Honesty and genuine enthusiasm are endearing. Paul West has both in spades. The star of River Cottage Australia found his audience first on Foxtel and later through SBS reruns. His tale: a larrikin chef, once of the Vue de Monde brigade, who sets about transforming a rundown property in Central Tilba, a few hours south-east of Canberra.
But after four seasons, the curtain was drawn. It meant a move away from the farm to Melbourne, and, some would say, from the persona he’d built. But you soon realise it’s not a persona: that curiosity and passion is Paul West. I saw that firsthand, as a co-director of Truffle Kerfuffle in 2017. He loaded up his own schedule, dropped into farms, and held the attention of everyone from school kids to the barman at the local pub. You see that now in his work on ABC’s Gardening Australia, Catalyst and Back Roads. Like the old adage goes: as one door closes, another opens.
West is currently touring his new book – The Edible Garden Cookbook & Growing Guide – around Australia, using it as a vehicle to discuss growing in urban environments. He says it’s “a celebration of all things food and community”, but the book, which details how he turned his suburban block into a resource for his growing family, could just as easily be titled “Life after River Cottage”.
“From a romantic perspective you think of green pasture, soil on the hands, but realistically that can’t always be the way and romanticism needs to take a back seat,” he says.
The book takes a pragmatic approach, covering the essentials of growing in the city. Think water-efficient veggie patches, composting, backyard chooks and beekeeping – things that are attractive to home cooks and chefs alike. The concept of growing-your-own has taken root across Perth at venues such as Bib & Tucker (rooftop bees), Brookfield Place (which has a chef’s garden that supplies herbs and small greens to its restaurants) and the soon-to-open Coogee Common. Also important to note: the example set by the trailblazing (and now missed) Greenhouse when it opened almost a decade ago.
While the rural idyll is a “one day” dream for some, urban growing is an immediate and powerful possibility for the majority, even if it’s just starting with some leafy greens.
“They’re so important for our daily diet,” says West. “They pretty much deteriorate from the moment of harvest. Go into transport and it can be two or three days before they’re on the shelves. With city-growing there can be near to zero travel. You get it at its freshest. It just makes sense.”