Paul West, chef and host of River Cottage Australia, shares his passion for locally grown and sustainable produce with founder and editor of HerCanberra Amanda Whitley.
Transcript of ‘Dinner with Paul West’
Speakers: Paul West (P), Amanda Whitely (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
P: ... in the deep end and I’m going to go out and I’m going to learn some stuff and I’m going to see some things that a little fellow from Murrurundi may have never seen before, so I started hitch-hiking around Australia. I literally quit my job, left my girlfriend after that day and said, you know what, I’m going, I’m hitchhiking around Australia, walked down the main street of Scone, another great place, and started travelling and then my journey eventually took me to Tasmania, which was probably about two months after I started, by which point my meagre savings had totally evaporated and I was sleeping on the outskirts of town in a swag and just subsisting on rice cooked in a billy and I think I was bemoaning the fact to someone about how hard my life was, you know with no money and no food and no shelter, and they said why don’t you join the Woofing Organisation. I said WWOOFing Organisation, sounds interesting, go on. And if you’re not familiar with it, it stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms and it’s an international volunteer organisation and the premise is as a volunteer you do four hours work in exchange for food and accommodation, which as a hungry 21 year old I thought I am going to eat these guys out of house and home. I’m going to do like, between like 10:00 and 2:00, have a bit of a sleep in, eat some breakfast, wake up, do four hours' work, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, knock off at 2:00, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat.
So I joined up and you get a little book. Is anyone here a member? The hosts, have they wwoofed? Oh, I’m also an ambassador. I’ve just made that up, I’m not an ambassador for Wwoofing, but I should be. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is the best way to travel because you’re not a voyeur, you’re living with people who are genuine members of communities, so the cultural exchange and experience is phenomenal. So anyway, I joined up and it costs fifty bucks for a year and that’s just to cover you in case you lose an eyeball while on someone’s farm. That was the number one thing that apparently was insured for. You get a ... I think I got $5,000 if I lost an eyeball, so that was, as a poor person at the time, it actually did cross my mind, what is an eyeball worth to me? I mean a patch could be a pretty cool perception and probably overrated. So anyway, I joined up and I got ... I’m finally getting to the point, finally.
A: In your own time.
P: So I had a flick through [cough] excuse me, the local area, and I found a farm that sounded right up my alley. It was an old ... well I didn’t know he was old at the time, but his name was Giles and he had a farm and he was looking for Wwoofers so I called him up and he picked me up and we arrived at his farm at like eight o’clock at night and it was in a place literally called Paradise. It’s on a map. It’s just outside Sheffield, you can see it. It’s right on the foothills of Mount Roland there, a very beautiful part of the country, and he said look Paul ... I’m not going to do a French accent just in case there’s any French people here who I will insult, he said you look a bit rough mate, so go to bed, here’s a cup of tea, go to bed, I’ll get you in the morning and then we’ll start then. So you just have a shower and take it easy tonight.
And so next morning, five o’clock, [sound of knocking], five o’clock, five am, just to clarify. So far my wwoofing dream isn’t going exactly according to plan. Paul ... I told you I wouldn’t do the accent but I couldn’t help it after then ... time to get up. So it was Mar ... no April, April, and it was pre-dawn and he said you know on the way up to the house, collect some fruit from the orchard and we’ll poach it and juice it for breakfast and come up and eat and then we’ll get into the working day. Wwoofing, worst idea ever, five o’clock in the morning ... so anyway I go out into this ... I was in a little sleepout and I go out and it’s this magnificent scene of pre-dawn mist, all the trees that are kind of silhouettes of varying distance just disappearing into and out of the mist, and he had this wonderful Pomme fruit orchard which, at that time of year, was of course laden with fruit. So I made a little bundle with my jumper like this, little basket, and I started picking some apples and pears off it and you know, they’re covered in dew and they’re cold and crispy and I realised at that point that as a 21 year old person I had never picked fruit off a tree, ever in my life. Which I kind of got a little bit depressed about for about half a second until I realised I was actually picking fruit right then and it was most likely going to be delicious. I took a bit of the you know, I took a bite of the apple, very biblical. Temptation got the better of me and words can’t describe, it was just probably the singular most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten in my life to this day, and I’ve eaten mutton birds so ... you wouldn’t be laughing if you’d eaten mutton bird.
