Stella West-Harling

Stella West Harling

Stella West-Harling is an amazing woman.

Stella West-Harling was one of the pioneers of organic cooking, running one of Britain’s first organic restaurants in Oxford during the 1980s and she now runs the world class Ashburton Cookery School in Devon, which won the People’s Choice award last year at the British Cookery School Awards, and this year is a finalist for Best Large Recreational School, Best Large Professional School and Best use of Local Produce. The results are announced this month. It’s the second largest cookery school in the country and has been running for over 20 years.
I first met Stella at a lunch event a few years ago and told her then and there that I’d love to shoot her book for her. Luckily she remembered, and when she made the decision to write A Cook’s Book, she commissioned me to do the principal photography. I recently received a copy and it’s a great cookbook. For me, the fascinating thing about the way Stella works is that she comes up with a base recipe, which she then adapts to produce four completely separate dishes. The base recipe is generally started in a slow cooker (she uses a Crockpot); watching her cook inspired me to get my own slow cooker and give it a shot. I chose a Morphy Richards slow cooker with a metal bowl, so that I can caramelize the onions and brown off the meat before I set it to stew, and I don’t even need to do any extra washing up.

I spoke to Stella about her new book and asked her about where her inspiration came from, and what made her decide to put it all down on paper.

In the introduction, you call ‘A Cook’s Book’ a memoir; what inspired you to write a memoir with recipes, as opposed to a traditional cookbook?

“It kind of came out of so many people asking me about my story, how I got here, how it unfolded – Ashburton wasn’t a corporate cookery school, and yet it was gaining accolades, so every time I met somebody new they were asking – I was asked so many times. Chefs at the school were also being asked same questions by students in the cookery classes. I started off writing down some of my history and I realized as I was writing it down that a lot of the changes to do with food has never really been documented.

In the late 40s and early 50s the government tightened the noose on rationing and even things like potatoes were rationed, and it was worse than during the war. Then during the 60s and 70s women were being told that their cooking wasn’t good enough. All the advertising was geared was towards to the suggestion that women weren’t giving their families balanced meals. They were really pushed towards processed and pre-prepared food where somebody else had done all the work to make sure it was nutritionally balanced. It was virtually brainwashing – whole generations of women were being told that cooking frozen food was proper cooking. Things changed so much.

I got to thinking about where my love of food came from and documented that in my story and then began to thinking about dishes I cooked. I never really read cookbooks or weighed and measured ingredients – everything came out of experiments I’d done. I had to work through my recipes so that I could record them for the book!”

Ashburton Cookery School won A People’s Choice award last year: what do you think it is about the school that really appeals to people?

“I think it’s probably because even though it’s one of the largest cookery schools in England, it’s still a family business and that feeling really comes through – when people come into the cookery school they feel that they are part of something: they aren’t just students through the door, they are part of the ethos. The chefs really really understand where that whole thing about cooking with love comes from, they aren’t just jobbing chefs – it’s very pronounced, you can really see it in the cookery school. We are a big family.”

Is there any prize you’ve won that you’re especially proud of?

“I won Devon Life Food Hero 2014 last week. It was a bit of a surprise – I was sat there all evening just enjoying the event, with no idea at all: I’d been invited along by the editor and I thought “oh, you know, maybe he’d like to do something about the book”. I was completely unprepared – I was looking round for three other finalists, and, of course, there weren’t any! It was right at the end of the evening, and it was an amazing award – I shouldn’t really say this, but it’s one of my favorite awards, because it is your Devon foodie peers who vote for that and it means an awful lot.”

A Cook’s Book by Stella West-Harling is out now and can be bought from Amazon or direct from Ashburton Cookery School.