Chefs to the rescue?

I saw a quote from Nathan Outlaw a few years ago in a brief interview for the Guardian, and I thought it was probably the most insightful and optimistic thing I had ever read about British food: ‘The British restaurant scene is much newer than in France or Spain or Italy, and I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of what’s possible in our own country, with our own ingredients.’

One of the implications of this statement, if it proves to be true and if the British restaurant scene continues to flourish, is that restaurants could be the saviour of artisanal production in the UK and represent a huge opportunity.

It is hard in today’s environment to set up a new food business (perhaps any business) without a sustainable element. There is a demand for products that don’t negatively affect the environment but which have a story, a narrative that captures the imagination.

Today’s chefs have grown up in that environment and these influences inform their style. In the time I have been involved in cooking, the chef–producer relationship has completely transformed. When I first started cooking in the early 2000s, the meat supplier was a guy at the end of an answering-machine message. Today, chefs and producers are on first-name terms, and it is a two-way working relationship.

The future is challenging for small-scale production. There will always be people who want to do it and they’ll find a retail market amongst those willing to pay for a premium product. However, if we continue to rely on the larger retailers, the percentage of artisanal producers will get smaller and smaller because the retailers keep driving suppliers to produce everything more cheaply. Restaurants offer a way to create a product without having a large retail buyer perniciously salami-slicing your price every few months.

Chefs don’t behave like commercial buyers. Because they work their backsides off for the love of food, there is some understanding of the commitment and drive it takes to be an artisanal food producer. They aren’t disrespectful or just plain greedy enough to ask a producer to be cheaper and cheaper. If they want the product they’ll cost it and if they can afford it, they’ll buy it.

Most artisanal producers don’t do what they do because they want to be millionaires. They do it for the love of doing it. They do it because they believe what they produce deserves a place in the food system, and they do it because they care about showcasing the produce that the area they live in can offer. The question is, do we value that? Does society want people who do this sort of thing? Or is just getting enough food to enough people all that matters?

I believe pushing small artisan producers out of business means we all lose. For the good of communities on a small scale and wider society, we need people to do diverse jobs and to produce things. Small producers making artisan products enhance our lives and can give immense pleasure – not just from the product, but from the process and story behind it. Artisanal products need to be economically viable on their own terms to survive and working hand in glove with restaurants is the new model.


This is an excerpt from GOAT: COOKING AND EATING by James Whetlor that was originally published in Smallholder magazine. For your copy subscribe by calling 01778 392011 or emailing or buy a copy from your local newsagent.