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Interview: Bill Sewell, restaurateur

24 March 2017

‘People must want things to be different. It’s no good blaming McDonald’s for obesity’

The thing linking every café and restaurant I’ve created and run is 100 per cent home-made, fresh food.


Nearly all the cafés I’ve been involved with have been in churches or cathedrals, starting with The Place Below in the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow, via The Refectory at St Davids Cathedral, and on to the current two: Café@All Saints in Hereford, and Michaelhouse Café in St Michael’s, on Trinity Street in Cambridge. I’ve loved every one of them — they’re all such individual places.


I can’t have a favourite. It’s like asking me who my favourite child is.


I absolutely love eating out in really good, really straightforward places. Well-done simple food is really difficult to do. Anything simple is difficult: ask any poet. The same with music: some of loveliest music is plainchant, but put in a note wrong and it’ll sound awful. Every­thing’s got to be just right, even for a ploughman’s: good bread; the chutney’s balance between sweet and sharp; the cheese ripe and not too ripe. That’s surprisingly difficult to achieve day after day after day.


I’d love to create a new place. I’m not 20 any more, but if the right place came up near me I’d like to try something outside the church set­ting, because I sometimes wonder if I could compete in the secular market, which is getting more com­petitive every year. I’d be freer to do what I want with the space and opening hours.


Churches and cathedrals are par­ticular in respect of both the build­ings and the communities and con­­grega­tions to which they belong. I and my cafés are both partners and guests. It’s a huge privilege, but also challenging. The timescale is dif­­ferent from the commercial world: St Davids Cathedral started talking about putting a refectory into their adjacent hall in the 1930s. We fin­ally opened in 2005.


I’ve always loved food, but the turning-point came at university, when I was studying history at Trinity College, Cambridge. At the time, I was a vegetarian, and the college provided truly awful food for vegetarians. So I started cooking for my friends, and found that I was enjoying that more than my history degree.


When I left Cambridge, I spent a couple of years cooking in a very simple but excellent vegetarian café in Westminster. I subsequently spent brief periods in other restaur­ants, including working as the pastry chef at Launceston Place in Kensington. But I’ve also learnt a lot from books: mainly The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book.


One of the things I love about food and cooking is that it is a never-ending journey of learning. I was a vegetarian for ten years, and my first two cookbooks were vegetarian, but I’m now enthusiastically omniv­orous. I’m increasingly interested in flavour and freshness. I’m bored by fancy presentation, and thrilled by freshly baked sourdough bread with slow-cooked brisket and spiced carrot and green-bean salad.


My vegetarianism started the first day I worked on a chicken farm on a kibbutz in Israel. It ended when I was on holiday in France and was offered crudités for a starter, and then again as a main course, while my friends were tucking into moules and coq au vin. But I still love good vegetarian food. And we always buy free-range chicken and pork from farms I visit, whether for home or the cafés. I want to know that the animals have been looked after properly.


Yes, food’s a spiritual issue. One of the things we are is what we put in our mouths. Eating should bind us together — but, at the same time, the division between filling our­selves with junk food and feasting on proper freshly cooked food is one of the great social dividers of our age, and probably most other ages, too.


Change has to come from people wanting things to be different. It’s no good blaming McDonald’s for obesity. We have to open our chil­dren’s eyes to the joys of proper food, so that eating well becomes something people want to do, not something they feel they should be doing.


I’m always astonished by perfectly wealthy people complaining about paying £3 for an artisan loaf. For me, that represents a vast amount of happiness for a tiny outlay, a won­derful sourdough loaf for less than the price of a greasy burger. That makes me angry, actually.


I don’t find it odd that people want to watch cookery shows. We watch Bake-Off and enjoy it a lot, but it’s not really about the food: it’s about the human angle.


I do find it odd that people don’t want to cook. It’s not just that it’s nice in the end when you eat it: it’s the most delightful process. This morning, I was scooping liquid spianata dough into a tray and letting it bubble and rise; and we had soup and this beautiful bread for lunch. The whole thing was lovely from start to finish.


Food doesn’t work well with im­­patience. You’ve got to give it its time. It’s like, do you want to get Grade 6, or do you want to make a beautiful sound on your guitar or flute? Getting Grade 6 is fine, but it’s not a thing of joy or beauty. Cooking is about appreciating the beauty of a crisp crust or chewy inside, and it’s a truly sensuous thing.


Bill’s Kitchen is a summary of my view of the world in recipe format. It’s about simple pleasure and joy in the world around us. To take an example: tamarind and chilli roast chicken with coconut and lentil rice. First of all, this makes my mouth water just to read the title. Next, I think of the way it cooks: the marinated chicken roasting on top of the rice, so that the chicken juices cook into the rice, sharp with tamarind and sweet with coconut. Next, I think of the chickens: the ones we use come from Springfield Farm just outside Leominster, and I’ve visited and seen the fantastic conditions these chickens live in. Last, I think of the smiles of pleasure of our customers and my family and friends eating the chicken and rice. Happiness from start to finish.


The other exciting thing about this book is that I’m publishing it via the Kickstarter crowdfunding set-up. This means that I have total creative control over the book. For 30 days from 1 May, people will be able to order advance copies of the book and various other food-related goodies on the Kickstarter website, and those pre-orders will pay for the printing of the book. It seems to me like a great way of using the internet.


My most requested recipe is slightly bizarre: it’s called the Health Bowl, and it’s a kind of hippy recipe using whole-grain rice, Puy lentils, mush­rooms, celery, fresh coriander, sweet potatoes, balsamic dressing. It’s quite a brown plate of food which we serve with salsa and quiche, but it’s everyday kind of food: vegan and with the full complement of amino acids.


I’m not fasting in Lent this year. Every day, there are recipes to test and photograph for the book, and I can never resist a home-made Chelsea bun or some pulled pork.


Easter comes around asparagus time, and in Herefordshire we’re absolutely passionate about that; so we’ll be eating asparagus with new potatoes and ham with Hollandaise sauce, and that’s a matter of massive joy.


My first experience of God was through my mum reading Bible stories to me, and saying prayers at bedtime, when I was probably about five. I was very involved in the school Christian Union, and have been a member of a church con­­gregation ever since. But these days I’m a pretty irreligious churchgoer and churchwarden. But what I think now is that it doesn’t really matter what I believe. The world is the way it is regardless of what I think or believe.


When I’m not working, I like playing tennis and, surprise, sur­prise, cooking and eating. I’m prob­ably happiest having a fry-up with Sarah and the kids after the Satur­day park run. My favourite sound is the sound of my family chatting and joking over supper.


Undoubtedly, my parents have been the biggest influence on my life. My mum, for her simultaneous com­­mitment to her business and her family, and my Dad, for his under­­standing of people; and both of them for making me feel I was an OK and loved human being.


I feel utterly hopeful for the future. The coming generation are creating a fantastic world of opportunity. I do not buy the line that everything is awful for young people now.


I do pray, as it’s hard-wired into my brain and I can’t really help it. Self­ishly, I only really pray for my­­self and my family.


If I was to be locked in a church for few hours with a companion, I’d choose George Eliot for her wis­dom and humanity; and Andrew Mottram, who’s the priest who led the transformation of All Saints’, Hereford, to keep us laughing while someone found the keys.


Bill Sewell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.billscafes.co.uk/bills-kitchen-book

Forthcoming Events

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

20 October 2021
Does the parish need saving?
Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

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