Words Jo Denbury Photography Katharine Davies
There is a danger after meeting Bridport boy, Gill Meller, of wanting to go home and not only change the way you cook but also how you live. Here is a man who is the master of simplicity, who has a home that is as pared-down as his food. Without doubt he is a mindful cook. As the food writer Diana Henry says ‘No one else’s food is more true to the place where they live.’
In fact the first seven years of Gill’s life were spent in an old rectory near Lulworth which his parents had moved to after leaving London. But then his father, a boat builder, and his mother, a drama teacher, moved Gill and his two siblings to Chancery Lane, in Bridport. It was in the cobbled backyard that Gill discovered his passion for making fires, ‘I would make a camp fire to cook’ he explains ‘I’d just experiment with making mixtures.’ A couple of years later they moved to Nettlecombe and it was there that Gill began to take a greater interest in the vagaries of the countryside. By the age of ten he ‘became obsessed with birds of prey’ and KES-like, he wanted to be a falconer.
‘It was Vaughan Sargent who took me under his wing and taught me how to fly hawks. He gave me a common buzzard and I spent 3 years hunting with her. As a result I spent a lot of time outside. Everyday I would spend 2-3 hours roaming the countryside after school and it gave me an understanding of nature and season. I was always out in the landscape, learning about the wind, the weather and how it would affect the bird. It was only later when I was a chef that the outdoors became important as a place from which to source ingredients. I am just thankful for the connection that the buzzard gave me with the landscape.’As anyone who has been lucky enough to grow up in the outdoors knows, that connection with the landscape is a gift that stays with you for a lifetime. But for Gill, growing up in Dorset and in particularly around Bridport, was a gift that offered him a vocation. At the age of 19 he, in his own words, went from ‘a teenager smoking roll-ups to a father who needed to find a way to earn a living.’ While studying at Weymouth College he met his future wife, Alice (who now co-runs Ryder and Hope in Lyme Regis) and the couple had their first child, Isla.
Out of necessity, and after a short spell working in a photocopying shop, Gill found work in a café in Dorchester, making soups and similar, and discovered that he enjoyed working with food. ‘My mother is an amazing cook and I had an inherent understanding of that growing up,’ When Isla was two, the couple bought a campervan and spent 6 months travelling around France, Spain and Italy. ‘We had very little money so I discovered the importance of ingredients working hard in every dish. Each morning I would go to the market and buy some vegetables and cheese and then cook a simple meal on the camper’s cooker. It was that trip that really gave me an insight into the importance of good, simple ingredients.’
When they returned, Gill set up his own catering business with the aid of a Prince’s Trust grant. The company, KITCHEN, was born. ‘I ran the business for two years and it was the perfect introduction to the farmers and growers of Bridport and east Devon.’ he explains. ‘It was through the sourcing and provenance of ingredients that I was able to define my own approach to cooking.’ His go-to favourites included the Washingpool Farmshop, Leakers, Godmanstone organics and Felicity’s farm shop for meat. But it was while he was busy with KITCHEN that he heard about Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. ‘Hugh’s first cookery book was very exciting. It offered a different way of thinking about food and I found it very inspiring. And then I met him at a party in a yurt!’
Gill plucked up the courage to introduce himself and they got talking. Hugh then rang Gill out of the blue and asked if they could meet and talk about his ideas. It’s said that Hugh arrived to find Gill making terrine in a blur of feathers and liver, pheasants everywhere. He got the job as Hugh’s kitchen assistant and, as they say, the rest is history. Gill has been working with River Cottage for fourteen years but two years ago took a step back to concentrate on his own written work. ‘It was a huge opportunity,’ says Gill ‘to work with those farmers, foragers and fishermen was like being handed gold,’ says Gill, characteristically humble about the experience. ‘I am very grateful for having a life in food that extends beyond the kitchen.’
Now Gill, Alice, their second daughter Coco, (12) and Isla (now 19 and studying at college) live in a converted summerhouse perched on the brow of a valley over-looking the sea. The house, which was once a wooden structure with a dirt floor, has been extended into the hillside itself with large windows framing the ever-changing vista of woodland, sea and sky. It is a home that speaks of simplicity and warmth.
These days Gill pursues his own interests to a greater extent and has returned to the campfires of his youth. ‘Gathering around a fire is such a simple and rewarding thing to do,’ he says. ‘It is a primeval instinct and it’s only really here in the Western world that we have lost that connection and the skills that come with it.’ For Gill, cooking is a respectful return to the fundamentals. Of sourcing the simplest, best quality ingredients, to be then prepared and eaten in mindful appreciation.
This elemental ritual of gathering over food is documented, in all places, on the underside of Gill’s dining table. Handmade by his carpenter father it serves as both guest book and testimony, the tangle of signatures confirming Gill’s place among this coastlines greatest chefs.
Gather by Gill Meller, £25 Quadrille Books.