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Steve Walpole: 24 hours of ideation to increase produce consumption

Jim Prevor
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Steve Walpole has had a storied career in the culinary world.

Today, his business, Steve Walpole Ltd., offers a range of culinary services tailored to meet client-specific needs whether for small start-up projects or big name brand name operations.

Walpole has been a food and cooking enthusiast since he started a Saturday restaurant job at the age of 15. He later attended the prestigious Westminster Kingsway College. Soon after beginning his foodservice career, he accepted a position at Britain’s House of Commons, rising from Commis to Senior Chef de Partie. He gained experience throughout the foodservice sector, including as Executive Chef at Corney & Barrow Bars, Senior Executive Development Chef position at Gate Gourmet, doing work with British Airways among other carriers, and as head of food for the Ugo Food Group. He also took time to return to Westminster Kingsway College, this time as a Chef Lecturer.

He has gained a host of college qualifications throughout his career and kudos including as Awards of Excellence winner in 2000, parade de chefs medals and roux scholarship finalist.

Walpole is an active member of the Academy of Culinary Arts and was a committee member of the Craft Guild of Chefs. He regularly appears on the judging panel for various prestigious awards competitions and shows such as The Annual Awards of Excellence with the Academy of Culinary Arts, The Craft Guild of Chefs and The Salon Culinaire International in London.


Steve recently headed up the Chef’s Stage of The London Produce Show and Conference, we asked Steven Loeb, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine to find out more:

Steve Walpole
Owner
Steve Walpole Ltd

Q: What were you hoping to deliver to guests at the London Produce Show, specifically using fruits and vegetables?

A: With things getting back to a sense of normality and opening up again, I was looking forward to seeing what new and exciting produce were available as well as how we have changed some of our thinking about ingredients and food. For me, the theatre was a focal point on how to champion fruits and vegetables as the hero ingredient, not just a side thought. How to use modern and classic techniques such as smoking, pickling, salting to make the most out of wonderful produce.

Q: In your career, you have seen various sides of the foodservice business, so how are you looking at trends now and what have you noticed that may be flying a little below the radar?

A: With the way media and food is so readily accessible, not much gets missed these days, which is wonderful as it’s very easy to pick up on trends and what’s happening. But what I have noticed is how sustainability, biodiversity and the ethical side of produce is becoming the focal point: more local and seasonal products, the steer towards organic or better quality produce. This has been a big part of the flexi movement and the rise of plant-based eating. It’s not just animal farming that has its issues. Its well documented how things like avocados, almonds can raise issues on water usage, labor and other issues related to ethical farming.

Q. How are larger foodservice trends affecting the way restaurants in the U.K. use fruits and vegetables in their menu development?

A: In the UK, we have seen a massive shift in menu design and development across all sectors with the changes to people’s eating habits. Vegan and vegetarian options are no longer the poorer relatives but in most cases the showcase with such a range of cuisines available and the rise of QSR and fine casual dining. That means being inventive and showcasing flavours and textures as well as global trends. So there is more focus on balancing dishes with fruits and vegetables that enhance the flavours and textures, as well as bring colour and variety. It’s a great time to be in food right now. For me, I feel we have turned a corner in accepting that food is about eating balanced, better quality and, most of all, having choice

Q: In what ways are trends in fruits and vegetables having an influence on how restaurants use them?

A: You will see lots of innovation coming from restaurants with named or unique varieties of produce, seasonality and provenance to try and boost innovation. Thanks to the plant-based movement, we are seeing more items used as alternatives to meat such as the humble mushroom or banana blossom, and more pickled, cured and smoked items to help bring new dimensions to dishes. It’s also helping to push the healthier and lighter side to menus.

Q: What consumer trends are influencing the use of produce at restaurants in the U.K., trends such as wellness and changing tastes among the public?

A: It’s the younger generations driving the current trends around food right now. It’s all about new and different flavours, fusing cuisines like Mexican and Japanese, Indian and Italian, vegan, flexitarian, dairy free. And sustainability. It’s about ethics and making a difference. So fresher, less processed items are the go to. Tastes have changed as the choice has increased. With everything from Korean kimchi to Peruvian ceviche at almost a touch of a smartphone. The food scene is having to strive harder to be different or be consistently good.