And it wasn’t really until I wrote the book and had to really look at what brought me here in retrospect until I realised how much of a pivotal moment that was. I certainly had no understanding of the gravity of it at that moment. I was like oh, that’s nice, up to the house and when ... I stayed with this guy for a month and I come to learn that he like ... he kind of was the personification of Old McDonald. It was one of those little story-book farms of like 20 acres and he had chickens and cows and pigs and goats and geese and orchards and vege gardens and all the work that we did basically revolved around growing food for himself and his family and by extension, me. And he’d grown up in the south of France, in Provence, and he was in his sixties at this stage, and basically he was trying to recreate that small farm market culture that he’d grown up with in the south of France, and doing a bloody good job of it.
People would ... all his neighbours constantly came around to barter and swap and share meals and drink wine and as a 21 year old person with no degree, no trade, no real direction, at that age you’re quite open to inspiration and when I stayed with Giles, I found like, I felt like I’d found the magic bullet for the meaning of life. I was like oh my God, it’s hiding here in Paradise in Tasmania and people have requested for centuries to find the meaning of life and here he is, right here, like working in a way that you can see tangible results for everyday and that aren’t just tangible results, they’re deliciously tangible results. You know all the work that we did, every meal that we cooked, three times a day, had some component from that farm or was traded off with a neighbour and I just ... I’d never witnessed such a connected way of life. I grew up, like I said, in the Hunter Valley, where farmers were angry old men in their seventies with rusty Land Cruisers. That was ... and even angrier dogs. That, to me, was what a farmer was, a beef grazier, you know that didn’t want ... you know ‘cause I grew up in the shop and we had lots of farmers come in and they just grunted at me as a child. Hardly the stuff that’s going to go that’s what I want to do. That’s the connectivity I want. But then to go and experience what Giles offered, and I just ... it was one of those things where you just go, that’s it. That’s the secret. That’s the key. That’s what I want to do. I want to do this. I want to grow food and I want to enjoy my family and I want to be part of a community and I want to be in bloody good health and drink lots of wine.
A: So that passion for food then took you to the kitchen of Vue de Monde?
P: In a kind ... if a very roundabout way.
P: Yeah, it did.
A: But the reality wasn’t ...
P: Kind of like the antithesis of that so the realisation that I had in Tasmania was that I want to do this, but then the reality of it was, hm, I’ve got none of the skills. Can’t cook, can’t grow, so I continued wwoofing for a while and did a lot of work in community gardens for another two years to get a handle on growing. And I felt like I was ... could plant things and grow them and have harvests. So I was pretty confident with that. Still could not cook to save myself and doing community garden work and permaculture work, a lot of which is volunteer, doesn’t pay very well, so I took up a job as a chef’s apprentice, working for one of my mates in Newcastle. And after about a year and a half I was kind of, I decided I wanted to make a proper go of this.
If I’m going to do my apprenticeship I want to do it in the best possible restaurant I can get admitted to. I didn’t want to work in Sydney so I ... this is pre-internet, everything being available on the internet, I actually called The Age and said can you guys send me a copy of the The Age Good Food Guide because we only get the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide here in New South Wales. And they did, they obliged, very nice, very friendly, and so I thought, okay, I’m going to start at the top and work my way back. Best restaurant in Melbourne at the time was Vue de Monde, three hats, and so I started with them. And I sent them an email and said guys, I’m sure you get you know, wannabe apprentices, you get thousands of emails like this a day, but please, please, I’m different. Can I please have the opportunity to come and at least just do a trial in your beautiful vaunted halls.
