Interview: Richard H Turner, Hawksmoor

The Head Chef of famed steak restaurant, Hawksmoor, tells Jacqueline Culleton why he thinks that we need to use meat less often — and weighs up whether he should become a vegetarian.

Richard’s experimenting with more vegetable-based dishes in his new Borough Market restaurant

In your opinion, what are the biggest issues that will impact the way that we cook/eat in the future?

I am a butcher as well as chef, and I am very aware of how much meat and fish costs — both in monetary terms and environmentally. Access to cheap food has lulled us into a false sense of security and bred bad habits. I mean, just think about £2.99 chickens; it’s ridiculous.

We need to be much more careful with meat, using it less often, and using all of the animal. We don’t eat anywhere near enough offal. Is there anything better than devilled lambs’ kidneys?

We can then concentrate our time and money on eating as many well-grown and seasonal vegetables as possible.

When it comes to alternative protein, I like the idea of legumes but am not a fan of insects — I speaks from experience, having tried everything from tarantulas to water boatmen and locusts to scorpions — none of them are any good. I also have no faith in lab grown meat.

While Hawksmoor remains a steakhouse and proud, it’s changed since it opened a decade ago. We recommend smaller portions of meat — 300g instead of 400g — and we have ten vegetable side dishes and vegetable-only salads amongst the starters. There’s only so much you can do when customers to you specifically for meat!

Hawksmoor will continue to evolve its menus. The kitchen at our new restaurant at Borough Market is experimenting with more vegetables and cheaper cuts of meat. A menu that stays still is doomed; we can change peoples’ tastes.”

When it comes to the subject of protein specifically, what do you find to be the most compelling case for changing the way we think about meat?

I’m torn between wanting to become vegetarian and then thinking that it’s through being omnivorous that we have developed as we have. We can’t continue down this path, though, because it is now badly affecting our climate and health.

Intensively farmed animals taste less good and are less nutrient dense. I love the taste of meat, but it’s the ethics of it that trouble me — even as a butcher it is hard to navigate. I have to go and visit every farm I buy from — I’ve learned the hard way; people claiming their beef is from a small herd of free range Dexters and it turns out it’s nothing of the sort. So, I don’t trust many people any more.

What do you think the role of the chef is in changing our food habits?

I think we all have a big role to play as people look to chefs as arbiters as to what we do — we should take that mantle seriously.

I think we need to start with education — starting with kids and books, radio and TV — with messages about eating better quality and less meat because it’s not just good tor the environment but because it helps us live longer.

Which chefs to you look to for inspiration? And specifically when it comes to these kinds of issues, who inspires you?

I look to Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, for inspiration, as well as Raymond Blanc. Many chefs aren’t looking at this seriously enough though.

In a recent interview in The Times Richard you were quoted as saying about meat: “I don’t think you should be able to go and buy beef from your cornershop out of a freezer. It should be a special-occasion thing; you should eat it a few times a year, perhaps monthly…It’s a luxury and it should be a luxury…Apart from things like burgers, obviously. But when roast beef comes to the table, it should be an event. We are all eating too much of it because intensive farming has made beef of all sorts relatively cheap.” Elaborate on the burger comment.

This comment came from an ethical and sustainability view point — everyone wants to buy the prime cuts in the middle of the animal, but burgers are made from the bits left over. Otherwise there is a danger it could be wasted and that would just be scandalous.