10 Minutes With: Ken Holland, specialist grower

The  Staff Canteen

Way up in the north of the country lives Ken Holland, specialist grower and undisputed king of the crops.

Ken has been growing heritage crops for over 10 years, and supplies both local customers and Michelin star restaurants. Known for his quality, variety, and ability to grow unique and lesser-known foods, Ken has made a real name for himself in supplying the best in fresh produce. Having been employed by some of the best chefs in the business, we spoke to Ken about his line of work, and how he came to work with the likes of two Michelin star chef Sat Bains and Michelin star chef Tommy Banks.

ken holland 4
Ken Holland

“To be honest I got into growing by chance. I was a builder for 20 years beforehand, but I got to a point where I wanted to do something completely different. People ask me all the time ‘how did I get into what I do’ and my answer is probably the opposite of what everyone would expect!

"I wasn’t interested in growing, I was interested in food. I wanted more of a lifestyle and an opportunity came up to get a wall garden so I took it, despite having no experience at all!”

Ken has always prided himself on growing very traditional varieties of crop, believing strongly in their better taste and quality. He harvests by hand, and his techniques are very conventional.

“Originally I read a lot of books. I took a friend with me from the building company I used to work for and he had quite a lot of knowledge in allotment growing. He worked with us for the first five years but he’s since retired. We were very traditional, grew big swedes and parsnips, and harvest them by hand - but you couldn’t really make a living that way.”

With the restaurant scene starting to rise, Ken realised to continue making a living from his newfound love of growing that he needed to try something new. Being a lover of food, Ken had a keen eye on the restaurant scene both in the UK and abroad, and he took inspiration from a grower in France.

“I used to read about a guy called Joel Thiabault, a French grower on the outskirts of Paris. He too was very traditional in his style and he was a massive influence on me. He supplied all the top Michelin chefs around Paris and he was very much at the forefront of growing in Europe.ken quote

“Baby vegetables were coming from France and were very popular at the time, and so I started to grow baby veg. We stuck to our guns and grew traditional varieties and we could offer restaurants a crop that tasted much better and fresher than anything the suppliers could offer.”

Ken’s reputation was starting to grow, and before he knew it he was being approached by top chefs such as Sat Bains, Tommy Banks from The Black Swan at Oldstead, James Close from the Raby Hunt, James Knappett and Aiden Byrne.

>>> Related: Three stars for the Fat Duck plus two stars for Raby Hunt in the Michelin Guide UK 2017

Ken started working as a consultant to some these chefs, helping them build their own kitchen gardens. “I started working with Sat about a year ago to build his kitchen garden. It was a challenging project simply because he hasn’t got much land. It was actually quite exciting. We had to get really inventive on the growing side of things so that we could get everything into the small space we had. Normally I leave after 12 months but Sat asked me to stay. We’re still helping with the growing but we’re also working on projects with him. The one we are working on at the moment is building a 130ft living wall at Sat’s restaurant in Nottingham, where he’ll be able to grow a lot of his ingredients for his menu.

>>> VIDEO: Sat Bains on the Times Top 100 and having a 'world class restaurant'

“What’s nice about the edible living wall that we’re building for Sat is that it’ll be the first thing that the guests see when they arrive and pull up in the car park. It’ll be right in front of them as they get out of the car and head into the restaurant.

tommy banks and ken holland low res 2
Tommy Banks and Ken Holland

"What will grow there is specifically what Sat wants for his menu throughout the year, so you’ll probably see the chefs out there before you go in to eat, picking the produce. This is what we do, we set up multiple growing systems for chefs, traditionally outside, raised beds, Polytunnels, we really make the most out of the space for growing.”

Ken and his team, all be it a slight team of just four, are really starting to change the experience of dining by introducing chefs to the availability of fresh produce on their doorstep with their own kitchen garden. Another project Ken is proud to have worked on is one that he’s just finished with Michelin star chef Tommy Banks at The Black Swan at Oldstead, North Yorkshire.

“I think if there’s anyone who is going to become fully self sufficient it’s Tommy Banks. Tommy brought us in as a consultant and wanted to utilise every acre of his land. What they’re doing down there is fantastic.

>>> Read our feature with Tommy Banks here 

"They’ve learnt with us along the way, and all his guys are on board. We’ve done many projects but Tommy is the most successful one. He really does use everything that he grows. They’re really behind the operation and I think they will be successful for years to come and that’s thanks to Tommy being such a massive influence.”

When asked what the key to his success is, ken quote 2Ken said he owed it to 'perseverance and persistence'. 

"We are always trying new ways of growing and trialing new verities. It’s bit like a chef having a development kitchen. At any point throughout the year, we’re trialing new types of veg, or a new way of growing, looking for the next steps forward. It’s probably the biggest challenge we face; we always have to look for ways to move forward.

“Sat Bains once said to me, he could have a fantastic service, the best he’s ever had, but when they come back in in the morning he tells everyone to forget about that service and start again. I look at us a bit like that. We’re only as good as our last delivery or our last harvest, we’ve got to be just as good the next day if not better.”

Ken’s loyalty is admirable. He still supplies all the local restaurants that first came to him, staying true to old customers and priding himself on building relationships with his clients. Upon asking him if there’s anyone out there he’d like to work with he said: “It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a local restaurant or a Michelin star, it’s about building a relationship with the client. We look for someone who shares the same ethos as us.”

With more restaurants starting to look at growing their own produce and developing their own kitchen garden, I asked Ken whether he thought this was essential to the restaurant industry moving forward, or just a popular trend:

Ken Holland
Ken Holland

“The best restaurants have the best ingredients. We can harvest in the afternoon and drop it off at a local restaurant that night, so it’s literally a couple of hours old.

"Even if we’re supplying The Kitchen Table in London, we’ll still harvest in the afternoon and it’ll be sent down by courier that night, and be in the kitchen in London the next morning. I don’t think there are many places that can do that! It’s all about the last minute harvest, being as fresh as possible. “

Ken reiterates the fact that they are a family business: “We’re only a team of four, but many would think there would be 20 of us! We don’t supply to a massive amount of restaurants because our focus is on building good relationships and providing our customers with the best service possible. We have about a hundred restaurants on the waiting list and it doesn’t matter if it’s a local restaurant or a Michelin star, we have to ensure we’re providing our customers with the best service.”

A true argument for quality, over quantity.

By Dom Belcher

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th December 2015

10 Minutes With: Ken Holland, specialist grower