CHEF ROB HOWELL ON VEG-CENTRIC EATING AND GETTING TO THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

As renowned chef Rob Howell releases his debut cookbook, we sit down to chat to him all things vegetables, sustainability and non-preachy pioneering progression.

With its ethos of prioritising and elevating veg-centric cooking, and its stylish and approachable neighbourhood vibe, Root, which is situated in Bristol’s trendy Wapping Wharf and part of the Michelin Guide, has been steadily taking the south west by storm over the last few years. 

Now, head chef Rob Howell is releasing his debut cookbook, Root: Small Vegetable Plates, A Little Meat On The Side, which is published by Bloomsbury and on the shelves in spring 2021. As with everything Rob does when it comes to cooking and his relationship with food, you can expect inventive and inspiring recipes, and a real sense of pure heart and soul.

Rob is known from his time as head chef at Josh Eggleton’s Michelin-starred Pony and Trap in Chew Magna. He counts his time with Josh as where his real thoughts, passion and processes around sustainability and ethics came from, and Root was born from this and the realisation that there was a gap in the market for a restaurant centred around this. 

It started with the idea of meat and fish on the side, but Root became so popular for the vegetable dishes, it soon transpired that these should take centre stage. ‘We didn’t expect it to take off the way it did,’ smiles Rob. ‘A small amount of meat and fish is sometimes used on the specials board, but it’s all about the veg. We work as much as we can with local producers, and not only is it good for the world and us, but the vegetables are delicious too. When it comes to vegetarian eating, I think people forget that vegetables can be so good and focus on meat substitutes too much.’

In terms of eco eating, there’s some argument that a veg-centric attitude is the most sustainable way forward. According to a study by Harvard: ‘In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission developed the world’s first scientific targets for healthy and sustainable food systems, including a “planetary health diet” with defined daily consumption ranges for each food group. This dietary pattern – characterized by a variety of high-quality plant-based foods and low amounts of animal-based foods, refined grains, added sugars, and unhealthy fats – is designed to be flexible to accommodate local and individual situations, traditions, and dietary preferences.’

In general, a diet higher in plant foods than meat is more sustainable than a diet higher in meat than plant foods. Essentially, there’s a balance to be struck, and veg-centric eating does exactly that. For real change to happen, over a period of time, each step on that journey to sustainability has to be achievable and able to slot into a huge number of the population’s lives instantaneously. 

Rob is not a vegetarian or a vegan, but he does follow a diet where vegetables and green eating is prioritised. ‘I’m eating it less and less, and I only try and buy meat where it’s a special occasion and from a decent source,’ he says. ‘If we can all be a bit more aware of what we are eating, this is a massive part of it and the problem with food sustainability, then we can get to know the seasonality of food. I can honestly say that the Root kitchen produces less waste than any other restaurant I’ve worked in before.’ 

The menu at Root is ever changing and adapts to what is available, what veg is in season and what works best at the time – the suppliers tell them what they’ve got and they take it. Compare this to a menu with a huge magnitude of different dishes, many of which using lots of different ingredients, and you naturally end up with far more waste at the end of a shift. 

Interestingly, Rob notes that, with Brexit, we may not be able to get all of the fruits and vegetables that we are so used to getting year-round, which might actually not be such a bad thing. It could teach us how to deal with food more seasonally, and eat crops when it’s the most nutritious. 

I wonder if Rob thinks that there are big misconceptions when it comes to sustainability in food. ‘It needs to be realistic, as everyone is in a different situation,’ he says. ‘There are all of these expensive products being sold after people have jumped on the vegan hype, so people think they can’t afford to be vegan or vegetarian. Just knowing how to cook vegetables is really important.’ Clearly, as with Root, it’s about taking it back to basics and not making it complicated.  

What strikes me, as one of the most sustainable elements of Root, is the way in which it continues to change people’s perceptions and present vegetarian dishes in a non-preachy, non-idealised way – it’s accessible, raw and realistic. Root focuses on the vegetables for what they are and, in turn, showcases their diversity to people – it takes away the very common conception that a meal is not complete without meat. 

‘We’ve got an open kitchen and we get a lot of families where, perhaps, the whole family including grandparents have come to Root because the daughter is vegan, and you can see their scrunched faces,’ laughs Rob. ‘But the amount of people, who have then come up to us at the end, shook our hand and said that they didn’t realise a meal of vegetables could be so tasty.’ 

And now, the book is set to do the same. I wonder how Rob feels about bringing out a cookbook? ‘I’ve spent most of my earnings my whole life on cookbooks, so to write my own is insane and is an incredible feeling,’ he laughs. ‘I didn’t want to go down the preachy route, or to tell people what to do, but I just want to show people what you can do with vegetables and make it more exciting and accessible. Hopefully, this can help people move toward eating less meat and fish. The photography is beautiful and I really hope it gives people a lot of inspiration.’ 

Made up of 100 recipes of Root dishes from the last three years, Rob hopes that the book will help people to discover new vegetables, and discover recipes with vegetables that they may not otherwise know what to do with. I, for one, can’t wait to devour the book and for the world to open up again so that I can pay Root a visit. It’s going straight to the top of my post-lockdown bucket list… 

HERE, ROB ROUNDS UP HIS TOP TIPS FOR THOSE OF YOU INTERESTED IN MOVING INTO A MORE SUSTAINABLE NOTION OF EATING.
1. Know the season

If you follow the seasons, you’ll not only be eating produce at its best, but it usually lends itself to being grown closer to home too.

2. Research

What is being produced around your area, and you may find local food markets or producers right on your doorstep that you never knew about.

3. Limit meat & fish consumption

Swap out meals that you would usually use meat in. Lasagne? Make it vegetarian. Vegetable curry? They are always just as delicious! 

4. Batch cooking

It’s always a great way to make the most of what you have in your fridge, so if you have big vegetables such as swede and celeriac that are hard to use all of, make big batches of meals and freeze. 

5. Seasonality

Freeze fruits like blackberries and raspberries when they are in abundance so that you can use them throughout the whole year and don’t have to buy berries that have been imported.