And what I didn’t realise at the time, of course was restaurants like that are always looking for flesh fresh for the fire. And so they got this email and they were, yeeessss, oh of course, come down for a trial, yeeessss. And so they got back rather promptly and said, yeah, we’d love you to come down for an opportunity.
So I flew down on my days off from my job in Newcastle, did my first ever 16 hour day which was great. I was not really expecting that and I’d gone from kind of working on a ... as if it was like a nice cafe in Manuka, somewhere like that, kind of like a breakfast, lunch, dinner, seven day a week kind of place on a nice little dining strip, quite friendly, you know a couple of busy services a week, and then went down to this. And this was like the first time I’d ever even stepped foot in like a serious restaurant. Like they don’t do ... we don’t do breakfasts. This is one hundred percent, top of its game, fine dining. And you know going from a crew of about four chefs and a couple of dishies, you know all of whom were pretty casual, to walking into a restaurant on Tuesday morning, which for fine dining restaurants is the busiest day because they shut Sunday–Monday usually, so Tuesday you’re basically prepping the whole menu from scratch. Thirty chefs, head down. Nothing is like ... it’s just silence and pans and just a general tension in the air and automatically I just stressed like this.
And they took me upstairs to get changed for the trial and I remember standing there and going, no, no, I should just sneak out the back door now and get out while the getting’s good. But stupid me got changed, went down and two years later I got spat out the other side. And when you work in a place like that, ‘cause there ... I mean there’s 90 hour weeks every week, without fail, fully booked break ... sorry lunch and dinner services, the real kind of rock and roll of the culinary world, but decidedly lacking in glamour. You know it’s ... we kind of glorify those restaurants, but to be a line cook in one of them is like working three factory jobs at the same time with zero protection and zero wage protection, no industry power. It’s really just the culture of abuse and as a result of that the people who do it and stick at it, that you kind of get this like sadistic you know club of people where you’re like, if you can’t handle it then just beat it, there’s the door, if you don’t want to be here there’s plenty of other people that do, and so you kind of get sucked up into this macho boys' club of like, yeah, 16 hours days, yeah another one, yeah, I haven’t seen sunlight for a month, yeah, this is great. Yeah, I’m getting paid two bucks an hour, woo.
And you know because it’s quite ... there’s a lot of glory to it on the surface, you know. There’s Dom Perignon and there’s models and actresses and actors and politicians and stuff dining there and you’re dealing with the best produce on the planet, but I remember after being there for about a year and a half ... I’m a bit slow on the uptake, I went um, I don’t think this is for me. Because at three o’clock in the afternoon, because that job you run solely on adrenaline. It sounds like a little bit clichéd maybe but I’d imagine there’s some serious scientific proof there if there was to be a study because it’s so intense and so there’s always a lull at about three o’clock in the afternoon. You’re still in the kitchen, but you’ve just finished lunch service and you’re starting to get ready for dinner service which starts at 5:30, and so at three o’clock in the afternoon, all your adrenaline’s kaput and you’re starting to feel the fact that you sleep for three hours a night and work for 90 hours a week and you kind of go into this weird psychedelic state, which I could somewhat recommend, but it’s quite hard to get to. There’s probably cheaper means to get to that, you know spirit, animal state, than by working in a fine dining restaurant.
I just remembered being there one day and thinking back to that farm with Giles and going, this is the absolute antithesis of why I started to cook. You know I’d cook probably about 250 meals a day, every day and I wouldn’t see one person that I cooked for. I wouldn’t sit down to enjoy a meal myself. I didn’t eat at all. I didn’t ... I wasn’t outside. I didn’t have any family or friends around me. The only people I saw were these kind of like band of kind of masterless samurai that were just ... had questionable people abilities, but hearts of gold. So I had to leave from there on in, you know, ‘cause I finally saw through that culture that I’d been washed up in, or caught up in and it’s just so far removed from everything that food can be, which is this amazing tool for connecting us to the environment and to our communities and to our families and to ourselves. It’s really one of the most holistic things that we can engage in, but ... and when you’re working at one of the best restaurants in the country, like there’s a lot of attention about the food that’s coming out of these places, and you think that that’s the epicentre of it, but the irony for me was that it was totally removed from food as I understood it.
