Ask Scottish chef and foodie legend Tony Singh what the secret to good food is and he’ll always respond with one word: ‘passion’. But it isn’t just the usual cliché of chefs loving what they do. Tony sees passion as something that runs much deeper than that – something that begins with a love of local, fresh produce and an investment in training growers, producers and chefs.
For Tony, good food means going right to the source of the cooking process. ‘Good food is about a love of the produce of the land and the people who help make it,’ he says. And right there is the gateway to the kind of incredible Northern cooking that has inspired chefs as diverse as Tom Kitchin, Nigel Haworth and Jeff Bland.
The larder of the North of England
Scotland and the North are uniquely placed to be foodie havens. With oceans, greenery and other unique landscapes right on the doorstep, there’s no doubt that these regions have access to the very best ingredients. ‘We’re blessed with fantastic fertile pastures,’ Tony says. ‘There’s amazing grazing land for sheep, we’ve got access to both coastlines, fantastic butchers. The produce has always been at the heart and soul of the North’s passion for good food. It’s Scotland’s larder, the larder of the North of England.’
Whilst Northerners have always known the joys of homegrown, locally-reared produce, it’s now getting attention from further afield. People from other parts of the country – and indeed, the world – respect Northern produce because it’s historic. It’s always been there and it’s never been tampered with. Tony cites the Rhubarb Triangle and Scottish Blackface Lamb as examples of the kind of produce that are getting the global stamp of approval. ‘And we’re the keepers of amazing dishes because of it,’ Tony adds.
A Northern, grassroots movement
But the real secret to Northern food success goes beyond the region’s natural resources. It’s generations and generations of know-how, passed down through families and nowadays, between clever mentors and their protégés. ‘Knowledge and food go hand in hand,’ Tony tells us. ‘It’s like having a good meal. A good meal is good by yourself, but when you share it, it’s a wonderful moment. And that’s the same with knowledge.’
What we tend to forget is that the North was investing in grassroots cooking before it was fashionable, so there’s a legacy of passion that stretches way back beyond whim or fancy. There are generations of recipes and food lore that’s been handed down and shared. And this knowledge is locked in to the North’s unique sense of community and heritage.
‘What’s now being called ‘heritage’ is just good food – it’s the farmer down the road who always raised good beef, is now labelled as being really good,’ Tony explains. ‘What’s always been the heart and soul of community is now getting a light shined on it.’ And the dishes themselves – like stews, broths and soups, which Tony affectionately calls ‘peasant food’ - that have always been a hearty Northern staple, now go much further than the towns and villages that invented them.
Putting a twist on a classic
And it’s easy to see why. Northern chefs have never been afraid of innovating their classic dishes. Tony tells us that he adds blue cheese to traditional parkin for a clever twist. What the North knows about successful innovation is that the base of a dish needs to be perfect. ‘If you’re making a pie,’ Tony says. ‘You can have it really simple and rustic or you can tweak it to elevate the dish. If you’ve got the right produce in there, no matter what you do with it, the flavours will shine out.’
It’s another reason Scotland and the North of England have always invested in the next generation of talent. ‘There’s a vibe about good food in the North,’ Tony says. And as a result, there are brilliant Youth Training Schemes, colleges and teachers in the region. Whether it’s your grandma’s kitchen or as a sous chef, the opportunities to learn from great Northern cooks is endless. Unlike anywhere else, the region is passionate about sharing knowledge.
And it’s only getting easier to recruit the best new talent. As food becomes more fashionable, more young people want to get involved. So it feels like the next generation of Northern foodies are safely on their way through. It’s also the reason that Tony’s thrilled to be involved in TransPennine Express’ The Where Next Project. Having come from a family of cooks and being inspired by lecturers at college, Tony understands the importance of inspiring the next generation first hand – and, like TransPennine Express, he wants to ensure that the North continues to propel new talent forward.
So what does the North know about food that nowhere else does? Tony sums it up in his generation of Northern chefs, who descended on London for a few years. ‘They did four years of hard labour, then they came home because they missed the amazing produce and a better way of life. The best thing was that they brought back their skillset and their desire to pass on their knowledge.’ Northern foodies are passionate about food from it’s source – from the natural resources that create the very best produce, through to passing on well-earned knowledge to the next generation of growers and chefs. The result is a culture based on heritage and passion. It’s safe to say that what the North doesn’t know about food, isn’t worth knowing.
Tony is a Where Next Project mentor, providing advice and inspiration to a new generation of budding chefs. Find out more about our current crop of Future Stars here.