“I still have a stack of rejection letters from the BBC that I kept,” Meet Rachel De Thample

With multiple cookbooks under her belt, years of working for household names like Waitrose, Heston Blumenthal and Able and Cole and more knowledge than most in foraging and urban gardening, Rachel de Thample’s life is one most of us would long for but it wasn’t always easy.

Moving to London from the States aged 21 and looking for a career in broadcast journalism at the BBC, she had her fair share of set backs.”When you’re fresh out of uni, and you have an American accent, broadcast journalism is not that easy to get into…I still have a stack of rejection letters from the BBC that I kept for the letterhead,” she laughs.

Deciding to work in print and specialise in food, she applied to an already full course at Leiths School of Food and Wine. Without wasting time she instead went to work as an apprentice at Quo Vadis then owned by Marco Pierre White and under head-Chef Curtis Stone. Working her way up to working for Heston Blumenthal, Peter Gordon before switching to Waitrose’s Food Illustrated.

So to celebrate the start of London Food Links Urban Food Fortnight, we sat down with Rachel to catch up with everything from her go-to vegetarian cooking advice, ethical living tips and her London favourites.

You’ve had quite a range of careers, what made you change from working in kitchens to writing about them?
“I think the outlet of writing feels like you can have more change and you can make a difference a bit more. Working in a restaurant is kind of like a drug because it’s really hard and challenging and you sort of feel quite broken after a service, but you still want to wake up and do it all again. It can be really addictive. So with the pop up dinners, I get taste of that and that informs what I write about too.”

Are the chefs you worked under the people who inspire your cooking now?
“To a degree yes, but I try to take inspiration from all over the place. With Heston and Peter Gordon, both were really different but really influenced the way I like to cook; I love Heston’s playfulness and the fact he always questions methods and he doesn’t stick, so I always like to think of that when I’m approaching a recipe but I did grow up in the states and I always get really inspired when I’m there too.”

“One of the new things I’m doing is a beer pickle where beer is a decent percentage of the brine giving it this multi-layer of flavour and I got inspired to do that by something I saw in an American food market in Texas recently. One of the old ladies there did a layered jam, I think she called it ‘two for one’, but she had strawberry jam and then a bit of rhubarb jam on the top and to be honest that’d my idea of heaven. I get bored of the same flavour about half way down the jar and I end up having 20 different jars open but the idea of having two different flavours in one jar and when you get half way down you kind of get this marriage of the two flavours, I think that’s quite ingenious.”

What does a normal day look like for you?
“Every day is quite different. Today I’m going into Able and Cole to do a Facebook live demo and making salsa verde with carrot tops to show you can use any type of left type thing that could pose as parsley to make a salsa verde. I’m also doing some events for Urban Food Fortnight so I went to go check out the venue and meet Sustain and pick up some gin for them – I’ve become their go-to gin infuser for events so I’ll be putting forged fruit into bottles of gin – so that’s the best thing ever. Then I popped into Borough Market to prep for my show – so yes, every day different and is a mixture of writing, cooking and prepping and organising events really.”

What’s your go-to meal?
“Well, that’s a good question – tonight I’ll be having salsa verde with some home-made pasta but it really varies. I get a veg box from Able and Cole because I don’t like thinking about what I have to order because I’ll order everything. Then I also get their fish and meat box so I kind of always use those as a staple and start every meal with a vegetable, so I see what veg I have in the fridge and go from there really.”

What’s your tip for a perfect vegetarian meal?
“I’d say lots of spices, not necessarily ‘hot’ spices but spices just really elevate vegetable and vegetables really soak up flavour a lot better than meat or fish. With fish you need to let it sing for itself but with vegetables theres so may fun combos.

“My favourite vegetable is suede, which I know isn’t the most popular, but I think its really exciting if you pair it with smoked paprika. So once I cooked this vegan gratin where I made a veg stock and cooked the suede in the broth, then layered it on top of red peppers and tomatoes with a lot of smoked paprika and topped it with rosemary and masala almonds. Also cauliflower and coriander is one of the best combos, I did a salad in my last book with cauliflower, coriander and oranges.”

