In Conversation With Rosie Birtkett, food writer

Rosie Birkett is a food writer, stylist and broadcaster. If you follow her on Instagram you’ve probably envied the dreamy pictures of her foodie adventures. We spoke to Rosie about her love for Deal, the future of food and new book, The Joyful Home Cook.

As you’re a regular on Saturday Kitchen, we thought we’d ask what is your food heaven and food hell?

My food heaven is fish and chips on the beach, complete with buttered bread for chip butties. My food hell is a bad sandwich made with margarine.

Your new book is all about home cooking. You talk about the importance of tracking down a good local butcher and farm shop, what are some ones you recommend using in Deal?

The Black Pig all the way. What Lizzie does at her shop is really incredible. All the meat is procured as locally as possible and dry aged properly to concentrate the flavour. I love her homemade sausages - look out for the pork and wild fennel ones, they’re so delicious. She buys half a cow every fortnight and breaks it down into different cuts and nothing is wasted - a really resourceful, admirable approach and the meat is always really delicious.

Jenkins & Sons gets a special shout out in the book, it can be a bit intimidating first approaching a specialist, what are some tips you have for making the switch between a supermarket to a local resource?

Jenkins and Sons have the best fish and seafood you can find in the area, and they are incredibly knowledgeable and very happy to share that knowledge so I would say just go to them and explain the sort of thing you’re looking for and they will be more than happy to help. They always have a great selection of fresh, seasonal seafood, and they work with local fishermen and day boats so you’ll be spoiled for choice. If you have a recipe in mind, tell them what it is and I’m sure they’ll give you some helpful suggestions and tips.

You’ve written a book about East London’s Food scene after living in Hackney, what restaurants there would you recommend?

Rochelle Canteen is always great - I love their deceptively simple, seasonal dishes and the bright space of the restaurant. Particularly lovely to sit outside amidst the fox gloves and fig tree in summer. I also love Lyle’s in Shoreditch for a treat, really inventive, balanced modern British dishes cooked by chef James Lowe.

You talk about ‘meat is a treat’ and ‘slow grown animals’ in your book, what do you think the future looks like for home cooking is and what are some easy steps to get started?

I think we are all increasingly realising that the choices we make when buying food can have a huge impact on the planet, and human consumption of meat is having a massively detrimental effect on the planet, so cutting down on how much meat and dairy we eat is a small step to change. As well as joyful cooking and delicious recipes, my book is about encouraging a deeper connection to the food we eat and prepare - because I believe that when we have a go at something like baking with wild yeast or foraging, preserving or fermented, we are more in tune with the processes and provenance behind the food we’re eating.

Giving the way you source ingredients a bit more thought is a good place to start. Rather than planning meals out of habit, maybe think about what you have in that needs using up first. I base my meals around seasonal vegetables and grains/pulses but usually introduce some good quality meat or fish once or twice a week. Buying a good quality, slow grown chicken means you are left with bones for stock and this can be the basis for many more delicious and nourishing meals.

You’ve said previously that you think Instagram is great for those interested in cooking, and in your new book you say that its more about taste than the look. For a food stylist and Instagram star, how do you find that balance?

I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive at all. Instagram is great for sharing ideas and enthusiasm and getting people excited about food and cooking - we eat with our eyes. Sharing inspirational, artistic imagery is a great way to get people interested and draw people to recipes but of course the most important thing is that the recipe delivers on flavour and I go to great lengths to make sure that mine do that. I style dishes in a way that shows off the natural beauty of the ingredients but that is still real and achievable for people.  

How do you find joy in cooking every day, do you have days where the weekday struggle kicks in?

Of course we all get tired during the week, especially after work, but with the book I wanted to make sure that there are loads of recipes that feed into each other and mean that you’ve always got something tasty in the fridge, cupboard or freezer to fall back on for those times when you are a bit tired. So for example, if you’re knackered after a long day, but you’ve got a nice loaf of sourdough you’ve made that you can top with some fried eggs and kimchi, or slather with wild garlic pesto or fermented green chillies and top with cheese and place under the grill - you’re still going to have a joyful meal with minimum effort. Sometimes we all need to take shortcuts, and I encourage that in the book - make a big batch of flavourful chicken stock and put half in the freezer for a day when you need a hug in a bowl.

What is the process of developing a recipe? I know you said a lot of the fish recipes were inspired from the kent coast, how does location affect a recipe?

First of all I think about the season, what’s going to be at its best and what I want to eat and cook, then I work from there: perfecting, adapting and testing. I found being in Deal and writing the book hugely inspiring because of all the gorgeous local veg and fish. Just going to Jenkins and seeing what they had on offer would inspire me to think of a recipe - and I always like my recipes to reflect the wider environment or season. We are so lucky in the UK with our very pronounced seasonality and the fact we have incredible ingredients - like asparagus - that are only in season for a short time. The fact we have to wait another year for them to come back round makes them all the more special! I love cooking in tune with the rhythms of nature and local ingredients because it makes sense and means the flavours are at their best. I also love using foraged ingredients like wild fennel, elderflower and wild garlic which can all bring intense, hyper-local flavours to food.

What are some of the biggest influences on your food and, who and what has made you the cook you are today?

I am inspired by childhood dishes, things I’ve eaten in restaurants and travelling. My mum is an amazing cook and I grew up eating wonderful home cooked meals so that was my earliest inspiration. I also have an allotment and when I succeed in growing something, I always want to find a way of building a recipe around it - as is the case with the allotment greens pasties.

You wear a lot of different hats, how do you balance the demands of a multi-hyphenated career? What’s your background and how did you shape your career to reflect your passions?

I’m always spinning plates! But I love the challenge and never have a dull day. The thing I love most about food, and that I think will keep me in food for life is that you never stop learning and you can never know everything, there is always more to learn and experience. I got into food through my career as a writer on a lifestyle and listings magazine, from there I moved to a hospitality trade magazine covering lots of chefs and restaurants, and after that I specialised in writing exclusively about food as a freelancer working for food mags and newspapers. The more I learned, the more I became obsessed with learning, and wanted to also work with my hands more, so I began cooking, eventually becoming a food stylist and also writing recipes. The past 11 years has been a huge culinary education and this book is the culmination of that.

What does your book have to offer to the people of Deal?

I wrote the book in Deal and most of the ingredients were sourced from Jenkins and Sons, The Black Pig and the two greengrocers - so all of the recipes are easy to make with locally available ingredients. Plus there are plenty of nice pics of the beach and sea, and I would usually have a dip first thing before I started cooking. We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful and inspiring place and it has certainly informed the book. It’s an obvious choice for people who love Deal and food.

Pick up a signed copy of The Joyful Homecook  and try some of Rosie’s creations from 3.30 at The Deal Bookshop on Saturday 11th May (tomorrow)

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