By Dora Taylor
Ethan and Hazel Friskney-Bryer both work at Fitzroy restaurant in Fowey, Cornwall—head chef Ethan in the kitchen, Hazel front-of-house. After four months of furlough, the couple now find themselves back working six fourteen-hour days a week, whilst also single-handedly maintaining a walled garden full of vegetables, herbs and fruit for the restaurant’s kitchen.
What started as a small project with the whole Fitzroy team last year became the Friskney-Bryers’ sole responsibility over the lockdown. There, the pair grow over thirty varieties of produce, which throughout the pandemic they used to supply local farm shops, whilst also feeding themselves. The garden is now the main source of plant produce for Fitzroy, which is busier than ever.
“Neither of us were really gardeners before any of this, we had zero experience,” Ethan said. “We moved to Cornwall in April last year to open this restaurant in Fowey. In London, our growing was one basil plant on the window sill. I think it’s impossible to be a modern chef without having an interest in how your food is produced. I’ve always been into finding good producers, but we had never tried to do that ourselves.”
Having worked in the food industry for a long time, leaving London was an opportunity for Ethan and Hazel to finally engage meaningfully with growing. “It was part of the Cornish dream,” said Hazel. “We thought we could do with… more time spent outdoors. We tried to grow a few vegetables in our garden here last year, which was good fun.”
The couple’s inexperience turned out to be an asset to their project; their comfort with a trial and error approach pushed them to experiment and allowed their excitement and curiosity to lead them. Ethan recounted that, “When we asked people for advice, people said ‘whatever you do, don’t try too much.’ That went out the window.”
The couple stumbled upon the walled garden at nearby Trefrawl Farm in November last year, and were drawn in by the romance of the setting.“We opened the door and it was chaos, half mud, half brambles, collapsed shed, apple trees, pear trees. They asked if we wanted to grow stuff in there, and we said ‘absolutely, we’ll take it,’” Ethan said.
“It was like the secret garden,” Hazel remembered.
The restaurant was operating winter hours of only three days a week, so despite the intense physical demands the space presented, they were keen to get stuck into the project. “It was quite a naïve decision, but it panned out OK,” Ethan said. “It’s considerably more work than we’d ever realised.”
After spending the winter building beds and clearing pathways—“The pigs had done a lot of the clearing for us,” Ethan pointed out—they had just begun tentatively planting potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes when the lockdown was declared.
“It was weirdly perfect timing,” Ethan said. “Lockdown meant we had far more time to devote to the project than we ever thought we would. We’ve been lucky to have inherited something that’s fertile—chickens and pigs are always good for soil. It’s a natural farm, no pesticides or chemicals; it’s a good place to grow.”
Ethan and Hazel spent at least four days a week planting and weeding. Counter to their original idea of growing a few things in large quantities—to be compatible with restaurant use—they bought a large variety of seeds and started to experiment with crops and wildflowers.
Throughout April and May, the Friskney-Bryers were picking everyday, using their harvest to cook at home and giving lots away to friends. Being new arrivals in the area, sharing the food they had grown was a way of embedding themselves within their local community. “One of the nice things that happened during lockdown was that there seemed to be a lot of food sharing, Hazel said. “People would come round and be like ‘I’ve made extra of this,’ it was lovely.”
Other young, local farmers supported Ethan & Hazel, sharing not only food, but also tips and advice on growing. “I helped out on another farm for a few days,” Ethan said, “and she paid me in tomato and courgette plants, and answered all my questions about growing.”
As the early summer growing season came into full swing, the couple realised they were growing more than they could get through. They got in touch with The Cornwall Collective, a small farm shop on the edge of Fowey, who agreed to take everything they could pick. It’s a really weird feeling selling produce, because it’s a manifestation of love, so trying to get money from people seems awkward,” Ethan said.
“We’ve covered our original costs now,” Hazel said, “I’m happy with that. It’s satisfying bringing a garden back to life. It was swarming with bees and butterflies. When the wildflowers were at their peak, it was like, ‘Wow we’ve done something really amazing here.’’’
Fitzroy is now open again, and everything Hazel and Ethan grow, they sell to the restaurant. With Cornish tourism at higher than usual levels, the restaurant is handling around eighty covers a night, with a daily changing menu that Ethan writes. Despite the shock of the return to their intense working hours they maintain their enthusiasm for growing. The garden’s gifts have driven innovation in Ethan’s menus, and they have learned to treat their vegetables as central elements of their dishes.
“Sometimes you go to the garden in the morning and you think ‘Oh yeah, that could go on the menu tonight,’” Hazel said.
Ethan agreed. “Now, instead of thinking ‘what meat and fish do we have?’ we think, ‘right what vegetables have we got?’” One week, they had a glut of runner beans: “I think we ended up picking about eight kilos of runner beans,” Ethan recounted. “We thought, ‘right, this whole lot is going into a chutney.’ That’s now just in the restaurant in jars, and goes with all the cured meats. You have to be flexible and inventive. It’s a challenge. That’s what we wanted.’
The main difficulty now is keeping on top of the garden. With only one day and a handful of mornings a week off, they are only just able to keep up with the picking and weeding, but they are reluctant to delegate. “We’re a bit protective over it now,” Hazel laughed, “It’s a personal project.”
The restaurant will be entirely closed for winter this year, and they will be kept on a retainer until it reopens in March. They are excited to have more time to devote to the garden, and have some tentative plans to build a polytunnel. Despite what they have achieved this year, though, Ethan assured me they do not consider themselves experts.“If anyone asked us for advice, we’d be like ‘no idea, just give it a whirl, see what happens’.”
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/