Why did you set up Coombeshead Farm?
Coombeshead wasn’t preconceived, it seemed to just happen. At Pitt Cue, I would go into the fridge each day in the kitchen and see stuff in there and I was not content if I didn’t know more about it. I began looking more into it and visiting farmers. It got to the stage where, however tasty or mindbendingly good something in the fridge was, if I wasn’t part of the process of it getting it there then I just couldn’t serve it. I became a bit obsessive. So I set up a co-op of rare breed farmers in the West Country. But I thought ‘why am I doing all this down there and it’s all going to London?’. We would cook dinners on the farm and somehow the meat would taste better than exactly the same cooked in London. I wanted to be able to serve stuff where it is grown and have control, which is why Coombeshead was born.
Is the farm self sufficient?
I come from a family of farmers so I knew farming was a lot of work, which is why we didn’t want Coombeshead to be completely self-sufficient but instead work closely with local suppliers. We’ve got pigs, chickens and sheep but the level of work that goes into it is unbelievable. Animals are unpredictable. Pigs are incredibly needy. I had an idealistic approach of how it would run – that we’d have chickens pecking through the courtyard and pigs casually lying at the feet of customers, but it hasn’t happened like that.
What have you learnt from working much more closely with animals?
I thought I knew about animal husbandry but by being closer to it I feel I know less than before. We’ve readdressed the whole supply chain [across the businesses] and have changed from suppliers who we thought were doing things right but where more work needed to be done. This all came about by asking lots of questions about why they were getting certain things into the kitchen. If you’re not involved in the process how do you know you’re going to get something great in the kitchen and that it has been produced responsibly? You can have organic suppliers but that doesn’t mean their animal husbandry is amazing. You need to be looking that much deeper.
Has this knowledge changed your approach to cooking?
There is more of a focus on the product at Coombeshead, but we only do 14 covers a night. It has changed the way I’ve thought about it; I was a bit slapdash before. We have just taken two sheep to the abattoir that we have looked after for a year and a half. Before, if I was trimming the lamb, some bits might end up in the bin – or go to staff – but if you’re responsible for that animal it would be criminal to waste any of it. We take a pig to the abattoir every month and a half so each one has to last that long, including for breakfast and charcuterie.
How can you ensure high-quality meat?
There are multiple stages before a piece of meat hits the kitchen. You have animal genetics to consider and how you look after and feed the animal. You can have everything exactly right and then get to the abattoir and something goes wrong. If it is too far from the farm, the animal can get stressed, which causes stress in the muscle and burst blood capillaries. That means three to five years’ hard work and meticulous breeding and husbandry can be wasted – and in the last seconds of an animal’s life. You can have a beautiful carcass but your ageing fridge might be too humid. There are so many variables. You need an awareness of every single step of the process.
Is sourcing becoming more important for chefs?
For a lot of my contemporaries, animal sourcing has become a huge part of their business. Some people want to know more about it for ethical reasons, some for taste reasons. They may be driven by different goals but as long as people are starting to look at it more closely, it can only be positive. If you’re a cook, you need to be responsible for where your product comes from. As a chef, your job starts way before you get into the kitchen.