A lot of kitchens still struggle to make vegetables interesting. What advice would you give chefs looking to put them centre stage?
Seeing where vegetables come from and talking to the people that grow them can be very worthwhile. Vegetables can often be seen as a second class product by chefs but when you see how much time and care goes into growing them you realise that they have exactly the same standing as high quality meat and fish. This means that chefs than take more pride in preparing them and stop seeing them as just a side or a garnish. It also helps to think carefully about different cooking techniques and what effect they’ll have on the product, just like chefs do with fish or meat.
Root launched in 2017, how has it evolved since then?
When we opened it was more playful and casual. Perhaps it was even a bit basic. It was all stuff that has been done before - including veggie scotch eggs and polenta chips - because I wasn’t that experienced at being creative with vegetables, although I have always loved them. Over the years the team developed. We know what we’re doing now, we have a formula. We’ve gotten rid of the three meat and fish dishes we offered alongside the vegetable dishes because they weren’t selling. We didn’t have any meat on the menu for about a year but we now offer the odd bit of meat and some day boat fish too.
Is it still small plates?
Yes. I realise it’s not everyone’s favourite and I understand it can be problematic for people eating on their own. However, it’s a great fit for vegetable-focused food. The biggest challenge with vegetables and vegetarian options is main courses. You end up padding it out to try and justify a certain price point. You see a lot of chefs putting things in pastry or adding truffles so they can sell dishes at comparable prices to meat and fish-based ones. With small plates you can focus on just a few ingredients and make it really good.
Where did you work prior to launching Root?
I was head chef at Josh Eggleton’s The Pony & Trap (in Chew Magna, near Bristol). While I was there he opened Chicken Shed in Wapping Wharf but it didn’t work out. He had the initial idea for Root and asked me and Meg (now Howell's wife) wanted to take it on. It remains Josh’s restaurant but we run it on his behalf.
How did the cookbook come about?
I was approached by Absolute, which is part of Bloomsbury. Its founder Jon Croft is fairly local and came to eat at Root. Soon after that they got in touch and asked me if I wanted to do a book with them. I started writing it in 2019 with the help of Meg. We did the photography over the course of about a year so we could shoot all the seasonal veg at its best.
Tell us about the recipes...
We’ve tried to strike a balance between what we do at Root and home cooking. There’s stuff in there that anyone can do but there are some more advanced dishes like the Wellington and our take on a Sunday roast. Most of the dishes that stand out from the book are ones that are well-known at the restaurant, including our buttermilk fried celeriac with Korean barbecue sauce, which is our take on Chicken McNuggets. We also have recipes for tempura spring onions with sweet chilli sauce and peanut crumb; cauliflower bhajis with cashew butter and pickled orange; and Welsh rarebit toasts.
How are feeling about reopening?
We’re looking at it at the moment. We're considering opening for alfresco-only in April as we have a terrace but we'd need some sort of protection from the elements. That sort of thing is costly. I’m not sure what the return on the investment would be like. But last summer was great for us so we're feeling positive.
Bristol's food scene was booming ahead of the pandemic. Do you think the city can regain its momentum?
Yes. It’s been difficult time for the industry and you don’t know what’s going on in every single business but I’d like to think that most Bristol restaurants will come back in full force and that customers will support them.
Root is published 18 March (Bloomsbury, £26)