Independent cook & grower Johnnie Collins On the art of the urban vegetable garden

Johnnie Collins photo
Portrait by Jonathan Daniel Pryce

For self-taught chef, Johnnie Collins, growing is equally as important as cooking. Whether he’s the cook in residence at 180 Strand, Oakley Court, or cooking for a special brand collaboration, Johnnie is devoted to spreading his love for hyper-seasonal, local produce. His Dalston garden is a thriving source of inspiration, where you can drop in for a tour and learn about the lifecycle of his Iberico tomatoes – from seed-saving, to fermenting, to cooking up a zingy tomato sauce – and then head home with a jar of tomatoes to try for yourself. He’s cultivated a prestigious following, and counts Hermès, Wales Bonner, LFW and Adidas among a roster of high-profile clients.

 

James Wright: Hi Johnnie, how are you? You're in a greenhouse?

Johnnie Collins: I am! Well, I’m at my mum's. I come here once a week and grow as much stuff as I can. Weather-wise, it's been nicer this weekend. And it feels like there’s not going to be another frost. Things will start growing really strong now, so that's happy days for us – good for the veg.

When you pull a carrot from the earth, the difference in taste between that and one you’ve bought on a supermarket shelf tells you everything. It's sweet. It's utterly carrotty because it's still got its nutrients

JW: Okay, let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell me a bit about why food was so important to you and your family at home growing up?

JC: I was lucky to grow up in a household where we were always sitting and eating around the table and having guests over. My mum was an amazing cook and gardener, and my dad was a wine merchant, his world revolved around hospitality, so I think that’s where I got it from. I love cooking, I love feeding people. But it’s not just about creating really intricate, clever dishes. I love being creative, but it’s also about going around and chatting; it's the whole experience. I think that’s what we had growing up – from picking herbs that we used for dinner, to understanding the provenance and quality of wine. It’s that sense of abundance that I love.

 

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JW: Hyper-seasonal, locally-sourced food is at the core of your cooking practice. What do you love most about what the British seasons offer in the way of produce?

JC: The seasons are so pronounced here, with different things to look forward to. Over the last few years, there's been a massive movement back towards seasonality. Like, buying berries from New Zealand in the middle of winter in England just makes no sense, because they've been sprayed and stored and transported, and that's just not what you're supposed to be eating. We ought to be picking things when they're at their peak, when nature is giving them to you. At the moment, I’ve got these strawberry flowers in front of me and I know that in about a month's time, I'm going to have delicious strawberries, which will taste miles better than any strawberries I could buy from the Co-op.

I’m all about flavour. I always use carrots as my example: when you pull a carrot from the earth and eat it, the difference in taste between that carrot and one you’ve bought on a supermarket shelf tells you everything you need to know. It's sweet. It's utterly carrotty because it's still got its nutrients in it. Gardening and growing your own stuff is a lot of extra work but time spent in the garden is all part of the enjoyment.

Why buy stuff from really far away when there's beautiful produce being grown in the local area? I think sustainability is just this

JW: The word ‘sustainability’, which gets thrown around a lot these days. What does it mean to you, and how does it feed into your day-to-day practice? 

JC: ‘Regenerative agriculture’ is the latest ‘buzz’ term, and you can see it's being hijacked by corporations already. These phrases start out as meaning something, and then lose meaning when they get used for selling, you know? I think that’s something we need to be very wary of.

When I began cooking professionally, I started noticing food trends. Like with avocados, for example, everyone was buying them, but then you heard about the environmental damage that was doing. We’re so used to just being able to get whatever we want whenever, and restaurants create a massive amount of waste if menus don’t change on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Why buy stuff from really far away when there's beautiful produce being grown in the local area? I think sustainability is just this.

I cook according to the seasons as much as possible. I grow stuff, I compost, I care for the soil and try to create as little waste as possible. That's how it should be really. Growing stuff at my mum's and my garden in Dalston means I never have to go to the shop and buy lettuce, or worry about where it came from, whether it's been sprayed or not, or anything like that.

 

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Johnnie at the farmer's market; Photograph by Ethan Clarke

JW: Can you paint a bit of a picture of the garden that you have in Dalston, and how that came about?

JC: Well, I knew I wanted to find a place with a garden that wasn’t shared, where I could grow stuff, and we bought our flat at auction a few years ago. No one had lived there for ten years and when we walked in, we almost fell through the floorboards. The garden was a sprawling mass of brambles with a fox den at the back. Anyway, we ended up creating three different levels. One of them has an apple tree; a topiary bush; a blackberry bush. What I love about our garden is that we've not done it in a growing-focused way; we’ve got kales and chards, intermingled with rose bushes and nasturtiums. I can walk out, pick a leaf here, some herbs here, pick a flower. It means we don’t have to go to the shops, and it just provides a mental release. Every morning, I do some watering, some weeding, some picking. It's such a pleasure to have in the middle of Dalston. And it’s just about constantly putting little things in here and there, like these bulbs I've been growing in a makeshift greenhouse; they’ll go into pots soon and we'll have tomatoes and chilies throughout summer...and kales now until basically this time next year. It’s a little oasis. 

 

JW: You speak about it as a kind of sanctuary in the middle of East London. In a world where we're often stressed and stretched thin, what do you think planning, growing and caring for a garden in the city can give people? 

