GUEST BLOG: V is for eVeryone

Blog by
Ian Nottage
Chef Director, Reynolds

When I was first approached to get involved with the Peas Please project, to be honest I did have some reservations. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but over the years there have been a whole raft of very worthwhile projects aimed at improving the nation’s health through diet, particularly that of the young. Whether it’s cooking in schools, health by stealth, cookery demonstrations and workshops, junior chef competitions or teaching parents about nutrition the list goes on. In short, many have tried and failed. And, trying to change that flow can feel like pushing water up hill and, to be honest, pretty draining and even soul destroying at times.

But, people working in our industry will be aware more than most of the obesity crisis and the junk diets followed by so many. The fact remains that the majority of the country simply isn’t eating enough fruit and vegetables, nature’s own medicine if you like, which is linked to heart disease, cancers and many other preventable illnesses.

Most chefs that have cooked in schools will tell you how heart breaking it can be when a child tells them that they don’t like vegetables or, worse still, that they cannot recognise a basic fruit or vegetable like a blueberry or a carrot – let alone where it comes from and how it grows (and believe me this does happen, frequently).

So, once the initial cynicism had died down and I had a chance to gather my thoughts, I decided that it was too easy to shrug my shoulders and do nothing. Yes, I work for a greengrocer and encouraging more people to eat fresh produce is good for business. But, actually, as a parent it feels like the right thing to do. And, as Vice-chairman of the Craft Guild of Chefs, I would hope I’m in a position to open a few doors.

In my day job as Chef Director of a greengrocer, I spend a lot of time working closely with our customers, which include high street restaurant and pub groups, care homes, schools and universities, contract caterers and hotels. Our role is to come up with innovative, appetising and appealing plant-based dishes that, as well as being within budget, have a wider appeal than to vegetarians. We want to produce delicious food, with mass appeal, that happens to be suitable for vegetarians. Personally, I believe that this approach is the biggest and best way to increase the nation’s consumption of fruit and veg.

I think that more people than ever are bought into the ‘you are what you eat’ camp. And that’s great, because people who are health conscious are pretty menu savvy and will find the healthier options naturally. But, for many at least, ‘healthy’, ‘good for you’, or ‘vegetarian’ actually means ‘boring’, ‘tasteless’ or ‘not for me’. Some individuals have become blind to these words and they switch off when they hear them. Who likes to be preached to?

For me, cooking dishes which are delicious and interesting on their own merits is the way forward. I think that, as chefs, we have a responsibility to make sure that we produce consistently great tasting, interesting meat free or veg biased dishes that appeal to a wide audience of all ages. The health benefits will follow on naturally from there. I also don’t advocate putting apologetic little (v) signs next to meat free dishes, as it can alienate the dish on the menu and suggests that it is exclusively for vegetarians.

I am certain that there will be lots of good work done by the various working groups on the Peas Please project. I am also very proud to be part of it. Now I am under no illusions that increasing the nation’s consumption of fruit and veg won’t be a quick fix or an easy task. If it was, then it would have been done already right? But what’s the alternative? Do we just give up and leave the problem to someone else? Do yourself a favour and get involved with Peas Please. Please.