Our columnist talks to the cookbook author and food judge about meat-free cooking and her passion for local, seasonal ingredients.
With no formal training, Elly Pear (real name Elly Curshen) opened Bristol’s Pear Café 13 years ago, which was such a ridiculous success she’s since written three cookbooks, been a magazine food columnist, cooked at festivals across the UK, and judged The Great British Food Awards. She came to my kitchen to help me make one of her iconic recipes and it was an education in a new way with food.
Emma Tell me about your relationship with food when you were young. Was it always your passion?
Elly Food and eating out were great sources of pleasure in our family. My dad’s side of the family is Jewish and the way you show love is to fill your table with nice things, most often bought from the deli. My favourite supper was called ‘things on a plate’. It’s not really cooking – it’s just buying lovely things, laying it all out and everybody eating until they’re stuffed. Families choose to spend their money on different things, and ever since we were small, my parents took us to restaurants. That appreciation of food was a gift that was ingrained in me from when I was tiny.
Emma Is that why you decided to work as a waitress from the age of 17?
Elly Yes. I thought it was the most exciting thing ever, working around people who were having a nice time. When I was 26, I stumbled across a space in Bristol that felt perfect. I put in a proposal that week – and it became the Pear Café.
Emma Who taught you to cook?
Elly I’d never worked in kitchens up until that point, but my mum instilled a can-do attitude in us all – you just get on and do it. I taught myself completely, but I don’t cook difficult food – just delicious food that’s fun to make and won’t stress you out.
Emma When did you become a vegetarian?
Elly When I was nine – I copied my big sister because it was the 80s and we were learning about animal cruelty at school and vegetarianism was getting popular. But what’s important is that if you’re going to cut stuff out, you owe it to yourself to learn how to create proper vegetarian meals.
Emma Has the rise in veganism made your cooking easier?
Elly Yes – there are so many wonderful milks, tofu and delicious vegan foods, but it’s also caused a rise in fake meat products. Taking meat out and replacing it with fake meat isn’t learning to cook. I want to teach people to use beans, lentils and fresh veg – and to eat with the seasons as much as possible. Also, creating recipes where people need to buy stuff in plastic from the supermarket doesn’t work for me. I’ll always champion independent shops and try to get people to shop locally.
Emma You’ve done so brilliantly in your career – why do you think it’s gone so well for you?
Elly I’m a hustler. My parents were self-employed and worked all the time – and I’m always working, but I’m okay with that. I’ve sacrificed so much for so long to be able to achieve what I have now. I don’t own a house or a car, there are loads of things I haven’t got that other people do – for a long time, my business was everything and I didn’t see much of my family and friends. Everyone has their own journey in life and it’s taken me a long time – success does take a long time.
Emma So, as a nation, where do you think we’re going with food – what’s the next phase?
Elly I think it will be food that’s local and seasonal. When you shop in the supermarket and you can get anything you want all-year round, you’re totally out of sync with what’s in season. When I shop at our greengrocers, the first aisle I look at is seasonal and local veg. The next stop is the bargain bin because I’d rather food gets eaten. The third stop is special treats – like a lime or an avocado, because we’re lucky that we can get them. I also really hope supermarkets remove plastic from their packaging, make a bigger statement about what is British and seasonal, and get people to remember that certain foods are treats, not everyday fare.
Emma Is that ever going to happen?
Elly It could. Things are changing. Wonky and imperfect veg is getting easier to come by via veg box schemes and certain supermarkets.
Emma Even though you can get non-seasonal food, do you really not buy it?
Elly I try hard not to buy vegetables when they’re out of season. If a restaurant has asparagus on the menu out of season, I immediately know what does, and doesn’t, matter to the chefs. Being connected to the outdoors and noticing the seasons changing is hugely important to me and my mental health. And food just follows that.
Emma If you had to choose one food style, what would it be?
Elly There are two: Vietnamese and Lebanese. The food in Lebanon is incredible, from hole-in-the-wall falafel wraps to one of the most incredible meals I’ve ever had at a restaurant called Baron. Vietnamese food just makes me feel good. Lots of veg and the fresh zing of herbs makes your mouth feel really alive – and you don’t need to have a lie down afterwards, even if you eat loads.
Emma The dish of yours that I’m cooking is kimchi fried grains with crispy fried egg & nori. I’ve not cooked with kimchi before – it’s basically rotting cabbage, isn’t it?
Elly That’s a nice way of putting it! Kimchi is fermented cabbage. It’s really good for your gut and that crunchy astringent lift you get from pickles is a great balancer. I’m always thinking about balancing textures and flavour – and this dish has chewy grains, a crispy egg, juicy vegetables, but it needs something sharp, pickly and crunchy. The kimchi is perfect for that.
Emma It’s taken minutes to make, it’s totally delicious, and it looks to me a bit like ‘things on a plate’?
Elly It does!
Emma The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, has it?
Elly Well, ‘things on a plate’ was always raw, and this is definitely cooked. But – like all my recipes – it’s basically ‘nice things in a bowl’. It’s what I do.
Find Elly's recipe for kimchi-fried grains with crispy fried egg & nori in the June 2019 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
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Recipe adapted from Green by Elly Pear (£22, Ebury Press).
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.