Simon Hulstone says growing your own produce isn't all it's cracked up to be

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th May 2019

As a chef, growing your own vegetables and rearing your own animals may sound like a dream. Just like foraging, tending your own garden seems like a cost-effective way of getting the best produce money can buy. 

But is the reality quite so romantic? 

Chef owner of The Elephant in Torquay, Simon Hulstone, was the latest chef to join Paul Foster on The Nightcap podcast for a late-night chat upstairs from his restaurant, Salt, in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Among the usual TripAdvisor fodder, and a discussion about kitchen banter in the modern era, the chef spoke of the merits (and pitfalls) of having his own farm to provision most of the produce for his Michelin-starred restaurant. 

When the Roux scholar started growing vegetables on the land beside his restaurant, a Victorian terraced building on the harbour side of Torquay, it was a financially motivated decision: the 96-acre farm was used to keep horses, so the chef, who already foraged as much as he could, asked the owners if he could grow some things on the land. 

Now, it has 6 polytunnels and over 100 animals at any given time - including 60 turkeys at Christmas, chickens, ducks and lambs, depending on the season. 

"It sounds great," he said. "But it's an absolute nightmare." 

Despite the farms gargantuan size, the realities of growing your own produce mean that you're not guaranteed stock year-round. Whereas in the summer, yields approach the 100-150kg mark every week, in the winter, "it's 4 trays of eggs," he said. Whilst still having to pay the farmers and the gardener the same fee. 

And while the produce is undeniably fantastic, the workloads for chefs is much higher. "Chefs have got a lot of work to do to get it to the standard of what it looks like when it comes in from a supplier before we even start prepping it." 

Is it cost efficient?

An innocent question asked by host Simon Alexander, to which Simon softly laughed. "No. Not at all." 

"We break even on it. If we bought in, we'd save money."

The impact on the restaurant is a positive one, as it gives staff a story to tell the guests, but would the produce taste the same if it came from other local suppliers? Quite probably, he said. 

There are other advantages of course, namely that nothing goes to waste, as they grow everything to the exact amounts they need, letting the vegetables go to seed to replant them, using horse manure for fertiliser. 

It also means that they can grow varieties of vegetables that can't be bought. "The different coloured carrots, the funky herbs, not what you can nip into Waitrose to pick up," like white strawberries, purple asparagus and Bantam eggs. Things that, once again, make for great conversation with guests. 

But that's not to say that more varieties are necessarily better, and the Brexhall farm team learnt this through trial and error, before narrowing it down to a single variety for most vegetables. 

"You'd have this table full of the most amazing colours and arrays and shapes and sizes but 55 of them would taste of absolutely nothing." 

Does it match the Michelin model?

Another problem one may not consider is that yields can be very inconsistent in size, shape and colour, in ways that fine-dining restaurants - especially those listed in the Michelin Guide - can't justify to their customers. 

"Every week your vegetables are growing, you can't stop them growing. So one week we get perfect radishes, and the next week they're footballs, and you've still got to use them because that's your produce." 

What's more, he said, you're compromising on consistency by adding things to already finished menus. 

It forces you to be inventive: making chutneys, ice creams, pickling, salting things, freezing, purees, juicing, etc. 

"But then you're left with the stuff that not everybody wants," he said.

But this begs the question:

If you're not growing it yourself, where do you find the best produce?

Whereas 20 or 30 years ago it may have been difficult to find high quality suppliers, over time you build up a network of dependable partners. Plus, the chefs believe that now, it's more a case of letting them approach you. Thanks to social media, Paul Foster said: "they find you now." 

"You're fighting them off."

So perhaps when you consider whether or not you grow your own, it is worth accounting for the amount of extra work, how cost-effective your solution is and whether it gives you the flexibility you need. Otherwise, you may be better off leaving it to the experts.  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th May 2019

Simon Hulstone says growing your own produce isn't all it's cracked up to be