Speaking of your books, can you tell us more about your latest book Tonics and Teas? 
“I’ve just been seeing a nutritional therapist over the past few years and I worked on it with her. She really informed the nutritional benefits of the drinks and it’s nice when you’re thinking you want another coffee or tea, (which I’m quite guilty of), you can look through this book and have an alternative. Or if you’re feeling sluggish or having hard time going to bed there’s a nice realm of natural drinks in here. People have been using tonics and teas and suggested drinks as health remedies for years and years but there’s a lot of things that people have forgotten about or are from other places which you can read about and make in the book.”

Do you have any favourite recipes from the book?
“So one that I have every day is one of the bed time teas actually, which is dried lavender, camomile and nutmeg and it’s the nutmeg that makes it really amazing. I used to have boxes and boxes of teas from the supermarket in my cupboard but now I have jars of flowers and spices, I also did matcha latte with almond milk and nutmeg which I love, I just have a thing for nutmeg and vanilla. I used to drink loads of coffee and now I have a really bad reaction to it so I’ve done a chicory coffee with chai flavours and I did a really quick espresso version because to get really good chai you need to do it for ages but actually if you have a spice grinder or coffee grinder, you can blend up the spices you can have it in 3 minutes and it still has that depth of flavour because you’re powdering everything. So I keep a little jar of that in my cupboard for emergencies. Chicory is a prebiotic so it feeds the good bacteria in your gut. I’ve really got into Kefir, water kefir in particular, it’s frustrating because I obviously had a deadline for the book but I keep coming up with new combinations!”

What would you say you love about your job?
“I like working for myself because I’m not serving time in a way and I work because I like what I do. The biggest thing I like is getting feedback from people and that people carry things on. So I did a fermentation crash course and people have gone away from it and been making all of the stuff and taking into different directions. There’s a lady who’s gone on to make a fermented ketchup using the tiny hotel jar of kefir seeds I gave her from the class. I also did a sourdough course using a starter that my friend had originally given me, I then gave a little to the people doing the course then they’ve passed that on to other people. Seeing people take on that knowledge, and I learn from them at the same time, that’s really exciting for me.”

Tell us about some amazing collaborations you’ve done over the years?

“It was really amazing working with Keira on the book, I’m really excited about working with River Cottage at the moment and obviously its been lovely working with Able and Cole over the years. Then with Sustain, they’re amazing what they do it’s a really small team and most of them are part time and they achieve phenomenal things and have some really exciting projects coming up so I’m really honoured to working with them.”

What keeps you motivated day to day?
“I guess since I work in food I need to feed myself and my son so that’s probably the primary motivation. Also just reading the news; I really keep on top of food politics so I try to angle everything I do towards better health and I’m very environmentally aware and concerned, so I really try to have a sustainability message with everything I do as well.”

What do you kollect?
“Cookbooks for sure but that’s probably really obvious and boring. I have massive wall of cookbooks at home, I probably have about 500. I also collect pottery, so I’m really food focused, I’m so boring! Oh and jam jars because I never seem to have enough jam jars, most people have cupboards full of beautiful plates but I have jam jars.”

What’s your favourite item in your khoollection?
“One of my favourite cookbooks is Shaun Hill’s ‘How To Cook Better’, mainly because it has this amazing flourless chocolate cake recipe but also because it’s really laid out beautifully, it’s really paired back but it has some amazing nuggets of wisdom in it. I like Shaun because he’s not churning out lots of books, he’s only done a few but he seems to save all this knowledge and pack it into one book rather than stretching it out over lots of them.

