first job straight out of college was at The Dorchester Hotel in London where Mosimann was the Executive Chef.
Describe your food philosophy and cooking style…
I am classically trained with over 25 years experience. I respect the traditional way of cooking and when I started cooking it was normal practice that you’d wait a year at a time for certain products to come back into season. I like to cook with food thats around me, with inspiration often coming from actually seeing what is in the garden and pairing that with our own meat here at Yeo Valley.
We are extremely lucky here to rear our own animals and we get every bit of them back to us here in the kitchen – it helps to reinforce our connection to those animals and the need to ensure the ultimate respect is given to them and all the people involved in their upbringing and welfare.
We have to adapt our cooking methods to the various joints we use. An example being; we do a roast rib of our own Organic beef on a Wednesday and then follow that a day or so later with braised shin of beef or our own corned beef hash. So you can see very clearly that our ‘style’ is almost dictated by what cut of our own animal we have in that day or what is growing around us – not to mention the weather!
What are your sources for inspiration?
The local growers and producers, our own organic garden, Homewood Cheeses and Strode Valley Organics. From the staff canteen here at Yeo Valley HQ we can see Blagdon Lake where we catch trout that is then sent over to the Valley Smokehouse and returned to us a day later to use in the restaurant.
What is your favourite ingredient?
So many to mention; our daily sourdough, our own animals, the salad and vegetables from Strode Valley Organics, Homewood Cheeses, Legbar Eggs. Once you start to talk about these ingredients the menu starts to write itself.
Have you got any new projects in the pipeline?
More demos for next year up here at Yeo Valley HQ and Friday night opening to the public. We also have new menus being developed for our Organic Tea Rooms that opens in April – a very busy operation throughout the summer months located in our Organic Gardens.
What is your favourite meal to cook at home?
Mine is simply jacket potato! However, I just love sitting down with the family – they all have their favourites which I try to cook for them when I am home. I do really enjoy a proper long, lazy roast on a Sunday with the family sitting round for a few hours enjoying the food, wine and family conversation.
ABOUT THE YEO VALLEY
Tell us a bit about Yeo Valley – how long have you been working there, the canteen, your team, what it’s like working on a farm…
I have been working with Sarah Mead for about 5 years on and off, but 2 years ago I started to work more and more regularly with Sarah. We decided, after lots of discussions, that it would be great if I would come onboard full-time, so the family and I moved from Oxfordshire to The West Country!
Sarah and I subsequently took the decision to open what is our staff canteen to the public 5 days a week. Since that day we have not looked back – full every day with a 2-week waiting list to come and see a real family owned business that is accessible to the public.
How much of your produce for the canteen comes from the Yeo Valley farm?
Almost all of the meat we use here in the staff canteen includes our own beef, veal and lamb. Anything else we use we source from suppliers that share our values. We work closely with the team down at the gardens and they bring us fruit, herbs and vegetables at their best and when in season – it’s never enough to feed 100 people per day but it is great to tell people where all this produce that is on their plate is coming from.
And how do you go about sourcing the other produce?
We visit all our suppliers with someone from the farm which gives us a little more depth to our questions and to ensure we are happy to put their name on our menus. I love to inform everyone that eats at our staff canteen that the vast majority of our food is truly local, seasonal and sustainable – it binds us to the seasons and our menus reflect this.
Do you use foraged food on the canteen’s menu?
Not every day, but we do end up with huge bags of wild Garlic in April / May that we make into a number of pestos, purees and oils to use after the season has vanished. We also get boxes of quince dropped off to us when in season as well as crab apples which we turn into jelly and then use in various recipes.
Although we work extremely closely with them, some of our suppliers won’t even tell us what they are going to deliver; whether that’s an overripe tomato or a wonky red pepper. However, that’s a great relationship to have – it ensures we remain in tune, and as chefs it is then our job to turn them into something for them to enjoy here at Yeo Valley HQ.
Obviously the seasons have a big influence on your menu, can you tell us what winter dishes you are making at the moment?
For me this is one of the best times of year – we are cooking a lot of beef shin, blade, and long slow cooking that has a real depth of flavour. I love kale, chestnuts, parsnips and cavolo nero so we try to incorporate these as much as possible.
What does sustainability mean to you as a concept and a practice?
Personally and business-wise, I feel as a chef I have a duty to do as much as I possibly can. We have 3 stars from the SRA (Sustainable Restaurant Association) which we achieved in our first year, we put nothing to landfill, we recycle everything out of our kitchen and the whole Yeo Valley HQ is run on our own generated solar power and Miscanthus (elephant grass) that we grow on the estate that feeds our Bio Boiler.
How do you deal with food waste and what other sustainable practices do you employ in the kitchen?
All food waste from our kitchen is recycled to an anaerobic digester so even our waste makes something else! If we have a lot of food left over at lunch we also offer that to Yeo Valley staff to take away at a highly reduced price.
What is the importance of people learning how to make active, informed decisions about the food that they eat – and what tips do you have for a more sustainable way of consuming and cooking?
Without wanting to sound too political, we all have a duty on a personal scale, to ask questions about how our food is being grown, made and arrives on our plate. When I started cooking, seasons were very much there to be enjoyed and once the strawberries were finished growing in my granddad’s garden we didn’t see any until the following year. Asparagus was a treat, as was a piece of salmon, but now unfortunately, these things are available all year round and I don’t feel that we are asking enough questions on how these ingredients are getting to us – the bigger picture questions like; “How much water does it takes to grow asparagus in Peru so we can have it on Christmas day?!”, “Do you know how much fish we are taking from the oceans to feed farmed fish so we can have cheap smoked salmon?” and “Why do we need to have vast greenhouses growing food unnaturally so we can have it all year round?”. I simply don’t see the need to eat a strawberry unless Wimbledon has started!
My tips are very simple for this kind of argument – buy good meat and eat less of it. Buy from your farmers’ market seasonal English vegetables covered in mud that are not wrapped in plastic, as well as organic dairy. Delve down and asked questions about your food!
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT PAUL COLLINS
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YEO VALLEY
Photos by Neil White