There must be a tremble in the knees of industries when they first hear of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s next TV series.
So it was with the coffee industry, when his War on Waste blew the lid off the scale of disposable single use coffee cups, accelerating a move towards reusable cups.
The same with supermarket bosses, facing an onslaught of consumer attention as he urged them to send back their plastic packaging on social media and in the post. Whether it’s fisheries, animal welfare, wonky veg or plastic, a Fearnley-Whittingstall campaign is almost guaranteed to gain viral attention, get hashtags trending, and create long-lasting public attention to an issue that forces larger-scale change.
The 56-year-old affable TV presenter and food writer has a way of reaching people in an accessible way, even convincing them to act: no mean feat in today’s world of information overload and convenience. How does it feel to hold such a position of household influence?
“It’s a really mixed feeling, and it’s a feeling of privilege and excitement,” he says, speaking from his garden office on a cold December morning. “In the end what really matters is the public response to these things, the fact that lots of people will sign a petition, and then start to give politicians the feeling that if they don’t take this seriously and do something about it they might get booted out at the next opportunity.”
Fearnley-Whittingstall is quick to credit the expertise of others, mentioning campaigns by Jamie Oliver and Marcus Rashford, and describing how he “stands on the shoulders of giants” in his TV shows by working with experts like Compassion in World Farming or food waste organisation Feedback. “When we’ve gone off to make some other programme, we need to keep those issues alive. So it’s really important that this is a collaborative process,” he explains.
His own current subject of interest is healthy eating as a permanent lifestyle, something he tackles in a typically accessible and engaging format in his new book: Eat Better Forever.
Covering a huge range of health aspects, from whole foods, to gut health, to mindfulness and the role of awareness in healthy food choices, it’s almost more life coach than recipe book and holds an impressive amount of research and up-to-date scientific expertise.
The second half of the book contains recipes (plant-led but with a meat chapter), while the first is a seven-point guide to what he calls “my idea of what healthy eating is and should be.”
“I just wanted to tease out these seven really simple ideas, leading with three really positive ones, which are ‘go whole’, ‘go varied’ and ‘go with your gut’,” he explains.
Chatting to Fearnley-Whittingstall is at times like being in an audience of one for his TV shows; he is clearly well versed in absorbing research and translating it for a mainstream audience. “Cabbages and apples and steak and fish and eggs and milk, and all those things that are natural foods and haven’t been messed around. These are the best foods, because they are food,” he continues, talking about the value of ‘whole’ over processed. “They are foods that, in many cases, have evolved in order to be eaten, and in other cases we have evolved alongside them in our diets and we’re very comfortable eating them.”
Adapting message for audience without sounding patronising is a skill prized by any TV presenter, and particularly one working in the complex areas of food. It’s perhaps one of the learnings from his time at Eton, a school that prides itself on teaching students a chameleon-like ability to fit into public life.
The prestigious school is not an experience that Fearnley-Whittingstall regards as formative himself, though, saying that what he remembers most is coming home in the holidays.
“There’s a lot of complicated things to say about boarding school and the effect it has on someone over the long-term,” he says. “One of the things I remember valuing the most was coming home and getting in the kitchen, and being out in the garden and pulling up carrots and wiping them on the grass and munching them.”
Similarly memorable was his short stint at River Café, the Michelin-starred restaurant run by Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray, which is as well known for its food as for producing culinary talents, including Jamie Oliver. “I can roll back and remember myself there in an instant,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall. “I can see the kitchen, I can see the jobs I’m doing, I can see the people,” he says, adding that it was “utterly, utterly formative” in teaching him about good ingredients.
It’s these values of the connection to food, seasonality and the joy of eating with friends and family that are common themes across his career and embodied in the River Cottage brand, which began as a series on Channel 4 tracking Fearnley-Whittingstall’s adventures in self-sufficiency.
River Cottage is now home to a public restaurant, various farm-to-fork courses, and a cookery school, the latter carefully taken online during coronavirus and which Fearnley-Whittingstall sees as a counter to the passive experience of watching cooking shows on TV.
His fascination with healthy eating is partly down to his own diet, which although underpinned by a love of good food and ethical sourcing, for many years was supplemented by snack food during hours of TV filming, with a knock-on effect on his weight.
So where do his heartland values of animal welfare and low-intensive farming come into the new book? They’re still there, he says, if not quite as “full frontal”. “The very useful thing is that, if you’re primarily sourcing whole foods, leaning towards what is seasonal or what is local, is a relatively easy rationale,” he explains.
“If you’re buying lots of ready meals and highly processed foods, those decisions about food provenance have usually been taken away from you.”