A: We’re going to find out what happened next after ...
P: Oh yes, stay tuned.
A: ... Entree, because we’re averaging approximately eight minutes a question at the moment. (Paul laughs). And I can see the catering staff waiting anxiously out in the wings, so I will ask Paul ...
P: Should I let everyone know what we’re having?
A: Yes please.
P: So we’re having a rabbit rillette with some lovely crusty white bread, so slow cooked and flaked with fat and served with mustard and maybe cornichons , I’m not sure, anyway, anyway, mustard and crusty break, the rillettes. If there wasn’t some cornichons then next time try it with cornichons and as well as a pea and broadbean tart of course ‘cause we’re in winter. We’re in the time of the legume, but that’s a lovely sweet meal so ...
A: We’ll see you after entree.
A: Hello again. Alright, over to you.
P: Order, order in the library. This is a library you know, you lot. And not just any, it’s the National Library, so you should be extra quiet. [Chuckling]
A: Well that got your attention.
P: Who gave me a microphone? Terrible idea.
A: So I’m ... being a country girl, I know that usually you have to be somewhere 20 years before you’re actually considered a local, so how did the residents of Tilba react to this production company lobbing in, lobbing into town and this celebrity chef deciding he was going to live there?
P: They threw a tickertape parade for me. It was great. No, we had a float down the main street and I waved at everyone. No, massive lie. So I arrived at the farm about three weeks before we started shooting and everyone kind of knew that it was happening because you know, the producers had been in and doing stuff and so I ... and I ... but I was the only person actually living there at the time. So we started kind of three weeks out but I stayed on the farm and then everyone else ferried back and forth to Sydney so I had a lot of time by myself there. My partner was still in Tassie.
So I go up to the pub and they’re all ... you know they’re ... obviously that’s the epicentre of Tilba society, the Dromedary Hotel, great pub if you’ve never been there. I get free schooners if I talk about the Dromedary everywhere I go so ... so ... and I’d be in there in ‘cause I was ... I’d sit up at the farm by myself or go to the pub and talk to the locals and they’d be like, you know what’s going on with that TV production? And I was contractually bound to not tell anyone that I was the host. So I told them that I was the camera assistant and the farm manager and I was just there getting ready and apparently the host is a real knob [laughter from all] ... and I hadn’t met him yet but I heard on good authority that he was a massive knob.
Anyway ... and so they kind of, you know, accepted me quite early without the pretension of understanding ... and he is the host. They kind of just got to know me on a little bit more personal level before I kind of came out and they’re like, you liar, you dirty rotten liar, oh we love you Westy. And that ... so Tilba I think was probably the perfect place to have the show be shot for many reasons and the one that’s most relevant to this conversation is how accepting they are of people from out of town because Tilba is one of those parts of the world that is very beautiful and therefore very desirable to live in and to visit and generally when a community has a higher turnover of people tree-changing or sea-changing as well as the tourist tsunami that happens every summer, they tend to be a little bit more accommodating and accepting of travellers coming to that community, whereas where I grew up and after our conversation at dinner, where you grew up, in a little bit more inland, slightly less glamorous locations, it was, you know, like you really had to be one of the old families to even drop the L word. I’m not talking about love, I’m talking about local. And one of the old families would be very happy to correct you should you mention the L word inappropriately.
