Festival Folk: John Bayley

John Bayley smiles ruefully and measures out the size of a small banquet with his hands as he talks about his last ‘blow-out’ carnivorous Christmas, around 15 years ago – coming from the now well-respected vegan cook with his own catering company (Cashew Catering), and the Head Chef at Tilton House, this was clearly a turning-point in his life.

John’s modest culinary explorations began when he was 14 and he discovered, after a few tentative experiments, that if he had to make his own meals it was probably an advantage if the food was edible in some form, so he started to improve on his beans on toast recipe.  “Although the food I grew up with was fairly traditional British fare,” he remembers, “it was definitely an important part of our routine – at weekends we always sat round the table together to eat soups and cold buffets, and a good old British roast on Sunday with a big pot of beef dripping.”

After helping a friend make the nutritional adjustments to become a healthy vegetarian, he found himself focusing on food as enjoyable and nourishing rather than a gap-filler, and began to find it increasingly difficult to make the connection between the animal and the end product on the supermarket shelves. Once that ritual Christmas feast was over he took the first step and became a committed vegetarian.

A 2-year trip around Nepal, India and South East Asia followed: “I poked my nose into every local market, restaurant and cookery book I could find”, then a vegan cookery course at the Natural Cookery School in Colorado cemented his career and ethical path. Eager to put into practice what he’d learned, John returned to the UK to start up his own festival catering company with a friend, progressing from the humble beginnings of their very first job at the Sparsholt Agricultural Show onto festival behemoths Glastonbury, Womad and V Festival.

By this point he had two young children with his partner who met in Colorado and began to tire of the seasonal, nomadic nature of festival life, so the decision to stay closer to home and concentrate “more on the food, less on the set-up” came naturally. He, completed an apprenticeship at Saf, Shoreditch’s well-respected gourmet raw food restaurant, then moved on to prepare the lunches at the Lewes New School. As Conceptual Head Chef at Aloka in Brighton he helped to design everything from the kitchen and menus to the pricing stayructure and staff roles.

Many of John’s fresh ingredients come from his own garden (he recently provided salad for 140 wedding guests from his own plot), plus he’s a keen forager, an ‘aspirational’ mycologist and, much to my delight, an excellent home-brewer – he recommends his wheat beer, flavoured with blackberries and plums, and I don’t need much persuading. “We’re lucky to live in such a fertile area” he says, “The Downs are covered in wild oregano, plantain and nettles (the basis for a delicious wild pesto recipe in September’s issue of Viva Lewes), plus blackberries, elderflower, elderberries, damsons, sloes and plums . I love collecting samphire with the kids at Cuckmere Haven and along our local coast – it’s great roasted. You can also crystallise wild rose petals by painting gum arabic on them, sprinkling them with caster sugar and leaving them to dry out.”

As well as providing the catering for Tilton House, he’s a frequent collaborator with like-minded Lewes Community Chef, Robin van Creveld, caters for weddings and private functions, provides vegan and raw food workshops and courses (look out for his events as part of the Lewes OctoberFeast programme) and writes a mean blog about his culinary adventures (www.cashewcatering.co.uk). As if that wasn’t enough, he’s writing an e-book of recipes which will be available to download from his website by Christmas, and longer-term plans are in the pipeline for a traditional-format recipe book.

“It’s strange how we’ve got to the point where we can’t do without Facebook but can’t find the time to prepare a good meal and clear up after it, we seem to have lost touch with the fact that good food is such a simple thing and we’re all entitled to it. I think the movement during the ’60s and ’70s which led to convenience food was not historically a great thing and hasn’t helped society in any way: healthy, nutritious food doesn’t have to be boring, difficult or expensive – it can be fun, creative and exciting.”

John is hosting three events for OctoberFeast: Life By Chocolate on Tuesday 4th, the Fungi Foraging Cook-Up and Fine Vegan Dining, both on Thursday 6th.

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