Omnivorous these days, Fearnley-Whittingstall’s last book was vegan and he says his food is “plant-led” and he’s “heading in that direction”. On processed meat ‘alternatives’, he takes an underrated common-sense position in a debate that has become increasingly polarised: “Lots of the ways to address the so-called meat crisis involve dishing us up some very processed plant proteins. I don’t think it’s ideal.
“I’ve got no problem with a good veggie burger. For me, a good veggie burger should be a bashed together combination of things like pulses, some corn, maybe some grated beetroot or some roots in the mix. I’m not saying we shouldn’t chop or grate or blitz or make soups, absolutely, these are good things to do. But when we do those things, we shouldn’t take things away and we shouldn’t add things that don’t need to be there.”
He is also keen to stress that “it’s about more than personal responsibility”. “Because the problem is we could have the best will in the world to choose healthy foods, but the world around us is bombarding us with messages to do otherwise,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall, who also fronts the national Veg Power campaign to encourage children to eat more veg.
It’s why books and TV programmes are only half the story, and his campaigns are usually also lobbying the government and businesses on the same issue.
This last year saw Fearnley-Whittingstall join celebrities, campaign groups and citizens, to ask that low quality food imports like chlorinated chicken be banned by law under the new Agriculture Bill, ahead of controversial trade deals with countries like the US after Brexit.
Despite huge public awareness, the government refused to budge. It was a huge blow to public interest, and even as a seasoned campaigner Fearnley-Whittingstall says that felt tough. “It’s partly an ideological thing,” he says.
“Conservative governments in general, and this government even more than usual, don’t like clipping the wings of business. But at a time when they’ve boxed themselves into a corner because of Brexit, they are even more anxious about putting restrictions around trade. Essentially it’s putting money ahead of human health, it’s putting business ahead of looking after us.”
Where did all this seemingly insatiable drive to improve things come from? Fearnley-Whittingstall says it was less about a burning desire to change the world, and more about “being passionately in love with wildlife for as long as I can remember”. Moving to the countryside aged six, he recalls a “rural adventure playground” and memories of collecting snails, birds’ eggs and other nature treasures. Combined with learning to cook at the same age with his mother, and a deep-seated interest in food and the natural world was cemented for the rest of his career.
Of all the issues he has covered, it seems that one is missing, and I wonder whether he has considered putting his considerable influence to work on the climate crisis. “There’s often a climate element to the stories we tell, but the short answer is yes, of course I would consider it,” he pauses, before nodding to a series he was due to do this year on this topic and that is still in the pipeline.
He suggests there have been difficulties in working out how to frame such a programme, and it’s true that climate has been a hot potato, as far as TV programmers have been concerned.
“People are very quickly made anxious and stressed by the idea of climate change, so it’s a question of how do we find the positives and get people feeling good about their actions,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall, for the first time swapping his openness for something a bit more guarded, or at least reflecting careful adherence to some fairly live discussions being held elsewhere.
In any case, it’s a similar issue to what has already played out around the BBC’s coverage of climate elsewhere, most notably the change in direction and tone of David Attenborough’s programmes on the natural world, where it was felt by many that the human threat to the beauty on screen was left out of the picture for far too long.
Perhaps food is facing its own ‘bubble’ in mainstream TV, which is a problem for a media format that is recognised as being the most far-reaching and a sector that has such a wide range of climate impacts. Fearnley-Whittingstall agrees, carefully, and adds: “I think you’re right. It’s a smorgasbord. There are a number of investigative shows: Jimmy Doherty, and Jamie, and Channel 4 has done some good stuff, and I’ve done my stuff recently on the BBC. Some of this can be done with a light touch, it doesn’t have to be all campaigny.
“What I would like to see more of, is people talking about the provenance of their ingredients in an enthusiastic way. Many TV shows, or indeed food writing - the weekend supplements and the big name food writers, and the best-selling cookbooks - many of those outlets could show a little bit more concern for provenance and seasonality and local sourcing,” he says.
“The reason that’s important, as well as the environmental impact, is that’s one of the pleasures of good food. To know where it comes from: the story of food,” he says, returning to more comfortable ground. “When you break the florets off a cauliflower, if you know it’s grown in Cornwall, just think about that and imagine a field full of cauliflowers with the sea just over the hill.”
There may be more to come on bringing the urgency of the climate crisis to mainstream public attention, but it’s hard to pick holes in a career that has largely been dedicated to inspiring positive change.
As he puts it: “It was so obvious to me what the deep connection is between food, agriculture and the natural world. They are different aspects of the same thing and that connection just runs deeper and deeper.”
Eat Better Forever by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Bloomsbury, £26) is out now.
This article was initially published in the latest print issue of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine online and for free via Issuu.