So it ... but I mean even know, I’ve like, I don’t call myself a local still. I live there, but just kind of out of respect for some of the older heads that live there. I’ve seen Darcy correct some of our staff about some ... because we’ve had the girl who runs the cooking school and there’s our food researcher, she’s been there for a year and a half now, and she went with some students after, to the pub, and they were like are you a local here, and she’s like yeah, yeah, yeah, and Darcy, if you’ve seen the show, no you’re not. [Audience laughing] So I’ve never put him to that test but, you know, ‘cause I wouldn’t want Darcy to go nah, to me. I don’t know if there’s any radio producers in the room but if you need a late night radio host, Darcy is your man.
So, but by and by the Tilba community has been ... I’ve been so lucky and I think it’s because ... when I think about it that Tilba, even though ... so it’s town of a population of 200, but it’s kind of ... it’s quite a strange town because it’s not just like an isolated little town out in the middle of nowhere with 200 people, it’s a really popular tourist village. Has everyone here seen Tilba or been to Tilba? Yeah, of course, yeah. Canberra’s the only place in Australia where you can get the majority of nods from a room when you talk about somewhere on the south coast, ‘cause no one in Sydney goes ... they go all north, oh Byron, what there’s a south coast? There’s a world past Wollongong, oh, I never really knew, but, let’s keep it that way. Just keep it for us. Canberra and south coasters, so they can keep Byron Bay. Compared to Bermagui it’s a shithole.
A: So how close to ...
P: Sorry, can I swear in the National Library?
A: As long as you do it with correct pronunciation it will be fine.
P: Okay. Thesis’s, thesii, Schroeder. Anyway, sorry.
A: Oh, I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to ask you now. That’s what I was going to ... okay. How close to real life ...
A: ... is what we see on the screen? Because I’ve just told you that you broke my ... our editorial coordinator's heart ...
A: ... when she found out that you’re actually not a bachelor living with his dog.
P: Yeah. Just giving each other baby oil rub downs [audience laughing] and another hard day of toil on the land. You look tense Digger, now my turn. So I think that ... it’s a narrative so it’s not a reality TV show, even though there are more elements to reality in it than any reality TV show, which is probably the most poorly used instance of reality on the face of the planet, a reality TV show, but, so I don’t live on the farm. [Audience sighs] I’m sorry. I’m not really, but I’m sorry.
So I lived there for the first season, when I was living out of a backpack and I had a boarding room at the back of the house. But that would be the only private space that I had because the house is a set. The kitchen, your private kitchen area, is a set. The lounge room is a set. And so the only little bit of private little Pauldom that I had was a bedroom, and because it was the only ... it’s a relatively small house compared to ... we make it look big on TV but that’s a bit of editorial magic. But it ... you’ve got your storage room, there’d be lights and stuff in there, we film for 10 to 12 hours a day and it’s quite ... you need a little bit of solace. I don’t know what it’s like for someone that is a host on a show that has multiple hosts, but when you present a TV show and you’re the only host, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to be on for 12 hours ... it’s taxing, trust me.
And so at the end of the day, in the first season I was still living there, I’d be like frazzled from having to be like this all day, and then just want to sit there and pat my dog and stare into the distance, you know, what’s happening, and the other stuff. They’d be like let’s have a drink, we’ve been sitting down looking at a computer, let’s go outside, hang around, and I .... leave, leave, leave, just coming out from underneath the door in my bedroom with four bolts, leave. So then usually I’d be like, I’m just going to take the dog for a walk and walk up to one of the high ridges on the farm and sit there and watch every car leave. Okay, digger, let’s go, they’re gone. So ... but I live ... I’m there, I’m at the farm every day still. I don’t live there but I’m still there every day. Or except, actually until probably three months ago, where now I’m there five days a week instead of everyday but the first three years I was there every single day and I look after all those animals and I am a member of that community ‘cause otherwise none of it would work.
A: ‘Cause it’s not your typical celeb gig is it? You don’t really ...
P: No, it’s not.
A: ... just kind of clock off?
