The new cookery school and café at Square Food Foundation is situated in Daventry Park, Knowle West, south of Bristol, in a residential area best reached with a detailed map, clear directions and a dose of chutzpah.
When you arrive you enter a huge, open-plan, purpose built cafeteria-canteen: excited children are eating their lunch, chefs are running in all directions finishing service and clearing up, goodie bags are being filled with cakes straight out of the oven and there is a buzz and sense of purpose that is infectious and inspiring in equal measure. You will want to throw on an apron and join in.
The vision and mandate of Square Food Foundation is bold and compelling, and its founder, Chef and food campaigner Barny Haughton, is very clear about what he wants to achieve. As we sat together drinking coffee he told me some of his ideas.
“We are set up as a Community Interest Company and we are working to create an affordable and cookery school and food learning experience which is accessible to all people of all ages and backgrounds. We would like for the whole of the Bristol community as well as visitors from outside to see us as a link, one that creates a bridge between the consumer and the new world of food, agriculture, global economies and sustainability. It’s not just about lifestyle cooking for a dinner party, but also about thinking where food comes from.”
Courses range from short, hands-on kitchen sessions, including one pot wonder cooking, the perfect steak and chips, fish suppers, perfect puddings, seasonal salads and knife skills to more intensive six week back to basics, bread making, butchery and fish cookery courses. Prices are extremely reasonable, with most day courses being £75, or half the going rate at upmarket cookery schools in city centres or on country estates. Children’s courses cost just £15 an hour and a combined parent-child workshop is only £55 for 3 recipes in two and a half hours.
In many ways Square Food is at the vanguard of a new wave of centres of excellence for food learning, such as UNISG, the University of Gastronomy in Bra, Piemonte, in Northern Italy, pioneered by Carlo Petrini of the Slow Food movement. There students are able to learn all about the origins of food, the place and the people from which it comes and the impact the food chain has on the planet through transportation, preparation and distribution. Barny is one of UNISG’s tutors and for many years he has been a prolific campaigner, writer, commentator and supporter of the organic food movement and sustainable agriculture, working with both the Soil Association and Slow Food. Education is at the core of his beliefs.
“Food education in Britain for many years has been a middle class issue. Even the peasant food of many European cultures is now eaten in gastro-pubs where educated, professional people have come to appreciate its qualities. Yet for those who are of lower incomes or struggling, there is an absence of food culture. What we are aiming to do here is to use the same language, the same ingredients, the same methodology that you would use in, say, teaching people how to cook a dinner party, but instead show people how you can cook a good meal for £5 or £10 worth of raw ingredients. And that meal can be seasonal, well sourced and delicious.”
The Square Food initiative seems, in many ways, an organic, natural progression for Barny, famous for having created the seminal Quartier Vert restaurant in Bristol almost a quarter of a century ago, followed by the very successful Bordeaux Quay cookery school, six years ago.
He was a pioneer in raising awareness of food chains, animal welfare, waste, organic agriculture and the important role played by all cooks and growers in the food chain and the future of the planet when these thoughts and concepts were in the fringes of collective consciousness. At the Square Food Foundation the metier and the master have found their roosting place, and Barny feels that a grass root change is coming.
“There is no doubt that in the future, analysing food security and the deepening recession, we are all going to have to make do with less. But that does not mean we have to eat bad food or take away food. The meal is the very corner stone of all our courses, and sitting down to eat it and appreciate it is fundamental to our day: I want to show people the great power of the creation of that meal. Cooking is of great benefit to everyone, regardless of what ability they are. It is also transformative and therapeutic for mental health, it gives people confidence.There is definitely a food revolution taking place: foraging, pop up restaurants and community farm gardens are all initiatives coming from the people, connecting people back to the land, communities and to good food. These initiatives are not driven by profit, they are driven by individuals reclaiming ownership of the food they eat. These are exciting times for food education.”
Barny grew up in a family of good food and he remembers his grandmother cooking with the garlic, polenta, pasta and good vegetables that were introduced into the British kitchen by Elizabeth David’s writings. He has inherited his granny’s annotated first edition of one of her books. After an education at Ampleforth, a Benedictine Abbey private school in Yorkshire, Barny felt unable to tell his parents that all he wanted to do was cook, as in his era that was not “the done thing”. Nowadays, of course, it is cool to be cooking, and he is heartened, in his many roles as food judge and ambassador for the Organic Food Awards and the Academy of Culinary Arts, about how many young people he meets for whom cooking is a passion and a life-enhancing experience.
“I meet so many young people who are changing the perception of cooking. They are returning to the land, to the sources of good food, and it is encouraging that they are not at all “cheffy” or pretentious. I heard a young Chef talking from The Ethicurean restaurant at a recent event, and I was so moved by the way he viewed the transformational power of cooking in life. There is a great future in British cooking when such people are working in the industry.”
As we take a tour around the school it is clear to see that functionality and ergonomics are key: the huge space is purpose built to house working tables in the middle, equipment shelves to one side, and huge, industrial sized catering ovens, stoves, fridges, washing up sinks and dishwashers lined up in rows. There is plenty of light and storage space and there is a very comforting smell of baking and frying going on around you.
The enterprise is run on a limited budget, and therefore there are no extra frills or fashionable gadgets to be seen: this is a real, working kitchen that produces lunches for school children and for the myriad of other businesses that are based in the business and community park at Knowle West. The café kitchen and cookery school kitchen are one and the same: the cafe is run by Liz Haughton, Barny's sister, and the general running of the cookery school is managed by Claire Allen, one of the team from Bordeaux Quays. In fact, other than the location, nothing else has changed. The staff, their knowledge and experience have all come with Barny.
The leitmotiv of Square Food is “cook, eat, live better”. Four simple words that will create positive change for many people in this community. There are even “Pan Amnesty” events organised, when people from the surrounding neighbourhoods are invited to bring in the kitchen equipment they no longer use, so that they can be recycled amongst those families on social benefits who do not have the means to purchase their own.
And there are even more plans afoot. Once Square Food Foundation is well on its way, with its 6 teachers and 4 admin staff running the show independently, Barny hopes to set up another wing of the school in the Tobacco Factory building in Raleigh Road Bristol. He also aims to continue teaching at UNISG, cycling to Terra Madre reunions with his friend, food writer Matthew Fort, to raise money for the Foundation and to continue making a difference to the lives of countless people for whom food is a lifeline in more ways than one.
Square Food Foundation: www.squarefoodfoundation.co.uk
Follow the team on Twitter: @squarefood
Follow Barny on Twitter: @BarnyHaughton