Mark McCabe, chef owner of Bristol’s The Ethicurean restaurant – which will be closing this October – talks to Tessa Dunthorne about the values that holds up a sustainable business. Oh, and why not to ferment Japanese knotweed.
Interview: Mark McCabe, Chef Owner Of The Ethicurean
You’re calling me from your car. Where are you off to?
I’m on my way to Scotland for a stag do right now. I’m driving from Somerset so it’s about eight hours or so…
Oh, that’s a lot. Well, in which case, I’m going to try and distract you from your trek by asking you a lot of questions about food. I hope that’s okay.
It’s absolutely fine. All the time in the world.
Brilliant. I wanted to lead with this: the Ethicurean received a Green Star in 2021. I wondered if you could tell me a bit about that, what it’s like to be working on a green restaurant?
It’s very nice to get it – to be recognised for for what we have always done, to be honest. I think the Green Star is, you know, it’s a good start. It’s in its infancy and it’s an important thing for Michelin to be recognising. But I don’t think it’s changed much about what we do. We’ve always been very sort of firm on trying to run our business in the sort of least damaging way possible, I guess. But it’s nice to be recognised for it.
How do you keep that ethos in mind on a day-to-day basis? What’s sustainability for your restaurant?
You know – it’s funny because we were looking into this recently for something else, and they were asking what we do… Because for us, it’s just so normal.
Sometimes it takes a minute to sort of step back and look at it but I guess, you know, we have, we have access to beautiful garden. We try and use as much produce from that garden as possible for the day to day. We would be having conversations with the gardening team about what’s available. What’s coming into season, especially this time of year where production is really starting to kick up. In the summer we try to use 80 to 90% fresh produce just from the garden. It’s amazing. We keep things very, very, very, very local. And then we have a small list of suppliers who we trust implicitly to care about the same things we do.
The other aspect of it which I think is a bit more unusual is sort of how we look at it from from a whole business point of view. You know, we are service included, so the staff don’t rely on tips, none of our chefs work over 40 hours a week. And we’ve really tried to sort of base the business around them. I think it’s an element of sustainability to me. It’s like a circular economy, isn’t it? You’re trying to try to make it work for everyone. It’s as much about that as it is about all the all the stuff we’ve always done, like composting and using us as much as we can. Preserving and fermenting and things like that.
Do you take these practices into your life outside of work, do you think?
Yeah, I mean, I think like this because I view the world like this. It’s not something that was ever sort of imposed on me. And I think that’s partly why it’s so deeply ingrained in the restaurant is that for myself – and my business partner who founded the restaurant with his brother – you know, we’ve always viewed the world like this.
You know, I still eat avocados at home occasionally or whatever. But I just keep trying to make conscious decisions about how I live my life and how I impact the people around me.
Are you noticing climate change affecting the way you can work, or what you can put on your menus? I know weather events are making kind of relying on local produce a bit more variable.
So, we pretty much only use British produce, and certainly only use British fresh produce. If anything, because of that, we’re a little better adapted to dealing with the supply chain issues and the weather.
But yeah, the weather relates to food shortages that we’re seeing from Europe. It makes planning very difficult. Every year I kind of go in with a whole hope that we’ll be able to set out a plan for the months ahead, what produce we’ll use when, and what we’re looking forward to. And certainly last summer, over the heat waves, we just found everything was about a month early. So it makes it very difficult to plan… But you just have to you just have to accept that. Nature is doing its thing and we’ll work around it as we always have.
I wonder if that kind of necessity has brought to create something particularly interesting, or surprising as a consequence?
Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of our cooking is interesting because it’s sort of forced creativity. That’s how I like to cook, anyway. I’m a big fan of cooking what I have, rather than what I want. I guess as we move into sort of more fluid seasons for produce, you’re always going to be catching curveballs here and there.
Any dishes particularly come to mind?
One of my favourites is fermented wheat powder. You always get the massive amount of green at the end of your leeks. They’re a bit tough and difficult to work with. And we used to ferment them all the time in the restaurant, but we still ended up with a lot of them. So now we dehydrate them and blend them into a powder and it’s the most incredible seasoning. And we can use it across menus all year round to taste like cheese and onion – I love it.
So it’s things like that, that really you know when you’ve got a glut of something you’re definitely forced to try to do something clever with it.
But then of course, I very recently tried to ferment some Japanese knotweed and it was horrendous. There’s always something that doesn’t work.
Quick Fire Questions
Alright. Best restaurant in the South West?
My good friend Rob Howell has just opened up a new restaurant in my town, [Root, Wells]. It’s amazing. He’s a magician.
Er, we don’t use citrus at all in the restaurant, so I’ll get some stick for this. But I love an orange.
That’s actually so fair. Oranges are great.
Yeah. I’m a big fan.
Celeriac. It’s great and not that many people know what to do with it, but it’s got an amazing flavour, grows really well in this country. We should eat more of it.
Anything sat open in your fridge right now?
Almost certainly, I usually only have about two meals a week at home because I ended up eating at the restaurant… There’s probably a tub of olives in there.
And finally, how do you try and live a life in balance?
Really, really badly.
Fair enough. I think that’s usually the way with chefs.
Yeah, I’m a terrible workaholic. But yeah, I try to keep up my running. I used to enjoy running a lot. I also like to hang out with my cat [Lenny] as well. Pretty sad, but he’s great.
Not sad at all. Right – thank you for taking the time out to talk to me. Have fun on the stag do (and the drive).
Only seven and a half hours to go.