Q: How critical is produce in your developing dishes and menus as a chef?

A: Produce is so important and sometimes people forget what simple products we use on a day to day basis actually make the food memorable. How the sweetness from a carrot or sautéed onion can change a sauce. How wild garlic can give a colour and taste that can blow your taste buds away. Herbs in drinks, baking plums or peaches with spices, the list is endless. It’s understanding tastes, what’s bitter, sweet, sour, hot, meaty, earthy, salty, how cooking or preparation technique can change the taste, the textures and the uses. For me, it’s far more exciting to visit a place like the New Covent Garden Market and see 10 varieties of tomatoes or apples and realize they all taste differently or have different textures than to see a uniform presentation of more limited variety at a supermarket.

Q: What does produce provide that particularly appeals to you in the dimensions such as flavour, texture, colour, compatibility with other important or trending foods?

A: Food is about combinations and marriages of flavour. So what I can get from produce such as herbs, vegetables and fruits is a myriad of things that can bring something different to a dish from a simple parsnip crisp to a beetroot caviar. Because you can purée, roast, steam, dehydrate, pickle, salt, eat raw or juiced means we can experiment and play with textures from gels to foams, barbecue to liquid nitrogen. It’s honestly like being the Willy Wonka of fruits and vegetables. But suddenly you can have one product made into four different things all with different flavours and tastes. So with the current trend of being more sustainable and utilizing more of a product and less waste, fruit and veg come into their own, from stocks to turning trimmings into garnishes or additions.

Q: In your diverse experience, you have been able to experience a range of different perspectives on food, from instructing student chefs to developing upscale cuisine that can be finally prepared and presented on an airplane, so has your thinking about the development of dishes and menus, and the use of fruits and vegetables, change significantly in the different roles you’ve had to fill or have you certain basic criteria that you adjust to circumstances?

A: Due to the nature of some of my roles and the clients and students I have trained or worked with over the years, I have simplified my approach. I am a lot more aware of quality over quantity, and less can be more. Food can sometimes be so complicated and confusing. Some chefs try too hard to showcase techniques and multi-layered flavours, and that can overshadow the products or the intention of the dish. Using products at the right time of year or that are more local can make a huge difference on taste and cost.

Q: Do you think fundamentally differently about how to use fruits and vegetables in your dishes now than you did when you started out or is it more a matter of adapting to experience and changing tastes?

A: I would say it’s a number of factors, the biggest being how quality and variety have improved vastly. More focus has been put on all aspects of produce, from farming to sourcing. Therefore, how we use produce means more care and attention goes into getting the best out of it. I would also say as food has become simplified: It means using less commodities for garnishes or finishing, food trends changing and learning from other cuisines about how food techniques vary or products are used. That has greatly changed how and why I use produce.

Q: You started out working in kitchens from a young age, so what did you bring from your background, youth and/or early experience to your subsequent work as a chef?

A: I am lucky as I am from a generation that didn’t have a lot of the variety and choice we have today, so we learnt that you looked forward to spring for peas, asparagus, summer was always berries and broad beans. Autumn was the best, as it’s roots, mushrooms and squashes. So it was understanding about eating the best products at the best time. Also, we had to learn how to make the most out of products and produce as cost and wastage was always top priority. Therefore I am always conscious of waste, and why eat strawberries in December?

Q: Did you have particular teachers or role models that helped you along the way?

A: So many, and I could write pages, but my first kitchen job was in a restaurant called Taylors in Romford. It was run by a Cypriot family who did French cuisine as a day to day menu. But they did Greek nights every so often, so they took me to Cyprus, and I got to see traditional food being made and oranges and lemons growing in their garden, which inspired me so much. One of my role models is a chef called David Dorricott from when I worked at the House of Commons. He was the chef that taught me technique is a skill but understanding food is art. I realized I had spent 10 years learning how to cook but not really why we cook things or pair things together. So this was the light bulb moment that changed my direction, and I wanted to learn and understand the why of food, not just the how to cook.

