Johnnie Collins, current chef in residence at creative hub 180 The Strand, has always been passionate about growing seasonal produce. We spoke to the rising star of the food world about his love of gardening, its mental health benefits and his exciting plans for the future
There are plenty of benefits that go hand in hand with growing your own produce. For one, it’s a lot healthier — as you have complete control on what goes into your soil (store-bought fruit and vegetables often use fertilisers and pesticides in the growing process). As well as this, it can save you money. It can also be incredibly rewarding watching your own produce graduate from garden to plate.
Chef Johnnie Collins has brought a little bit of the English countryside with him to his latest residency at Store Kitchen Studios, a space dedicated to showcasing the latest talent in food and drink at 180 The Strand. On his menu, you’ll find dishes centred around fresh garden ingredients, each of which provide a unique dining experience. Below, he tells us more about his new venture — and how guests can start growing their own produce at home.
Can you tell us more about the concept for your menu at 180 The Strand?
I wanted to do a dinner based around things from the garden and things we get from our network of small local suppliers. Not only with the food, but also in the way we dressed the space: instead of using flowers, I opted for overwintered greens as bouquets on the tables and used bay and blossoms from the garden to decorate the space.
For the dishes, we paired things from the garden with lovely English produce, so our asparagus went with a sauce made from Tunworth cheese and wild garlic oil I had foraged from the woods near my mum’s house.
You’re a chef who grows most of their own produce, but it can be hard to predict what ingredients will come into season on time. How do you plan what dishes you’ll be serving?
On all my menus I usually have a line, ‘Subject to availability from the garden’. It’s a little caveat that enables us to be nimble and use things that need using. Or, if produce hasn’t arrived quite yet, swap it out for something that has.
How do you choose which dishes you serve each season?
We cook things that people want to eat. In winter you want something hearty and warming, and in summer something light and fresh, so nature chooses it for you. But we also preserve things when we have an abundance in summer and then use them in winter. I still have last year’s fermented chilies in the freezer that I used all winter.
How easy is it for people to start growing and cooking with their own homegrown produce?
A lot of what I do, I try to keep simple and low cost — the main investment is time. But even with a little time, you can grow a lot. You just need to pick things that grow easily and require less maintenance. Growing herbs and lettuces on a windowsill or in pots is easy. Doing a couple of pots with tomatoes and chillies doesn’t take up much space or time. And the satisfaction of cooking with produce you have grown makes it truly worth it.
Any advice for people wanting to start growing their own produce?
My advice would be to figure out your space, what you want to grow and then how much time you have to spend on your space every week. There’s no point taking on an allotment if you don’t want to invest the time in making it worth it. The main thing you need is good soil. I once met a wine producer who told me that he doesn’t make wine, he makes soil. That philosophy has influenced me greatly — you can’t grow good vegetables and flowers without good soil. Growing different things is really important to me; variety is the spice of life and I love cooking with different ingredients.
Are there any mental health benefits to growing your own ingredients?
There is nothing better than completing simple tasks outside using your hands. Sometimes I look at everything that needs doing in the gardens and it starts to stress me out. But I’ve got quite good at reminding myself that you can only do what you can.
Things like weeding can seem arduous or monotonous but once you have completed them it’s strangely satisfying, like tidying your house or doing the laundry. The difference with the garden is that you are spending time in nature — and spending time contributing to nature can help you feel connected. Then comes the satisfaction of nurturing something, watching it grow and cooking and eating it with your friends and family. It’s a really great feeling.
Any exciting projects or future plans you would like to share with us?
We’ve started cooking outside by the river at Oakley Court, the hotel near Windsor where we grow a lot of our stuff. We’ll be there most weekends over summer, cooking things from our garden on a big grill overlooking the river. If anyone is reading this and would like to come for lunch or dinner, you can get in touch with me via my socials.
Strawberries and infused cream recipe
I’m currently growing strawberries in three different gardens, they are very simple to maintain and there is nothing better than picking and eating them straight off the plant. One of the amazing things about strawberries is they self-propagate (or self-seed) by sending out runners above the ground.
This means they send out shoots in the air, which then go into the ground to form new roots and then a new strawberry plant. They will effectively produce new plants laterally all around if left to their own devices. What you can do is take out these runner plants once established, snip the stems and move them to another spot or put them into a good pot to get more strawberries.
You could also give the new plant to a neighbour or friend. It’s a very clever way of self-propagating that’s quite unique. Below is one of my favourite ways to eat them, without straying too far off the path of celebrating them in their original form.
One of the simplest and best desserts out there, when the timing is right, must be strawberries and cream. This is a very simple way to jazz it up and the infused cream can be used for various things. You can add a drop of booze in too. It’s lovely paired with a chocolate tart.
• 500ml of good double cream
• Any herbs you have – mint, lovage, fennel, rosemary
• A good spoon of honey
• Drop of alcohol if you fancy
• 1 punnet of strawberries
• Icing sugar and the zest of 1 lemon
• Ice, to prepare
Add the cream, herbs and honey to a pot and gently warm — and the booze too, if using. Leave to infuse on a very low heat for an hour and then cool in the pot. Strain the herbs and transfer the cream to a container and put in the fridge.
Cut the tops off the strawberries and transfer to a bowl. I like to cut some of the strawberries and leave some whole for a bit of difference. Add the icing sugar and lemon zest to lightly macerate. johnniecollins.com