P: No. I think ... I remember the funniest thing I ... yeah, I don’t know what a typical celeb gig looks like but I’m very grateful that mine looks like Tilba because I don’t know that I’d be up for that kind of like Sydney glamour world of ... I’ve too much facial hair, too much body hair and probably too much central girth to be a legitimate celebrity. But you know, there’s nothing a bit of plastic holiday, holiday to ... a plastic surgery holiday to Thailand can’t fix. I don’t know if anyone’s seen Pete Evans' early cookbooks, but he certainly doesn’t look like the paleo cure, yeah, but anyway that’s another story. I don’t ... [makes a noise] the chef claws are out. Yeah, so ...
A: So is it hard work?
P: ... it has to be grounded in reality, yeah.
A: Is it hard work?
P: It’s hard work, yeah. I think working in the fine dining background held me in really good stead for being ... doing what I do now because there’s an incredible amount of individual pressure to perform. You can’t stuff it up. There’s not really, we don’t really have a huge margin for error on the show because filming a show remotely from Sydney is a very expensive enterprise. We don’t factor in any room for burning things or just not cooking them right or ... so there’s, yeah, it’s a lot of hard work and much, much, much harder than I ever anticipated. ‘Cause having been a chef and getting like a TV gig I was like, hey, crack the bubbles, break out the banana lounges, I’m having cocktails everyday now. I’m going to be on TV. I’ll be like a Home and Away actor. This will be great. I’ll do like one day’s work a year and the rest of the time I’ll spend at a yoga retreat in Bali. Wrong. But grateful that that’s not the way it is.
Yeah, so we ... it’s intense, yeah. It’s a lot of ... we do a lot of work for a very small amount of screen time. So the season is eight by 48 minutes because we don’t film ads, and that takes us four months. One episode, or roughly 50 minutes of footage takes us 60 hours. So that’s a pretty crappy conversion rate. So it makes for a scintillating bloopers reel because there is ... got a lot of source material from which to put together that blooper reel. Yeah, so it’s ... and I had no idea about any of that until I was thrust into the deep end of it, but I was very fortunate that the people that they hired to make the show were longstanding industry experts who are held in the highest regard and they kind of took me under their wing and taught, or created what they would like to think is the perfect host. I don’t know if that ... sorry, that didn’t come out right. I mean what they ... what ... like a production crew thinks a host should be which, having the other TV hosts is very much different to what a host thinks a host should be. So it’s been a bit of a baptism of fire but it’s fun. It still is fun.
A: Is there where you ever imagined yourself?
P: No. Actually, I had this ... last year my school that I went to, asked me back to be their fete ambassador. They have a big fete every year and they invited me back. They’re like Paul, come on back, come on back alumni, we’d love you to open the school fete and to be the guest auctioneer at our charity antique auction. And this is all very nice, and they ... I actually managed to dig out an old school uniform to wear to this charity gig, which they thought was hilarious. They said I wore it better than I ever did at school, and then the principal who actually, the current principal actually used to be one of the ... he was the PE teacher when I was still at school and he didn’t brief me on this at all but he got up to introduce me and he said, ‘oh, we remember Paul when he was here in Year 12 and remember having a staff meeting about he and some of his friends and saying they’ll either end up in jail or on TV, and we’re very glad that it’s the latter. [Audience laughing] Over to you, Paul.’ So no, I didn’t really envisage being where I am. I certainly had no media aspirations. I wasn’t shooting a YouTube series or doing any of that stuff to try and get on TV, it was just one of those things that fate had in store. I’m glad it happened, though. I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise.
A: Well I’m going to ask you please to introduce dessert that people are enjoying and after dessert ...
P: Ladies and gentlemen, dessert. [Audience chuckling] No just kidding. No, we’ve got a lovely hazelnut torte and we’ve also got an apple and rhubarb crisp, so very nice winter fare. I hope you enjoy. I know I’m going to. And then after ... oh, sorry.
A: Just don’t forget who’s running the show here.
P: [Whispering] Sorry.
A: We will be back.
[End of recording]