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  • Writer's pictureAdrian Strong

Kate's Veggie Vibe

Over the course of the last ten years, since I have been providing evening meals at MSJ, many people have asked me about my training as a vegetarian chef. This blog is a small explanation of how I fell into a career that I had never planned but which I have enjoyed enormously.

I have been a vegetarian since I was in my early twenties. My initial decision was based on my love of animals and strong misgivings about the morals of the killing of other sentient creatures to feed myself. As time has passed and more and more has come to light about the appalling conditions many of these animals are subjected to, the routine use of anti-biotics and steroids, as well as the environmental and health impact meat-eating has had on the global population, I have felt very vindicated in my choice of diet. Over the years, it has become less complicated to be vegetarian and now that a substantial proportion of people are reducing their meat intake the availability of good quality substitutes is more widespread. Even here in Southern Europe, it is not difficult to find a vegetarian (or even vegan) meal in most restaurants.

After a very varied career path including being a production assistant for a music video company, a tour operator, a bookseller and an antique shop owner, I was offered a job at the world-renowned West Dean College of Arts near Chichester. The job, although a simple position as a kitchen and dining-room assistant would afford me the flexibility to care for my mother who was elderly and unwell. I was drawn to this particular vacancy as the college is set in the beautiful rolling countryside of the South Downs and is housed in a stunning stately home with magnificent gardens. The college offers diploma courses in such subjects as furniture and ceramics restoration as well as short courses in all art subjects. Another big advantage of working there was that on the occasion when a short course wasn’t fully subscribed, employees of the college could take up a free place on that course. This was a huge benefit for me as I have always been very involved in the arts and was keen to learn new techniques.

Before very long, it became apparent to all my colleagues that I was much happier working in the kitchen than the dining room and enjoyed being part of the team that created the very high quality meals that the students enjoyed as part of the experience of their stay. I had not up until then been particularly interested in cooking, having only seen it as part of the duties of a mother and the wife of a busy art dealer, my ex-husband. In fact, preparing the obligatory dinner parties that his work entailed used to throw me into a panic! However, cooking at the college offered me solace and I could lose myself in the task at hand and feel great satisfaction when the completed dish was served and appreciated. There were two chefs on duty at any time – the Head Chef and the Vegetarian Chef. When the latter of the two decided to move on, it seemed natural for me to apply for his job. The hours were still flexible enough that I could help my mother, but the pay was better and I was also offered training on a day-release basis. I thoroughly enjoyed learning all the classic cookery techniques and putting them to use in my work. After a year of working at West Dean, a chef friend of mine recruited me to work for him in his outside catering business which I found very exciting and enjoyed the variation in the work. We catered for many large, prestigious events as well as providing lavish meals in his private dining-room. He was a very colourful character, not unlike Keith Floyd in his approach to life (and drinking habits!) I remember one time we were serving Crème Brulé to a party in his dining room. He was rather flamboyantly attempting to Brulé the dessert at the table but the blow torch would not light. As he was holding it up for inspection, it suddenly leapt into life and set fire to his handlebar moustache! With his usual aplomb he managed to complete the service, albeit with only half of his moustache! Another time, we were transporting a huge vat of mushroom soup to an event in the boot of his hatchback. On the way, I suddenly became aware that the smell of the soup had become a lot stronger and advised him to stop to take a look. He opened the boot and a cascade of mushroom soup poured down onto his head. It must have transferred itself onto the door as he took some speed bumps rather too quickly. My laughter was not appreciated but it was impossible to keep a straight face as the soup dripped off his chin! I continued working for him for several very entertaining years until we moved to France and set up the Bed and Breakfast.

Once we had completed all the house renovations and were fully functioning year-round, I started to provide a table d’hôtes service. I have thoroughly enjoyed this as I have had the freedom to create dishes in my own way and to cater for a maximum of 8 people is so much more intimate and I love being in a position to give our guests a memorable experience.

Initially I did offer meat dishes to our guests but as I was not very comfortable cooking meat, I took the decision to go fully vegetarian two years ago and it has been a great success. I have often come across a situation where a couple have asked for a meal who have not realised that it would be meat-free. When I mention this, they have looked a little taken aback (usually the men!) but when persuaded to give it a try they are always pleasantly surprised. In fact, I have had several people asking for my recipes and saying they would reduce their meat intake in view of the fact that they had found the meal just as satisfying and hearty. Adrian is also a very good cook, drawing on his Japanese heritage to create beautiful oriental dishes and he also very skilled in making delicious curries. We enjoy cooking meals together and occasionally cook up a feast for a special event.

Having said my piece about my views on meat-eating, we are not wishing to convert people or come across as self–righteous. We simply get pleasure out of letting people experience something that they would not have necessarily chosen had there been another option, and that can prove to be a revelation!

So, take a look at our menu and see if we can tempt you to sample something a little different!

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