Q: As you emerged as a professional chef, how did you develop your goals and pursue your career prospects?

A: It’s funny as I didn’t set any goals or career path as such. I literally just wanted to cook and learn about food, but then wanting to learn all aspects from kitchen to pastry, French to Indian. I started to also enjoy sharing my knowledge and skills to help teach people. That’s when I suppose the goals came in. I have worked with some amazing people that have taught me a lot and pushed me to keep going. Food is something we all need, but to be able to cook and make people happy through eating is a great feeling. So why not make a living out of it. Not many people get to do a job they love, but I do. Every day is different, and I can be in a different cuisine or country. I have been lucky but I have also made sure that I keep evolving and moving, because things move and change.

Q: Has travel been an important part of your professional journey and what have you encountered, especially regarding fruits and vegetables and their use in cooking, as you went from place to place?

A: This had the biggest impact on my culinary journey and knowledge of food, having been and cooked in most corners of the world from India to the U.S., Europe to the Far East. I became more aware that with cookery and food, it wasn’t always about technique but understanding. India was a revelation as regionally the use of spices and produce changed. Cookery and different influences from the Persians add something different from the north to the south. They use vegetables and fruits in so many ways and can make them taste amazing from tandoori to da. It made me go back to basics to understand the simplicity of food.

Q: What lessons did you learn early on in your career that helped propel you on your journey?

A: I learnt to put the effort in early and try and do as many things as I could to expand my skills and knowledge. That way I could use these skills to move on and up, as well as showcase my culinary talent in competitions and trade shows.

Q: You seem to relish variety, given all the different turns your career has taken, so do you feel you were evolving in your career or did you deliberately look for new challenges?

A: I think you always set yourself challenges, some conscious and some subconsciously. For me, it was about: What could I learn and what can I bring to the table? I didn’t want to stay still, as you can easily get comfortable or be happy at a set level, which is fine, but for me, I wanted to push on. Don’t get me wrong, some roles have been a huge challenge and out of my comfort zone, but sometimes you have to do it to test yourself.

Q: What do you have on your plate these days, so to speak, and what are you looking forward to in your career right now?

A: Currently, I run my consultancy business, so I have a few clients here in the UK and abroad. I feel I have gotten to a point that I can now look at what projects I want to do. I am enjoying the variety. I can be making plant based meals for airlines one day to alcohol jelly shots the next. I work across all sectors from retail to foodservice, airlines to oil rigs. So it can be fun. The great thing is it doesn’t matter if it’s fine dining or a ready meal, I get to work with food and produce. The challenge is making things great for the price or for the clients requirements.

Q: Do you have procurement preferences as regards produce, such as organic, local, exotic, etc., or do your preferences change depending on what role you have taken?

A: I will always start with the best I can within the price brackets I am working in. I feel it’s always better to come down the ladder than try and go back up. It’s difficult because different areas have different focuses, but the main goal is the same: I can still do great things with any produce. It’s just about what you do.

Q: In terms of your work at the show, can you detail some of your particular plans and how you will approach your efforts there?

A: Our efforts with the theatre are simple: We want to show people how you can have fun with produce and be creative with not much effort. We will be showing some recipes and dishes that highlight fruit and vegetables as the show piece. I will be calling on some chefs to help at the theatre to show how they are revolutionizing what they do and increasing the amount of produce items on their menus. We have some quality items to taste and sample, which will hopefully create some food for thought.

Q: What should people be on the lookout for in terms of how you will use produce?

A: Hopefully the use of techniques to enhance flavours. I have some secret weapons. I will be bringing some amazing products from Besmoke to bring out a Smokey flavour. We will be using my global influences to make dishes that will be flavours and tastes from different regions. The main thing is, you will leave with a new found love for a simple fruit or vegetable, and of course a little insight into my crazy food world.

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Running a kitchen is rarely an easy task, but culinary techniques are the only way to change dietary patterns in the short and medium term. We made a major three day investment at The London Produce Show and Conference to develop and present enticing recipes designed to facilitate an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

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