Gizzi Erskine, former TV chef, food writer for Sunday Times Food, and restaurateur, is the latest chef to add her sustainable manifesto to the fold.
Her latest book, Restore; a modern guide to sustainable eating, represents a growing popular interest in an environmentally-conscious approach to cooking and a desire to reconnect with our food.
“In a world full of conflicting messages about what we should and shouldn’t eat, food has become a source of stress rather than joy,” says Erskine, “we can protect the planet without having to sacrifice any of the taste.”
In the book, Erskine faces up to the complex debates of defining sustainable food tackling each part of the food system prior to each chapter. Is organic best? What is monoculture agriculture? Can meat consumption be sustainable? These are the questions of our time and Erskine doesn’t shy away from these contentious and political issues.
More seasonal fruit and veg, pulses, less but better meat are themes that underpin the book, with a particular focus on celebrating the whole animal, and recipes dedicated to less known parts such as offal and lamb neck.
But sensitive to the fact that eating sustainably can entail higher costs, Erskine says: “We are in the middle of a pandemic, poverty levels are reaching an all-time high, so it was really important for me to acknowledge socioeconomics in the book as part of the problem as well. There is a middle class ideal that I’m privileged enough to access, but most of the country are not.”
She also prides herself with confrontational nature of the book: “I can’t think of any other cookery book that would be quite so grotesque in explaining the depth of an animal, from raising it to slaughter, and then talk you all the way through the butchery.
“It’s been an honest reflection of how I approach everything. I have to look at myself and think am I able to eat meat under these circumstances and pose those questions to myself but also to the audience as well,” she says.
Curiosity, Erskine says, is what has driven this latest undertaking. “I have a mind that, when I find something I’m interested in, I want to know everything about it,” she says.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you how many people we spoke to and the amount of research we did, it’s a very academic book. But then we had to make it a tangible, accessible piece of information.”
Inspiration also lies in part with Matt Chatfield, farmer and leader of The Cornwall Project who set up relationships with London’s top chefs to shorten their restaurant supply chains and boost local farming communities of Devon and Cornwall.
“He’s amazing, he used to come up and bring new samples and new food and we used to gaffe about things and eventually it got on to agriculture,” says Erskine.
“One ambition I had from this really was to talk about regenerative agriculture because I knew that was critical to the future of the world,” she says, exalting the importance of healthy soil.
“A handful of soil contains more life forms than there are creatures on this planet. Without good soil, it is impossible to grow good food. This is basically what the book is about, good soil and why we need regenerative agriculture,” she says.
Unheard of ten years ago, it is surely a positive sign that chefs like Erskine are beginning to take ownership of, and understand, the agricultural systems that provide their food. With their platforms and ability to reach a mainstream audience, they play a vital role in linking choices to environmental impact, without reducing the joy of food.
With a certain prescience, before lockdown and with Brexit on the horizon, Erskine also started to wonder about her reliance on certain exotic cupboard essentials; her miso, fish sauce, siracha, gochujang. Could she make them from scratch if the worst-case no-deal scenario came to pass and our supply chains started to wobble?
“It was quite a fun idea at the time, and then all of a sudden, lockdown happens, Brexit is happening,” she recounts. “So, while everyone was making their sourdoughs at home during lockdown, I was already messing around with these long ferments.”
Her sense of humour shines through regularly, and it is small wonder she found success as a TV presenter back in 2007 after graduating top of her class at Leith’s Culinary School. However, Erskine is keen to leave this image of her behind.
“I definitely got into this too young, I look back on some of the books and I cringe,” she admits. “But I’m 41, I think people think I’m a bit younger than I am, but my first TV show was 13 years ago, and I think that I have definitely grown up.”
While maintaining she is proud of the work that she did, Erskine is unhappier about the way she was being portrayed by the media and her former publisher.
“The irony was that I had a beehive (haircut), that came down to music. I loved 60s psych and punk, but people saw it as domestic goddess-y. I never saw it like that, and I was repulsed by that idea. I hated being compared to female domestic cooks because I was a real chef,” she explains.
Four years ago, she stopped doing TV and started to focus on what she loves: hospitality. “I started setting up restaurants and I got such a kick out of it, I worked out I was quite good at it. I got more confident, and I felt now was the time to write a book that I had under my hat for a long time.”
Erskine describes her career as an evolutionary process: “I’m coming out the other side and actually feeling quite good about myself,” and how she now sees her doubt with a silver lining. As she puts it: “I am still insecure about my own position in this whole thing. But what I will say is I guess that is quite healthy, in that if I was totally comfortable with my position, I might end up being a bit of a twat.”
'Restore: A modern guide to sustainable eating' by Gizzi Erskine (Harper Collins, £22.99) is out now.