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Chef Stories: James Strawbridge
James Strawbridge is a chef and food photographer based in Cornwall. He produces cookbooks for a living, develops recipes and can be found foraging for wild food with his family.
We collaborated with James back in the summer and he created a delicious Shakshuka recipe which was hugely popular with our pioneers. After seeing the response from everyone, we wanted to learn more about the way he lives and how he develops his own style, so we met up again to break some bread.
"Foraging is all about celebrating what's in season. The fantastic thing about it is that it's free, it tastes great and it's as fresh as you can get"
You’ve been selected as a Pioneer for &SONS - What’s your definition of the word Pioneer?
To me, a pioneer is someone who's got an adventurous spirit and loves exploring where they live.
I absolutely adore cooking in Cornwall and finding great ingredients from around the coast and inside the county. It's not just about finding and discovering new things; it's about celebrating what's on your doorstep. I absolutely love the idea of a pioneer nowadays, being someone who's unafraid of trying things for themselves.
Tell us your story. How did you begin your career and what led you here?
My story began in kitchens a long time ago. My first job was washing pots and pans. I went to university to study Environmental History and I became very interested in sustainable living. I ran a small holding where we went self-sufficient. It was all about growing your own food and at the same time, I was working in kitchens. It’s where I learned the value of producing food and then cooking it in order to reduce waste and celebrate good ingredients.
Over many years, I've changed my career slightly. I've done a bit of TV presenting. I've done quite a lot of cookbooks; my 12th book is out next year. I love writing. But for me, my real passion is food, photography, cooking, sharing stories about great ingredients and promoting local produce.
In your work, what values do you cherish the most?
The values I cherish most in my work are family. I work from home and it's taken a long time to get that to be a successful way of balancing family work life. I did work quite a lot in kitchens. I was an executive chef in restaurants, I’ve done hard services and I have to say I don't miss it. My real success story is getting to cook and feed my friends and family. I think it's all about engaging with my children and my wife. We work together as a team. My children are home educated, so I'm teaching them first-hand about how to cook, the value of where your food comes from and how that makes an impact on your health, both physical and mental.
What 3 words best describe you?
It's a pretty difficult question to say what three words best describe me, but I would probably go for, passionate, excitable and enthusiastic. I also would probably say, I like being challenged and am a sucker for hard graft. That makes me my own worst enemy sometimes. I think for me there's the combination of being passionate about what I do, being enthusiastic and loving hard work. I do get a buzz out of doing lots of different things.
Tell us a bit more about your creative process.
My creative process begins very often with pen and paper. Sketching out an idea, thinking of keywords and ingredients. I tend to draw a plate or an idea to create a dish. I then start thinking very much about colours. It's a bit like choosing what clothes to wear. I love a pallet that matches an ingredient, so I'll be looking at the plates. My wife is a ceramicist, so she makes quite a lot of the plates I use. I’ll then write up the recipe and sometimes do videos – it's an organic but well-trodden process now because I can produce a lot of recipes each week. I think I'm very lucky. I'm like one of those chefs who constantly has an evolving specials board. There's always a different menu for the day.
What do you do for inspiration?
For inspiration, I paint and I get outside. I love taking an oil canvas or some pen and ink, going to a bit of coastal path and painting the view. Music is also massive for me. I am a passionate banjo player. I've been learning and having lessons and it's my favourite thing to do in my spare time. Very often, stepping away from the kitchen and away from food just fuels my interest in it again, with fresh perspectives. Another thing I love to do is grow and produce and forage for food. I think that then gives me a different angle when I get back into the kitchen and decide what to cook.
Who inspires you?
I think that I've gone through many changes in my life growing up, I love my family. There are people out there who have taught me a lot, but I'm very much proud of having taught myself many of the skills through research, through trial and error. I've struggled with a society where our teachers and our leaders aren't the characters I would like to follow. There aren't actually many people who inspire me, which is a really odd answer.
I love hearing stories from experts, speaking to cheese makers and getting tips about their processes and visiting the butchers. The humble ‘grassroots’ people who do what they do day in, day out. Those are the people that I maybe draw inspiration from. I wouldn't say that I buy into that whole having a favourite chef thing. I think the danger with that is it becomes a bit of that copycat culture around food, and I like trying to be as honest and personal as possible with what I create. So almost deliberately, not being inspired by people is the way I like to go.
What brands inspire you?
I think the sort of brands that inspire me are ones that don't just focus on fashion and aesthetics but are more embedded in culture and practical day-to-day workwear. I like brands like Finisterre for Waterproofs and cold-water activities, things that I need to be dressed appropriately for in Cornwall!
I love &SONS for their work wear. If I'm cooking a barbecue, I want to be dressed appropriately. I think also brands like Le Creuset, heritage brands that offer a good quality kit, it costs more, but it lasts longer. I think that's the culture I love around what I choose to buy and the brands I follow.
"From a mental health point of view, cooking outdoors engages you with fire and forces you to slow down. As soon as you cook outdoors, you're not only feeding your friends and family, you're looking after yourself, and I think that's really important"
We know that mental health is really important, what do you do to help your mental health?
I've been on a long journey with mental health. I used to suffer from depression and damaged myself through too much alcohol and drugs. It’s a harsh perspective but I think it's very easy to feel sorry for yourself when you are feeling sad and I've been there. But when you move on, you realise you get out of life what you put into it.
If I'm feeling depressed or worried about the state of my mental health then I go out for a long walk or I go and get in a gig boat and row really hard at sea until I feel like I'm fu***ng Viking. I push myself.
I think it’s also important to not deprive yourself of the good things in life. It's about developing balance. I love a good glass of wine, a nice cider or a beer at the end of a hard week. I try not to punish myself for anything and instead reward myself for hard work and all of the times that I've struggled by acknowledging that at the end of a working day.
I think mental health is a massive issue. My dad has always been quite a good role model with this sort of thing. He always says, “just fu****g do it. Just get on, find a way out of it.” For me, that is hard work and play and just, enjoying life.
What is your favourite piece from the &SONS Collection?
I think my favourite piece from the &SONS collection is probably the Crew Pants. They've got all sorts of utility belt gadgets that are a chef's dream, especially for outdoor cooking where you need grill tongs and multiple spoons for tasting, I'm really impressed with those. The knee pads as well are great cause when you're cooking outdoors at ground level, you want to be able to get up and down and have that mobility.
The Crew Pants featured in these images are coming soon!
What is your wardrobe essential? The piece you couldn’t live without.
My wardrobe essential has to be a hat. I wear quite a few different hats for my jobs. Sometimes I'm a food photographer and sometimes I'm a writer. Other times I’m presenting or ‘cheffing’. So, what hat attire I choose to put on massively makes a difference to my mood and my mojo. If I'm playing the banjo, I'll wear a wide-brimmed hat. If I'm cooking in a kitchen, it'll be a baseball cap back backwards. I love choosing hats to give me that extra little push.
What is your favourite album, artist or Spotify playlist?
My favourite is a bit like what hat I choose to put on. It depends on what I'm cooking and the mood I'm in. I'd say at the moment I’m enjoying some Bootleg Rascals.
Any recommendations on the best podcast to listen to?
I don't really listen to podcasts but if I was suggesting one, I would say "Breakfast and Beyond” by Tia Tamblin. She does a really cool podcast. I appeared on it and had a chat with her about sustainability and life in general. I also produced a podcast called “Greengrass and Hide Tides” which was named after an Outlaws track but I haven't actually listened to anybody else's podcast, so I'm a bit behind the curve with that one.
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