Jane Baxter: flavours of the world
PUBLISHED: 11:32 26 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:32 26 August 2016
Acclaimed chef Jane Baxter has been on an incredible culinary journey around the world and ending in Devon, as she tells Alexis Bowater
From making her first ever dessert aged ten, of toffee top peaches pudding, to being acclaimed by Henry Dimbleby as the “greatest vegetable cook in Britain” this Sunderland lass who fell in love with Devon has come a long way. It’s not been just an emotional and spiritual journey, it’s been a spectacular geographic one too, taking her from England to the other side of the world and back more than once.
We meet in the gleaming kitchen of her new adventure, Wild Artichokes, in Kingsbridge, which combines an open catering kitchen with long, rustic dining tables and an eclectic set menu - perfect for parties. As we speak she chops and minces a variety of vegetables, cracks jokes, sprinkles anecdotes and kneads staff who clearly adore her. Something is steaming on the stove. The state of her octopus is a running gag. This warmth and humour combined with a stoic work ethic will have stood her in good stead in the years it has taken her to go from being an Agricultural Science undergraduate at Leeds University to one of the country’s most acclaimed female chefs. Determination and passion in equal measure took her from cooking ‘weird stuff’ for her student housemates that they used to ‘look at on slides’ to the Helford River to work with George Perry Smith after receiving an interview request by postcard - imagine that now - and then within months moving to the Carved Angel in Dartmouth to be trained by the iconic Joyce Molyneux.
“She just knew that I was really keen. She just gave people a chance and even though she had a Michelin star she employed complete amateurs,” she recalls.
“It was a good grounding in hospitality because we did the ironing and washed up, worked in the kitchen, worked out the front, helped with the wine, everyone did everything.”
Jane was just 25. It’s not hard to see what the Michelin-starred chef saw in this good-humoured, dynamic, hardworking, pragmatic woman. Molyneux wasn’t alone in her admiration. Jane worked her way round most restaurants in Dartmouth, did a stint with Stein, an influential few years at London’s River Café, honed her passion and inculcated herself into her new professional tribe.
“With food you are always learning constantly. I love the atmosphere in the kitchen: yes it is stressful, and I don’t really want to say this because it is a bit of a cliché but it is a bit of a family. A very dysfunctional one, but it is a family.
“In the hospitality world there are some great people, some really great people. People who are pompous or who don’t have a good sense of humour don’t last very long.”
Love it as she did, Jane was a traveller with itchy feet. She could have stayed in one place and learned from people who came to her but instead she went to the world.
Starting in the Philippines she took any job going, including polishing the floors of the bamboo huts with a coconut under her feet: “I had thighs like nutcrackers.”
The intrepid journey took in a road trip across America, Samoa, Australia, and included a military coup and an evacuation in a Hercules to Australia from the South Pacific Solomon Islands that stole her heart.
“I used to cook for the New Zealand High Commissioner when I was there. But it all got a little bit dangerous. I loved the Solomon Islands, they are such an amazing place, really interesting place, lovely people,” explains Jane.
“But there was quite a lot of trouble there. I had to come home. I didn’t like that at all. A Hercules, to Brisbane. It wasn’t necessary, there was a lot of stuff going on.”
So urgent was the flight out of the country that Jane could take nothing with her.
“One morning I woke up to go to work and I was told that I couldn’t go there and I haven’t been back since. It is quite a weird scenario to be in and it makes you really sympathise with people who are displaced because this was me just sort of doing a bit of cooking in a place but they are seriously displaced,” says Jane, talking of refugees now.
“I wanted to go back to the restaurant where I had been helping, but I couldn’t go back because one of the guerrilla groups called the Malaita Eagle Force had taken it over. In actual fact some of them have my work boots and my Carved Angel Cookbook,” she guffaws.
She did, however, stay in the South Pacific, working for the Tokelau Government, falling in love and marrying in the Catholic Cathedral there, before having her beloved son David in New Zealand.
Coming home with a baby and bags full of experience brought her to Devon’s Riverford Field Kitchen which galvanised her reputation as an author, chef, passionate innovator and fresh food guru. Her recipes were acclaimed, her books award-winning.
Moreover, her subsequent collaboration with Henry Dimbleby on the vegetarian books Leon found her dubbed by him “probably the greatest vegetable cook in Britain”.
But it is the Wild Artichokes dining room and kitchen in Kingsbridge that is, for her, “the biggest planned adventure” where she is preparing, as we speak, an Island Night extravaganza for a party later. It’s all going pretty well, but that octopus is still causing trouble.
“I’m definitely not the greatest octopus chef,” she jokes. “And I’m definitely not the greatest banana pudding chef because I’ve just messed that up.”
Geniality and laughter pervade and you can see that almost nothing will winkle her out of the South Hams now - not the Italian Puglia passion she regularly indulges or the Abergavenny annual festival she attends. For this is home for her, her business and her son, and she may have travelled a few times around the world but those itchy feet seem to have been soothed by this South Devon estuary - for now.
For more information please contact wildartichokes.co.uk
TEN THINGS JANE BAXER LOVES ABOUT DEVON:
1. The lanes. I don’t like going on the big roads. I will not drive past Bristol Airport.
2. I love the beach but it takes a lot for me to go in the water.
3. Favis of Salcombe Crab - the best in the world and the amazing seafood and fish. I love Brixham: I love the fact that we have a proper fishing port here.
4. I love gig rowing on the Salcombe estuary.
5. I love Devon Days Out - like the Blackawton Worm Charming Championships.
6.I really love the Kingsbridge Country Market every Wednesday morning.
7. Duck Man Dan - he delivers ducks. He is Devon personified.
8.I love going to North Devon.
9. Kingsbridge Rugby Club on a Friday night.
10. Green rolling hills and driving across the moor. Dartmoor is incredible, especially in autumn.
TEN THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT JANE BAXTER:
1. She once played Mary Magdalen in Jesus Christ Superstar.
2. She buys a curry on a Friday night and it sees her through to Monday morning.
3. She’s not good in heels.
4. It takes 10 people to get her into a posh frock.
5. She likes a big Toffee Crisp with her cup of tea.
6. She owns a grass skirt.
7. She can siva dance (like hula dancing) when she’s had a few beers.
8. She once cooked for Harry Hill who looked at the food and said: “ooh, nice grub”.
9. Her secret passion is Puglia in Italy.
10. She once made 36 plates out of coconut leaves.