The influential UK chef and author you haven’t heard of (yet)
WATERTOWN — Gill Meller isn’t any sort of a showoff or know-it-all. But the soft-spoken British chef cooks confidently, telling stories about his life and work. After a couple of hours in my kitchen, he seems like an old friend who stops by, straps on an apron, and makes dinner.
Just as quietly and humbly, he has established a presence in his native United Kingdom.
Meller’s debut book, “Gather: Everyday Seasonal Food From a Year in Our Landscapes,” inspired adoration when it was published there last fall. Food writer and television personality Nigella Lawson was head over heels: “Beautiful writing, beautiful food,” she wrote on her blog, “this is an exquisite book that I cannot stop reading; and every recipe makes me consider ingredients and flavours afresh and beckons me into the kitchen.” Sunday Telegraph food writer Diana Henry, a James Beard award winner, visited him at home and wrote, “Being with Meller is a tonic.” If the praise made you want to get your hands on the book, you were likely out of luck until this month, when it came out in the United States.
Meller is the group head chef for the River Cottage restaurant company, where he has worked for more than a decade. These celebrated southwest establishments were founded by British chef and TV personality Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who began a small eatery on what is now a 65-acre working farm in Devon — “in the bowl of a beautiful valley,” says Meller. Then came a long-running TV series, the point at which Meller began working with the chef, appearing regularly. He also helped establish a school that offers classes in baking, foraging, butchering, beekeeping, and more.
Meller doesn’t project the fast-paced exuberance of British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, or the dismissive hauteur of Gordon Ramsay. He’s more thoughtful and his food is more original. He is a little surprised to be on tour, and more amazed that a publisher asked him to write the book in the first place. He shouldn’t be. His food is exciting. He’s adept at combining unusual ingredients, typically with a burst of color and flavor. Thick pieces of white fish go in a chile-cream sauce loaded with anchovies; crispy French lentils are scattered over fried pears with red onion; beef shanks cook for hours with smoked seaweed; blue cheese is tossed with caramelized onions and dates; and rye-flour brownies are topped with candied whole almonds and bay leaves.
These brownies are like nothing else I’ve ever encountered. A big bowl of melted dark chocolate and butter is mixed with beaten eggs and raw sugar, then whole, sugar-coated, orange-scented nuts and fresh bay leaves stud the top. As they’re baking, the bay becomes intensely aromatic and the kitchen smells like a forest.
The book is arranged according to where ingredients are culled: the farm, seashore, garden, orchard, field, woodland, moor, and harbor. It is a celebration of the natural bounty of the author’s surroundings. But Meller doesn’t want us to concentrate only on the provenance of a particular food or its grower, but also on the pleasure. “Joy is, after all, the single most wonderful thing about eating,” he writes.
In the kitchen today he is roasting butternut squash and portobello mushrooms, which he will toss later with barley. He calls barley a “foolproof” grain. “You cannot overcook it,” he says. The dish is wildly colorful, seasoned with rosemary, garlic, lemon, vinegar, and dill.
He likes ingredients that raise eyebrows. Like squirrel. He’s got three recipes for squirrel. “We’ve become so entrenched in what we know,” says Meller. At home, he says, “it’s very commonplace on menus.” He doesn’t offer the cliched comparison to chicken, but rather to another meat many people may not have tasted: “You have rabbit,” he says. “Squirrel isn’t a million miles away from that, texture-wise.”
One of the rabbit dishes in “Gather” is a classic with mustard, leeks, rosemary, and cream. He learned it from the chef at a quaint village pub where he worked. “After Sunday’s service had come to a close,” he writes, “we would sit at the bar and get drunk and talk for hours about food and cooking.”
Meller, now a boyish 37, was 18 and studying art, photography, and graphics in college when his older daughter “came along,” as he tells it. His parents were supportive of him and his girlfriend, Alice, having the baby. “My family reacted as I thought they would,” he says. “They’re fantastic people. There wasn’t shouting or tears. But we needed to face the reality of the situation.” Namely, a steady income. He began working in a local coffee shop and “one thing led to another.”
Today, Meller and Alice, his wife of 11 years, live in Dedham, in the southwest corner of England, with 18-year-old Isla and younger daughter Coco, 12.
To prep butternut for the barley dish, Meller halves the squash lengthwise, seeds it, and without peeling the skin, cuts the flesh into long strips. “The skin adds texture,” he says. The butternut is sprinkled with sage, rosemary, whole garlic, and olive oil. Portobello mushrooms are also roasted, then the chef carefully tosses the long pieces of orange flesh and meaty portobellos with cooked barley, which turns majestic with a creamy dill dressing and more fresh dill.
Meller is making a quick fish dish with New England halibut steaks (the recipe calls for turbot). He sears them, including on the skin side, and makes a sauce with anchovies, thinly sliced garlic, chiles, rosemary, and cream. It looks beautiful and smells divine, and the sauce is salty, creamy, spicy, aromatic, and delicious with the halibut. “It’s difficult to explain just how brilliant the combination in this sauce is,” he writes in “Gather,” “big and totally rounded. When you eat it, it’s like the ingredients were invented only for this dish.”
That is Meller’s own brilliance. You read a recipe in “Gather” and it seems doable and interesting. It goes with a beautiful photograph, so you try it. The result is stunning, not just to look at, but to taste. It’s inspiring. You feel like you finally understand how clever chefs think about food. Meller may be the UK’s next big star.