Speaking to River Cottage chef and author Naomi Devlin brings to mind the words of celebrated tech entrepreneur Dame Stephanie Shirley, ‘Bring possibility from crisis.’ On receiving diagnosis of coeliac disease 16 years ago, Naomi did just that and is now on a mission, “I want to help others discover how delicious it can be to take care of your gut,” she says. Naomi is the authentic voice of gluten free cooking for gut health in the UK today and here she talks to Vic North about #MeToo, supper clubs and being brilliant at what you do.
Being a woman in food
“When I was younger, I worked in the film industry as a costume designer and it was a similarly male dominated environment to the food world whereby you had to find your place as a woman. Younger women dealing with male banter need to be aware that sometimes it’s not alright and you can speak out. In many ways, we need the #MeToo movement to come into professional kitchens as well.
Play to your strengths
“Often in kitchens, women are in a minority and being in a minority of any sort means that you stick out. Sometimes it’s good to stick out. Through my femaleness and as a food writer and teacher, I bring empathy and an ability to connect with people which is a huge positive.
Learning by doing
“As a woman, it can be hard to break into the culture of the ‘Boy’s Club’ especially if you don’t have that stamp of formal chef training. I think not having had formal training has made me quite fierce about learning new stuff. I am such a nerd about cooking and food. I hunger for knowledge and you need that to be good in any industry.
“I grew up in a commune and that’s where I started cooking. I was pulling vegetables out of the ground, milking cows and making pickles, yoghurt, cheese and sourdough bread. I was cooking for huge numbers of people, often sixty at a time and that was my training, right back then – learning by doing.
Pop-ups, supper clubs and opportunities for women.
“Pop-ups and especially supper clubs have been amazing for women. It’s all about the whole experience: come in, feel this wonderful environment, listen to some great tunes, have a nice experience of which food is a major part but not the only part.
“Thinking about the whole experience is a very female thing because by our nature we are welcoming. My experience of food is always made better when I’m in an environment where I feel relaxed, happy and delighted to be there, which is what supper clubs and pop-ups get so well.
Trajectory into food
“Following my diagnosis with coeliac disease 16 years ago, I began blogging and built up an amazing web of support, sharing recipes with people all over the world. I began to work on gluten free bread and things that that no-one else was doing at the time.
“I approached River Cottage and said, you need to do something with gluten free because there is nothing out there at the moment. This is ten years ago and they weren’t sure that gluten free would be ‘a thing’. As a nutritionist, I’d already been teaching people how to bake and make simple things. River Cottage took a punt and pretty soon my classes were flying off the shelves. We steadily added more and more and now I teach eight different gluten free courses. River Cottage took a chance on something they weren’t sure was going to work and that was a gift. They saw in me a massive passion and a real drive to communicate useful, everyday information. My work is about making a difference through food for people living with coeliac disease.
Advice for start-ups
“Blogging is pretty much over and has been replaced by Instagram which allows you to directly connect with your audience. People can see your brand and have an insight into your life instantly. Pop-ups, supper clubs and Instagram all provide a great way into food.
“Do your own thing and be brilliant at that.”
“Rather than formal training, short courses are a great way to pick up new skills. If you’re interested in food, you’re probably already experimenting and building up your own unique style. You don’t need to be signed off or have beautiful knife skills – look at Nigella – she can barely chop an onion! And yet she is brilliant. Passion, dedication and practice are important in whatever you are doing. You’ve got to just keep on doing what you do and be hard on yourself in terms of quality – ask yourself, is there a way I can improve this? Follow your thing – that’s what people connect to – the thing that represents you. People want uniqueness rather than something they can get anywhere.”
A Bunch of Quick Fire Questions
Who inspired you to become a chef?
I spent so much of my youth leafing through cookbooks that it’s hard to pick my original inspiration, but I think Molly Katzen (author of The Enchanted Broccoli Forrest) started me thinking about both cooking and eating food as a source of joy.
What did you have for dinner last night?
When I’m busy teaching and cooking my go to in spring is to layer up leek, dark greens, grated squash, fat chickpeas, garlic, feta and fennel, drizzle with an indecent amount of olive oil, grate pecorino over the whole thing and let the oven do the work. Eaten gratefully with soft boiled eggs.
Favourite sports team?
I don’t watch sport – much prefer to be playing it.
Best cook book you’ve ever read?
Purely as a good read I’d have to say Diana Henry’s, How To Eat A Peach. The writing so elegantly conveys how meals can capture a place and time. The book made me long to travel and eat, put me in mind of suppers eaten on hot nights with cicadas singing and made me wonder why I had never dunked a peach in prosecco.
Favourite chef ever?
Renee Redzepi – the way he plays with techniques, expresses his love for the land and seasons, his constant experimentation and love of fermentation. Yes, he’s a hero.
Ever dated a chef? How did it end or are you still together?
Only once and never again. Mad as a box of spiders.
Favourite meal to cook for yourself?
I don’t have perennial favourites as I tend to get into something and eat it to death, but my current favourite is bibimbap. A delicious bowl of rice, chilli, pickles and veg with an egg stirred through and maybe a handful of salty peanuts. Quick, flavoursome and comforting.
How many hours sleep do you get?
I always aim for 8 hours and try to get to bed before 10.30 at night because I’m becoming more of an early bird the older I get.
Favourite clothes to cook in?
It depends where I am. At work, my own handmade whites and jeans and at home pants and an apron.
My treasured kitchen tool?
My hands. They can do incredible things – pleat dumplings, make great pastry, check the texture is just right and touch almost anything unless it’s actually red hot. I take them everywhere with me.
What would your superpower be?
I always loved how in the film Chocolat, Juliette Binoche knows instinctively what treat will delight each customer. I’d love to be able to divine what food will delight and nourish anyone I feed.