Nicola Dixon admits she has a lot of explaining to do.
Until last year, the 28-year-old, who had given up meat as a teenager, would have happily described herself as a committed vegetarian, never even experiencing even the occasional pang for a bacon sandwich. So when she unveiled a menu for her new restaurant venture, The Laden Table, which included game terrine and duck with juniper and orange sauce, those who knew her were understandably a little surprised. When she announced that where possible she would hunt and gather the various ingredients herself that surprise turned to disbelief.
“I know that it sounds like I’ve made a complete U-turn, but I honestly don’t see it that way,” says Nicola, sipping a green tea. “I became vegetarian because I was concerned about the treatment of animals. I didn’t want to eat battery chickens and I didn’t want to eat pork which had been reared on a production line with little concern for the animal’s welfare. That hasn’t changed. However, the whole organic and free range movement has massively increased consumer choice.
“I became vegetarian because I thought it was the responsible thing to do, but it’s not as simple as that. Over recent years I’ve come into contact with some really great producers and I guess it just made me question my own principles. It made me realise that if I knew exactly where the meat had come from, if I could go see the farm where it had been reared and the abattoir where it had been slaughtered then supporting sustainable, ethical local producers was probably more beneficial to the planet than not eating meat.”
The seeds of Nicola’s recent conversion were sown a few years ago, when she fulfilled a lifelong dream of travelling to Alaska. She spent four months living in a rented cabin on a beach on the Kenai peninsular where she saw first hand what it really means to live sustainably.
With imports often expensive and a climate which sees temperatures regularly drop to below -10C in the winter and rise to the high 70s in the summer months means that the population lives and eats by the seasons.
“I can’t explain it, but I’ve always had a fascination with Alaska,” says Nicola. “Ever since I was a child I’ve devoured books about the place and watched every documentary I could find. Finally four years ago I got to go there for real. I’d just finished a creative writing course and still had a few savings in the bank. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if I don’t go know I might never get another chance’, so I booked the flights and packed my bags.”
Nicola, who lives in Great Ouseburn, near York, went with the sole aim of spending four months writing, but she came back with much more than a journal of short stories and scribbled notes. Staring out to sea each day she saw the Alaskan fishing community up close and realised that when she returned to England she wanted to adopt a similar approach to food.
“I’d watch them go out to sea and return with fish which they would cook that evening for their families. We talk about the importance of food miles in this country and the need to know where our meat has come from, but the time I spent in Alaska was a really lesson in how to make the very best use of the natural larder.
“Out there, hunting is a way of life, it’s a necessity, but I also saw how it creates a real sense of ownership over the food. Everything is seasonal and communities feel part of the circle of life rather than trying to adapt nature to suit them. It was everything I imagined and more. Alaska got right under my skin and I guess that’s where my love affair with food really began.”
When she returned to England, Nicola set up her own photographic business, but gradually realised that food and sustainable living was where her real passion lay. While she had always been determined to work for herself, she also knew that for a novice the catering business can be financially and physically draining. In order to learn the industry from the inside, she got a job as operations manager with Filmore and Union. The delicatessen and café, which now has outlets in Harrogate, York and Wetherby has made its name serving innovative dishes, but with an emphasis on fresh ingredients.
Exposed to everything from buying produce to working out profit margins and staff recruitment, it was says Nicola a massive learning curve, but one which confirmed her desire to go it alone. Following a spell at Nidd Hall where she persuaded head chef Georgina Welburn to share her secrets of the perfect pheasant pie, towards the end of last year, she began to finalise details for The Laden Table, which she describes as a sustainable catering company. Instead of renting fixed premises and employing a team of full-time staff, Nicola decided instead that she would go mobile. The mission would be to stage 12 pop-up restaurants in 12 different locations with each menu cooked by a different chef. If that wasn’t challenge enough, the ingredients for each dish would not only be sourced locally, but if Nicola hadn’t personally met the producers it wouldn’t make it onto the menu.
While Nicola might not have decades of experience, she has enthusiasm in spades and it is that combined with her ambition that has already persuaded some of Yorkshire’s top chefs to offer their services. The Pipe and Glass’s James Mackenzie, Andrew Pern, from the Star at Harome and Rudding Park’s Stephanie Moon have all committed to running one of the Laden Table’s events, which over the next year will arrive in Ampleforth Abbey, Helmsley Walled Garden and, if Nicola has her way, a local Christmas tree farm.
“Whenever I go out of the house I come back having discovered another venue which I think would be just perfect for a pop-up restaurant,” she says. “It’s not just a gimmick, the idea right from the start was to choose places which have some connection with food and which can influence the menu in some way. Somewhere like Ampleforth Abbey is perfect. The orchards there have inspired a really successful cider business and while we haven’t decided on a menu yet, it’s probably safe to say that it will include apples.
“Currently on my wish list is to run a candlelit event in one of the forcing sheds in the rhubarb triangle. That yet may prove completely impractical, but what I’ve learnt already is that if you don’t ask and if you don’t try, you don’t get.”
Over the last few months Nicola has spent time at Ginger Pig, which rears rare breeds on the North York Moors, visited the free range pigs at Anna’s Happy Trotters, near Beverley and learnt about the art of butter and cheese-making at the Wensleydale Creamery. Even the bread served on Laden Table evenings is made from flour milled in Yorkshire.
“I’ve been really bowled over by just how generous people are with their time. Complete strangers have got in touch via Twitter and every time I meet one producer, they will recommend someone else I should call. It’s incredible just how many people are doing good things out there.
“Of course it takes time to go to see people, but when someone asks about where the duck or the pork has come from I don’t just want to say the name of a producer, I want them to know that I have been to the farm, that I have seen how they work.”
Laden Table’s first pop-up restaurant opened for two nights at the Bar Lane Studios in York. Nicola had teamed up with Georgina, her old colleague from Nidd Hall, for the event, but with no kitchen of its own, the three-course menu had to be prepared in a catering trailer.
“It was tricky, but I told myself if we can get through that and serve 60 people then we can get through anything,” she says. “It was hectic, but really good fun and I hope it showed people what we are trying to do over the next year.”
Eventually Nicola would like to buy her own plot of land which she can run as a smallholding with the view to becoming more self-sufficient. However, she admits she still has a lot to learn about the reality of living off the land and before she invests in her first brood of chickens she would ideally like to spend some time in Italy.
“I’ve obviously got my hands full for the next 12 months, but after that I would like to go abroad,” she says. “I’ve already travelled a little in Italy. In the rural parts of the country the people still have a real connection to the soil.”
Nicola says that despite spending much of the last few months in her wellies meeting livestock farmers and butchers, she still eats a largely vegetarian diet.
“Dinner is still often a plate of scrambled eggs, but meeting all these wonderful producers has opened my eyes to what sustainable farming really means. I’m never going to get up every morning and tuck into a full English, but meat is definitely on my menu.”
To find out more and to book tickets for Nicola’s next pop-up restaurant go to www.theladentable.com