“Then I have this other book which lives on top of my fridge and it doesn’t even have a named author, it’s a Hamlyn’s ‘Student Cookbook of Curries’ and it has some amazing recipes in it. Because I grew up in America not eating curry, I didn’t have my first curry until 20 so I didn’t know how to cook them or approach them and after using recipes in that book I can now come up with curries off the top of my head.

“I have this other terrible book but it’s hugely useful. It was my first cookbook that my mother gave me, it’s a Betty Croker ‘Everything You Need To Know How To Cook’ and it’s really ugly and really retro 70’s/80’s photographs and Betty isn’t even a person, it’s everything I’m against really but the recipes are amazing and it’s full of amazing tips. It has a substitute page at the back so if you’re out of baking powder, it tells you how to substitute it and it’s really clever actually and one of the books that’s falling apart.”

Where do you call home?
“I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas and I now I live in Gipsy Hill.”

Favourite dining hotspots?


“So locally The Indian Dining Club and they source really, really well and have a seasonal menu because I love trying new things. Then in town, there’s so much choice but the one that springs to mind is The Cinnamon Club, probably because I now fancy a curry…and I love Rakesh I’ve never been disappointed there and I always get inspired by his innovations and the freshness of his food.”

Favourite place for coffee?
“Every time I go to Borough Market I do go to Monmouth Coffee, I like the Covent Garden one too but only you can get a seat. The Borough Market one I go there every time and get a Sally Clarke truffle. The only time they’ve ever run out was the day they announced the Brexit vote, clearly people needed to make themselves feel better…”

Where do you pick up a bargain in the city?
“I always go to vintage places. I don’t buy new unless it’s from someone who has a nice story, which sounds a bit snobby but I’m really conscientious and I also got to the point where I have too much stuff so I’m really cautious about what I buy and buying responsibly. For the pop-up I got all my stuff mostly locally. We have a market called Haynes Lane market which is a vintage market and I get a lot of stuff from there. If I buy new I go to People Tree and they have such a lovely story and their stuff is really, really well made.”

How do you spend a lazy Sunday?
“So I used to have long lists of all of the things of ‘I want to do this and that’ and one year I decided that I was doing too much and I needed to do less. So my new-years resolution was to have breakfast in my pyjamas on Sunday. So I do have brunch in my pyjamas as many Sundays as I possibly can. Usually I play sport with my son – I’ve taught him how to play Chess and now he’s better than me – and we’ll go have a coffee somewhere locally and go for a walk and have a nose around vintage markets or go to the beach if we’re out of London.”

Where would you say the best green place in the city?
“It’s so hard because there are so many but I’d say Regents Park. It’s very big and iconic it has a lot of but it’s really good because Capital Growth have an allotment there and I’d done some projects where I was trying to make a 100% local chutney for a local veg box scheme and I got a lot of stuff from them because they’re really productive and actually there’s a lot of wildlife there.”

If you weren’t in London where would you be?
I’d eye in West Dorset as I’ve been going there for the last 10 years on holiday and I just really love that Jurassic Coastline between Bridgeport and Lyme Regis. There’s so much good food and

What would be the one piece of advice you’d tell your younger self?
Ooh, I’m trying to think of the advice I’m giving my son because he’s pre-teen, so one is really just be yourself and don’t worry about what other people say. There’s a really great Churchill quote which is “success is going from failure to failure without lack of enthusiasm” so if you fail learn from it, learn from it and keep going and don’t lose your enthusiasm.”

What would you say to people who want to get into living more sustainably? 
“The main advice is to buy less, which I think economists would freak out about. I actually went away for a month and completely cleaned my fridge out and afterwards I decided to buy half the things I used to buy food-wise and I’m trying not to buy stuff. or if I buy something I try to get rid of something responsibility. So every time you buy something too, what happens to it when you decide you don’t want it anymore – can you get recycle it, get you can get rid of it responsibly.”

If you want to know more about Rachel head down to her Tonics and Teas workshop or Pop-up Preserves Masterclass as part of London Food Link’s Urban Food Fortnight.

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