JC: Just putting your hands in the soil releases serotonin. Even with weeding, once you get into it, you kind of go into a meditative state. Doing simple, repetitive tasks outside using your hands is really good for your mental state. And you can't do it through a screen, you know? It's a massive release against all the other stuff that we have to deal with day-to-day.  

But for me, I think planting seeds, nurturing them, seeing them grow and then finally picking them and either preserving or eating them immediately...it’s that long process, and the effort that goes into it. That’s the most satisfying thing. And I think that’s what I like about cooking for people too, that act of nurturing.

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JW: You're clearly passionate about every part of the process. It strikes me that a lot of your work is about sharing knowledge and inspiring people to have a more hands-on relationship to the food they eat. Why do you feel this is so important today?

JC: I think it's important from the standpoint of climate change of course. We need to do something major about the way we eat and how we connect with the soil otherwise you know...we're all doomed. But on a personal level, when people go to a farmers’ market for example, if they stop and take fifteen minutes to chat with the person at the stall and hear about the amount of work and love that goes into these vegetables or animals that they rear, it can really help change how they understand food and help reconnect them to what they’re eating.

You know, even if you can't get out into nature, if you've got a window sill, there are still things you can grow — herbs, chard, things that you can snip and that will come back, like rocket or parsley or chives. 

 

Just putting your hands in the soil releases serotonin. Even with weeding, once you get into it, you kind of go into a meditative state

JW: On the cooking side of things, time spent in the kitchen must be very different, specifically in terms of the pace? Perhaps because of television and other things, we see it as being very fast-paced, without any margin for error.

JC: I think most gardeners or growers will tell you, everything comes at once, so there are sort of busier times, but cooking professionally is stressful because it's fast-paced and long hours. I always find with cooking, even fresh, you have to go slow. If you're rushing around the place, you're going to knock something over and spill a sauce or something's going to go wrong. There are times when you’re under pressure, but if you just take a second and a deep breath, you usually get through those times and complete things faster.

It's a strange thing, cooking professionally. You might have a list with fifty things you've got to do before the end of the day and you cross them off one-by-one. If you give me a list in my normal life, I never cross anything off...It’s a funny contrast, but there’s a mindset you need to have where you think three or four days ahead. You have to order something, or prep something, or brine something. But I do try in both the garden and kitchen to take my time.

 

Johnnie BNW

JW: You've done a few collaborations with brands revolving around scent. Can you tell us a little bit about the role of fragrance in your work? Is it intertwined with the act of cooking for you?

JC: Yeah. One project I did was with Loewe, on their candles, which was nice because my grandfather was a perfumier and then my dad was a wine-merchant and I'm a cook, so I guess we all have a good nose or a good sense of taste. Even now, sitting here, I can smell there's a crab apple tree in front of me and I can smell the blossom. Smelling the raw ingredients and smelling something as it cooks, it helps you know when it's ready or what it needs. The two go hand-in-hand. You taste with your smell. Right now I'm trying to eat things that taste of themselves without too much intervention. When you pick up something immediately and smell it, you get a sense of how good it is. And then as you transform something through giving it heat or salt or thyme, its smells change. That fascinates me.

 

JW: When it comes to partnering with brands or individuals, how important is it to you to be aligned when it comes to shared values?

JC: Usually, when someone gets in touch it’s because they care about what I do, and the growing side of things. If it's a serious request, that angle of it is important to the people who want to collaborate with me. There's always compromise in life, but I couldn't really do a project with someone who didn’t care about how something is made, the ingredients that go in and the processes that go into it. It wouldn’t make sense to me.

 

JW: You spoke earlier about why buying blueberries from New Zealand is bad, but has the globalisation of food had any benefits? I’m thinking particularly about how knowledge is exchanged. It doesn't mean you have to go to the place, but a particular cuisine or an approach to farming can make its way to the UK or elsewhere because of the internet...

JC: Well, for me, the starting point is always the ingredients. There are many people from many cultures living here who have brought us amazing food, and I think that we've all benefited from that, and I’ve had the luxury of travelling to lots of places, which has influenced me. At home, I cook a lot of fried rice, noodles and pasta. The influences come from far and wide, but the one constant is using good ingredients, either from farmers I know or grown by myself basically. 

 

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Photograph by Ethan Clarke

JW: In terms of the future of sustainable food, what excites you on a personal level?

JC: The educational side of things, informing people about food, is a passion that’s crept up on me. I think there are really exciting things happening with regenerative agriculture, which is a term that, as I said, has already been hijacked, but the people who do it properly, and really care are doing amazing things, like wild farming. That's something I’d love to get involved with – setting up market gardens, and running more community-oriented cooking events.

 

JW: The way you articulate what you do and why you care is evocative of the way an artist speaks about their work. Do you feel like thinking and practising as a cook and a grower has changed you as a person over the years?

JC: Definitely. When I went to university we were given options like finance or law – things that didn’t suit me at all, and I went to film school after that, before I started working in business. But I started cooking on the side, doing pop-ups, working in restaurants, and it turned out to be a world that I was really attracted to. And then I got more interested in food and produce and started growing stuff. And now I'm fascinated by it all, and it’s become an outlet for my energy. I get a lot out of cooking delicious food for people; it’s what I live for.

 

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