Restaurant Forage in Bury St Edmunds is injecting fun into finding and presenting food, as Nicola Miller found out
When it comes to the excitement of food and eating, we lose as much as we gain as we grow into adulthood. Think about how a baby approaches its meals, the unself-conscious deployment of all five senses as new ingredients are explored, accepted or rejected. Whilst writing this I saw a gif of a small baby’s legs as it sat in a highchair being fed delicious things. Legs kicking, wriggling and dancing, her pleasure was whole-body, her delight and exploration visceral. And whilst I am not suggesting we all sit in highchairs, gurgling, there’s much to be learned from this open and whole-hearted approach to food and now there’s a place where you can do just this.
Walk down a long paved drive edged with oaks and piles of deep leaf litter, until you arrive at a farmyard, home to Blackthorpe Barns and now, the new Forage Kitchen School and Restaurant Forage housed in a converted outbuilding. Exploration and fun underpin everything they do here. There’s no need to worry about not knowing the proper culinary terms and names of ingredients or mispronouncing anything. The ethos for both staff and guests is ‘find out and have fun doing so’ and to facilitate this, the business has flattened out the industry structures that can get in the way of a relaxing experience.
There are no stuffy waiters and complicated place settings. There’s no starched white napery to spill your food on, the chefs that cook your food do not have dark circles from 90-hour weeks, and most important of all, they are not there to judge your knowledge. As a guest, you are feet away from an extremely calm kitchen and pass with an eye level view and whilst this can feel a little unusual at first, owner Mel Evans is reassuring: “Your brain might be going ‘this isn’t normal,’ but it’s also opening up to new experiences and you’re looking a bit harder. Diners might be a little reserved during the first course, but then they open up.”
I can attest to this. When I ate there, I walked into the low lit and cosy space, my coat was taken, a drink proferred and time was spent talking to the other guests before we were all invited to take our seats at the table closest to the pass. By the time the first course was served, the barriers between staff and customers had disappeared. It was not unlike a meal at a friend’s home in many ways.
A big reason for the relaxing vibe is the presence of the two chefs, Ryan Edgeworth and Rik Withers, who not only prepare your food but serve it up too whilst explaining the thinking behind the dishes placing them in the context of the season, and supplier. “There’s nobody better to explain the food than the person who made it,” Mel says. “And chefs get to learn from diners, too,” adds Rik. “It’s great to have constant feedback, straight from the customer, negative and positive. Customers can see us making changes as we prep the food in front of them.”
For Rik, working at Forage Kitchen feels like a brand new experience “rather than yet another restaurant”. “There’s a real flow,” he adds, stressing the importance of work-life balance in this; something that the hospitality industry has historically not concerned itself too much with. In fact, Mel, Rik and Ryan are keen to emphasise the customer’s experience at their restaurant will not come at the expense of the chef’s wellbeing. “So many people in hospitality are falling out of love with the industry due to the pressures,” says Rik. “We’re trying to bring balance.” Both chefs agree it’s good to have a boss who is a family man. “We’ve done the 90-hour weeks,” says Ryan, “but you become a robot. You can work like that in the right environment, plating up 60 to 70 covers per service, everything looking the same but here we do smaller numbers, there’s attention to detail when you do three services per week (as we do).”
“Every dish will go out as we imagine it, how we want it to look,” Mel tells me. “We just want to have a bit of fun, not formal but relaxed service. We want to be inclusive.”
I am intrigued by the thought processes of chefs. They marry the intensely practical and the rote, with an aesthetic sensitivity most of us can only dream about. Theirs is an instinct honed by time and experience, a marriage between artistry and craft. What inspires them? How do they arrive at a dish? When I arrived to interview the team, I was introduced to a new addition to the team, the Evogro, a giant glowing LED-lit contraption filled with trays of seedlings, some of which were familiar to me and some which were not, all grown hydroponically. Try them, offered Mel, fetching a tiny pair of scissors. He passed me snippets of jagallo nero, red Russian kale, amaranth, and the Mexican marigold whose coumarin compounds (seven identified so far) contribute to their fragrant scent, which on this day had a strong note of green mandarin and tarragon. The chefs have been designing a palate-cleansing dish around it: a sheeps milk yoghurt crowned with a brilliant green marigold granita made from its leaves. The yoghurt reminded me a little of Mexican quesa fresca (fresh cheese) with its gentle, lactic riminess and it made me think about instinct in the kitchen and the way the chefs arrived at pairing it with another Mexican ingredient – the marigold leaves and stems.
“We’re about new flavours as opposed to just new ingredients,” says Mel, talking about the herbs and microgreens they are growing. “A new flavour is a rolling ball with regards to what can be paired with it.” Trying things out and having the freedom to do so is central to Forage Kitchen. “I was literally driving down the road and asked myself ‘Is that edible?’ when I saw something growing in a ditch near Soham,” Ryan tells me. That turned out to be mugwort, a plant which turned out to be grown by Chinese families local to him and it ended up as mugwort butter.
“We want to cook with plants grown by Bill down the road or bought from Gordon at the village fete. We want to take produce from them,” says Mel. He’d like to start partnering with regional producers large and small. “We’re being approached but if you are a produce supplier please get in touch.”
The demonstration arm of the business – Forage School – works with Fergus who leads their day forage courses after which attendees return to a demonstration from the chefs, using found ingredients. The course includes a three-course meal with a glass of wine and soft drinks and at £75 this is extremely good value when you think of the expertise at your disposal.
Their pigeon comes from the gamekeeper at Rougham Estates, their smoked eel from Orford, their carrots from Ryan’s father-in-law. “To forage is to obtain by searching. This is what it means. If we’re finding the best suppliers, that’s foraging,” Mel states firmly. We talk about the underused resource of American signal crayfish which are overpopulating our local waterways at the expense of our native crayfish and about the excellent British langoustines which are shipped abroad instead of being appreciated here. Mel, Rik, and Ryan are not pedantic about mileage. They are about finding the best – and most interesting – ingredients and not all of these are available within a five-mile radius.
In this way, the day courses at Forage Cookery School feed into the restaurant and vice versa. There’s a ‘Game: Nose to Tail’ day, where chefs along with the gamekeeper from the local estate demonstrate how to prepare and cook local produce. The school’s website is filled with interesting courses (including how to use Thermomix ®, and breadmaking) and plans are afoot to go further afield to other parts of the country. On the first Thursday of every month is the chefs’ table night with a set menu of 8-10 courses of experimental dishes and a few surprises where guests can feedback directly to the chefs via a scoring system. “It’s just as exciting to serve people who are yet to discover the flavours we serve here as well as more knowledgable guests,” says Rik.
“We find that once we explain how we created some of the more obscure dishes, people understand them and they score them higher.”
The food can be quite playful at times. When I ate there we were served a whipped pumpkin custard with salted dark chocolate and marshmallow and burnt honey ice cream on a graham cracker with candied pecans. It looked exquisitely complicated in its construction like an edible neolithic monument, but we were told to “Just smash it up, give it a big whack it tastes better like that,” and the entire table went at that pudding as if our spoons were wrecking balls. This harks back to what I was saying about being able to have fun with food, to play with it. To be serious about good food but not po-faced in its eating.
“We’re telling the story of how we like to cook,” says Ryan and it’s a story I want to hear more about.
Restaurant Forage is available for private dining, as well as a space for guest chefs and special events. Forage Cookery School runs cookery and foraging courses throughout the year, as well as some food trips planned for 2019 Booking is via the website, call 01359 720350 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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