For a person on the head of a meals empire whose annual gross sales topped £153m through the pandemic, Charlie Bigham is surprisingly laid-back – and fast to snort. However one factor he does take very significantly is his meals.
“We’re a kitchen, not a manufacturing facility, and we don’t make prepared meals – we make meals,” he tells me, kindly however firmly, once I arrive at his north-west London HQ to speak to him about the place his enterprise started. “Once I began out, I needed to make correct meals with correct substances, made in a kitchen by individuals who care – not ‘operatives’. That’s the place we began, and that’s the place we nonetheless are right now.”
It’s true that at Charlie Bigham’s, the sights which can be acquainted in most meals factories – huge vats reached by ladders, and thick pipes designed to pump meals from place to position – are noticeably absent. As an alternative, hen is browned by hand on cooking plates, and outsized pots and pans bubble with delicious-smelling dishes.
Lifting the lid of a saucepan, I’m handled to the aromatic aroma of a creamy mushroom sauce being ready for a batch of hen and mushroom pies, whereas one other a part of the kitchen is stuffed with the scent of heat caramel as rows of sticky toffee puddings are tucked into their picket bins.
“To regulate high quality, you could cook dinner in small batches, so we’re set as much as be extra like an enormous catering kitchen than a manufacturing facility,” says Bigham, in between greeting workers. “We don’t desire a pot greater than you’ll be able to stir, or pour substances into by hand. So we’ll cook dinner maybe 100 parts of a dish at a time, and make it 10 occasions a day, fairly than making one enormous batch in industrial-sized vessels – as a result of that’s the place you begin to see compromises.” It’s a philosophy that was central to his planning when the corporate expanded 5 years in the past, constructing a kitchen in a disused quarry close to Wells, in Somerset, the place a few of his bestselling dishes at the moment are made.
Bigham was nonetheless in his 20s when he first had his imaginative and prescient for a meals enterprise with a distinction, after leaving his job as a administration advisor to spend 9 months travelling by way of Europe, the Center East and India in a campervan along with his girlfriend (now spouse) Claire.
“I’ve all the time beloved cooking, buying, consuming and chatting over meals,” he says. “It’s one thing all of us do, and it’s on the centre of life. Rising up, my mum was a reasonably good cook dinner, and we all the time had our meals collectively across the desk. Once I left my job, I began enthusiastic about what I may do subsequent, based mostly on the issues I really like. Then, as I travelled, it triggered the thought for my enterprise. For most individuals world wide, a handy meal is a bunch of contemporary substances tossed right into a scorching pan on the aspect of the street – and that appeals to me, as a result of it’s genuine, contemporary and scrumptious.
“However for lots of people within the UK, a handy meal was one thing in a plastic container, which you place in a microwave – there was no soul to it. There was nothing on the market for individuals like me, who love meals and luxuriate in cooking, however would possibly often desire a night time off – one thing scrumptious that you simply’d be joyful to sit down right down to savour and chat over with a glass of wine. In order that’s the place the inspiration got here from.”
Beginning at dwelling in his kitchen, with the assistance of a chef known as Spike – “Cooks all the time have nice names” – Bigham developed his first dishes, going door to door promoting his meal kits to high-end meals shops resembling Partridges and Harrods.
“Sadly, the kits weren’t very profitable,” Bigham laughs. “So as an alternative of attempting to steer individuals to attempt zesty Caribbean lamb, we drifted in the direction of making dishes that had been already in individuals’s repertoires. We thought: ‘How about we simply make the perfect fish pie, with nice substances, with out reducing any corners?’ We knew if we did it correctly, we may produce one thing extra scrumptious than anybody else’s.”
Twenty 5 years after that flash of inspiration, Charlie Bigham’s fish pie continues to be his primary promoting dish – and he’s nonetheless not keen to chop any corners. He develops shut relationships with all his suppliers, meets along with his cooks twice every week to assist hone new and current dishes, and often takes meals dwelling to get pleasure from.
“Certainly one of our values is that we carry actual care and a focus to every part we do, and I in all probability eat our meals twice every week – it could be a disgrace if I didn’t,” he says. “It’s one factor sitting within the kitchen tasting dishes, however that’s not the identical as consuming our meals because it’s bought. The best way we strategy issues is that there’s not one factor that’s 100% totally different to how someone else would possibly do it – as an alternative, we’ve acquired 100 issues which can be 1% totally different, which actually provides up.”
These variations embody the corporate’s work with the neighborhood and native charities, and a dedication to encouraging workers to stick with the enterprise long run. However one of the vital impactful is Charlie Bigham’s packaging. Most of it has been constructed from wooden and cardboard for the final 15 years – a transfer that was effectively forward of its time and which, says Bigham, has since prevented the usage of 130m plastic trays.
“In the event you’re in meals, you’re very conscious of the atmosphere – you’re assembly farmers and producers, and also you’re near nature. We thought there should be a greater manner than packing issues in plastic, so we developed picket containers constructed from poplar. It’s a fast-growing crop, sourced comparatively regionally in France, and for each tree we minimize down, six extra get planted. It was an costly resolution, however undoubtedly the correct factor to do.”
Earlier than I head dwelling, laden down with free meals – that, by the way, are so scrumptious and fresh-tasting, that they make me query why I hassle cooking from scratch in any respect – I ask Bigham how he feels about how far he’s come since he cooked his first dishes in his dwelling kitchen.
“I really feel pleased with what the crew has achieved during the last 25 years, but it surely’s additionally actually thrilling trying ahead to the following decade or so at how rather more we will do,” he grins. “We wish to say we don’t minimize corners – we’re simply enthusiastic about what’s across the subsequent one.”
Even the perfect dwelling cooks just like the occasional night time off, and that’s the place Charlie Bigham’s dishes come into their very own. With every part from steak pies to paella and salmon en croute, it has by no means been simpler to feed your loved ones effectively