The Food-Philosopher Who Uses Everything From Root To Fruit

He cycles, swims, studies sustainability, the food system and biodynamic farming, and drinks a hearty amount of good wine. But adding the crunch to the multi-layered biscuit is his insatiable passion for cooking. Eco-chef, writer, food-waste activist and proud owner of an award winning restaurant, Tom Hunt has been fostering his unique philosophy of food, which brings people together in a sense of community, for over 17 years.

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“Everything I do comes together in this culmination of food,” he tells us. “This is what excites me, it is this core passion.”

In a practice that he calls “root to fruit eating”, his philosophy of food is an enticing and rich fusion of creativity, stealth and experimentation. In short, it is a method where all food is valued. “Another way of calling it might be conscious cookery, or even holistic cookery,” he explains. This is an ingredient-centred philosophy that sprung from his activism. Back in 2011, in the midst of the Thames Festival, Tom was invited by food-campaigner Tristan Stuart to feed 200 people on Southwark Bridge, entirely from food that would have otherwise been thrown in the bin. Shocked by the quantity of food that was going to waste, Tom was inspired to create The Forgotten Feast, his social enterprise campaign for food sustainability. “Now it’s my aim and ambition to waste nothing,” he affirms.

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With the launch of his recipe book, The Natural Cook already making its mark, Tom seems to be capturing the imagination of thousands, inspiring the next generation to think more carefully about how they treat and prepare the vital nourishing energy we buy and eat everyday. His mouthwatering, original recipes are the process of trial-and-error, emphasising the need to make mistakes in order to continually reach new planes of taste-sensation. As much a teacher as a chef, we’re excited to see Tom go from strength to strength as his philosophy sends bright colours and a real desire for social-change to our plates and palates.

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We caught up with Tom to learn more:

The Plus: How do you teach your chefs to cook following your philosophy?
Tom Hunt:
I teach our chefs to look at the ingredient as a whole and use every element within the recipe or dish that they’re presenting. This could be done in a number of different ways, for example if we can buy a whole celeriac with it’s roots and leaves intact then they can all be used and presented in the dish. We are pushed to be more creative with our cooking as well if we’ve got to use every part of an ingredient and we’re constantly coming up with new recipes.

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TP: When did your book The Natural Cook go from dream to reality?
TH:
The Natural Cook was published the June before last. I decided to write it as a New Year’s Resolution in 2014, so I set down a brief of recipes and approached Quadrille, my publisher, who I then developed an idea and concept with which then quite rapidly became a reality. It was a really exciting and demanding process that took six months or so working quite closely with the publisher and developing this idea and concept around my philosophy of root to fruit eating.

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TP: How did you arrive at the recipes in the book? Did you bring your existing recipes or did you try and create as many as possible for the book?
TH:
The book is a compilation of old and new recipes. Because of the unique format of the book, the way it’s split by ingredients and then each ingredient having 12 simple recipes with leftover ideas behind, it meant creating a lot of new recipes for the book, hundreds. That’s something I love and enjoy doing, creating recipes off the cuff from seasonal ingredients, and it comes quite naturally for me and I really enjoy that process.

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TP: What hopes did you have for your book and do you think they have been achieved?
TH:
I wanted to create a book that was accessible and very easy to use for everyone, whether they’re a home cook, chef, or restaurateur, and I feel like I’ve achieved that through the reviews that we’ve had. Everyone seems to find that the book is very manageable and easy to cook from because it’s split into the various different ingredients and provides very simple store cupboard recipes that anyone can cook, that then evolves into more complex and perhaps more exciting recipes that are exotic and can help inspire people to cook more.

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TP: While experimenting with recipes have you come across anything that you think is particularly innovative in regards to flavours, textures, and combinations?
TH:
When I’m cooking or writing recipes I’m thinking about several different things at the same time, thinking about texture, also the colour of the food on the plate and how it works together, in combination, and also the flavours as well. Really it’s a balance between all three and all three being exciting to the eater. I always put a recipe together through looking at what’s in season and what’s available.

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TP: How do you make desserts and apply them to your philosophy?
TH:
For a dessert I cook with whole foods, so I’ll use brown sugars, wholemeal flour, and whole fruits, seasonal fruits. I think for me a dessert has to have that note of seasonality about it to make it unique and change with each season.

TP: How often do you make mistakes?
TH:
Really, I make mistakes cooking every day. I think mistakes are part of the learning process, and they’re an important part of it. I think that if you’re rigid in what you’re doing and things were always perfect then you’re not pushing your boundaries, you’re not experimenting and creating exciting wonderful things. Mistakes are interesting.

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TP: Tell us a little bit about your restaurant, Poco. How did you start it?
TH:
Poco started as a festival cafe in 2004, and we toured around the British music festivals from one to the next, putting up marquees and kitchens and cooking on our huge barbecue from our yurts and marquees. After several years of building an amazing group of people and friends, we realised that we had an amazing strong team and it was time to open our own restaurant. So I invited Ben Pryor and Jen Best to open Poco with me in Bristol, which we did in about a month which is quite remarkable, all of our own budget. We also opened a Poco in London too.

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TP: How do you feel about your gastronomic journey so far, from the time you started until now?
TH:
It has been so immensely rewarding. I’ve been cooking professionally for 17 years, and before that I worked on farms and on the land and learnt about food, and took food up incredibly passionately. From a very young age I knew exactly what I wanted to do and didn’t have any doubt which I think is what has allowed me to progress in my career because I’ve always had that strong focus, and also keen interest in learning. So all my first chef jobs I was just there at every moment, asking questions and learning from the chefs and listening so that I could take that knowledge on board and it really helped.

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Ingredients for beetroot gravlax
– make 3 days in advance of the salad
2 tbsp light muscovado sugar
4 tsp sea salt flakes/rocks
2 stalks of dill, finely chopped
1 orange peel, cut into smaller pieces, keep the orange in the fridge for the salad
2 tbsp gin infused with cacao
2tbsp water
1 small red beetroot, grated
600g golden beetroot, boiled until soft, skin then removed

Ingredients for the salad – serves 4
1 blood orange
2 dill fronds, picked into large pieces (stalks used in gravlax)
1 leaf of purple dulse, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes
The gravlax’d golden beetroot
2 cocoa beans, cracked into nibs (optional)

To make the gravlax
Mix the sugar, salt, dill stalks, orange peel, gin, water and grated red beetroot in a bowl. Rub onto the surface of the cooked golden beetroots and store them together in a ceramic, earthenware or plastic container in the fridge. For the next two days turn the beetroot and shake in the curing mixture. On day three, strain off the brine squeezing out as much as you can and keep to season the salad dressing.

To make the salad
Slice the gravlax beetroot into 5mm thick rounds. Assemble the salad on each plate out of the sliced blood orange, red and golden beetroot and dulse seaweed. Sprinkle with the cacao nibs and decorate with the dill fronds. Dress with the gin curing liquor.