A new head chef has taken over at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Canteen in Axminster.
Chef Sam Rom won a cook-off for Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall to win the post of head chef, replacing the previous incumbent Tim Maddams.
“It’s a huge honour and very exciting,” said Mr Rom, who formerly cooked at one of Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurants in Leeds.
“I’m very excited by the range and quality of the local produce and the freedom to draw up menus here daily, inspired by in-season ingredients here in the Westcountry.”
Mr Rom was one of four finalists for the job, all of whom had to cook ten dishes for Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall by way of job interview.
“I think my stuffed pig’s trotters and lamb ravioli clinched it,” said Mr Rom. “I used all of the lamb to make the ravioli stuffing, shoulder, kidney, liver and neck, for a richer, stronger flavour.”
Mr Rom will become a familiar face to viewers of the River Cottage TV series.
Tim Maddams welcomed Mr Rom to the River Cottage Canteen and gave him an inkling of what is in store. “Not only do you have to run a busy restaurant, you will also be off on all sorts of mad filming shoots,” Mr Maddams said.
“When I started four-and-a-half years ago, I little thought that I would end up spending seven hours overnight up a tree with a cameraman and a high velocity rifle, failing miserably to spot, let alone shoot, a wild boar.”
Mr Maddams said he was proud of the achievements of River Cottage Canteen. “When we started, it was little more than a delicatessen with a cafe attached. Now we serve up to 2,000 meals a week, from breakfast to dinner.”
Such has been its success that a second River Cottage Canteen has opened in Plymouth and there is talk of further expansion in Taunton or Exeter.
Mr Maddams will continue to work closely with River Cottage. He will be teaching cookery courses at Park Farm, near Axminster, also known as River Cottage HQ.
A fire there recently gutted the cookery school in an old stone barn but a replacement tented safari lodge-style cookery school was working well, he said.
“I am stepping down because, after such a busy few years, I want to have more time for my family,” he explained. “I started work here the day after my honeymoon and in that time, my wife Caroline and I have had Isaac, now two, and we have another baby due on May 2. I am planning to develop my career in food media to be able to spend more time with my children.”
Mr Rom said he was delighted to take on the River Cottage chef’s apron from Mr Maddams at the handover ceremony this week.
He said he had been impressed by the freshness and range of the produce used at the restaurant. “We have the most fantastic salad leaves here that I have ever tasted,” he said. “They are grown near Axminster at Trill Farm. Each salad bag has about 15 varieties. The taste is so good, you can serve them as a dish in their own right.”
Mr Rom is currently cooking his signature recipe, belly of wild boar from Exmoor, at the restaurant. “The dish is served with a stuffing of minced cured meats and herbs,” he said. “I will continue to serve plenty of Hugh’s classic recipes but there is also the opportunity here to be really innovative with food, which is very satisfying.”