Meet River Cottage Chef Gill Meller, the Gourmet Hunter-Gatherer

English chef Gill Meller is set to impress guests at a gourmet weekend event at Cape Kidnappers in June


British chef Gill Meller, of River Cottage fame, presents his new cookbook at Cape Kidnappers in June. Picture / Andrew Montgomery

Anyone keen to flip the traditional steak tartare on its head would do well to try Gill Meller’s farm-meets-ocean version: rare mutton with pan-roasted oysters and tempura-fried wild garlic flowers.

“It’s quite a chefy, interesting dish in the sense that oysters are usually served raw and mutton cooked,” says the head chef at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage empire, and the latest high profile creative set to host a weekend at Cape Kidnappers. From June 2-4, food lovers – and anyone who has swooned over Hugh’s quiet right-hand-man on the cooking school’s oh-so-British TV show – can pretend they’re in the rolling greens of Dorset, when Gill brings his expertise to the luxury Hawkes Bay getaway.

These days the chef is spending less time in Hugh’s shadow. The Cape Kidnappers event is one stop on his promotional tour for his new cookbook Gather, which has also taken him to the US and Australia.

That’s given him a platform to discuss his food philosophy, one refreshingly removed from the chaos of the commercial kitchen, and more in touch with the land. As a 12-year-old he picked field mushrooms, cooked them on the fire and ate them in the branches of a tree. He’s since been heavily influenced by his 11 years at River Cottage in the idyllic southwest coast of England, where he has access to the farm’s livestock, vegetable and herb garden.

READ: Where to Stay: The Farm at Cape Kidnappers

“It’s a fantastic place to work if you’re a chef,” says Gill, who lives in Lyme, a small fishing village in Dorset. “It’s so different to working in a restaurant. Because it’s a cookery school the hours aren’t so difficult or unsociable. The produce is incredible, very varied. And we’re always meeting new people: authorities and experts on food production and food, something you don’t get in an every-day restaurant situation. Ingredients and provenance are very important to me. It underpins a lot of what my food is about. The way it’s produced, where it’s produced and how it’s produced are really important. Ethics are a big concern – I take it really seriously.”

Inevitably that will mean tweaking his dishes to suit our seasonal produce, but anyone thinking he’ll be getting on his soapbox can breathe easy the Cape Kidnappers weekend will be a relaxed affair. On the Friday night, over a glass of wine or two, Gill will give an informal reading of Gather. The book features the comforting yet refined dishes he’s known for: rabbit ragu served with fresh pappardelle; black pudding with sage, onion and duck eggs; honey cake with coriander seed, spelt and orange — not to mention a few recipes with squirrel. Saturday morning will start with an expedition to the property’s vegetable gardens and forest, to forage for produce for a cooking class. (As for picking mushrooms, Gill promises he’ll be doing his research beforehand).

READ: The Best Food in Hawke's Bay

“I’ve got a wonderful five-course supper on the cards, featuring dishes from the book, cooked by myself and the team there at the restaurant,” he says of the meal, which will be matched to wines from Hawke's Bay’s Alpha Domus. “There will also be more intimate time spent together talking food and cooking and food writing.”

No doubt talk will turn to the definition of modern British food, which Gill says means different things to different people.

“The common ground is a simple approach to cooking. There are no frills, no molecular gastronomy at play, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s about really paring things back and making the food and ingredients the star of the show. Sometimes there’s no need to have lots of different components to a dish. Mine quite often have three or four things on the plate that complement each other really well. The right combination of textures and flavours. It’s about getting the balance across those elements right.”

TRY: Gill Meller's Recipe for Honey Cake with Coriander Seed, Spelt and Orange

• Gather at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, with River Cottage chef Gill Meller, is on June 2-4. Ticket are $1700 + GST per person, based on double occupancy. This includes: two nights’ suite accommodation, fireside discussion of Gather, cooking demo, pre-dinner drinks and canapes, full daily breakfast and complimentary non-alcoholic mini-bar, gourmet dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, including wine pairings on the Saturday, plus guest's choice of a day of unlimited green fees or a 50-minute spa treatment per person per stay. For ticketing information visit capekidnappers.com

• Gather, $49.99 published by Hardie Grant, is out now.

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