Feast with Friends is the Stoke-on-Trent based chef teaching young and old to pay attention to eating well.
Cooking has always been a passion of Chris Cohen, the chef behind Feast with Friends. Now in his 40s, Chris worked weekends in his mum’s catering business as a teen and wanted to pursue a career in the kitchen on leaving school.
“Funnily enough, my mum put me off that,” he tells Sauce. “She wanted me to be creative in more obvious ways. I guess what she didn’t know then was that food would become such a creative discipline as it is now, and so visual.”
His own experience in the education system has influenced the path of Chris’ development as a chef and as an educator – with a degree in architectural design.
“I really struggled at school and I love the fact that I educate now,” he says. “I treasure that beyond anything. Sharing what you know is important. I worked across Staffordshire and down in London running kitchens. Then I realised I wanted more from my education. I got my degree and did a teaching qualification, taught in schools and colleges and really enjoyed it.”
Over the last year Chris has found a way to unite his love of cooking with a desire to teach, under the Feast with Friends banner. He works both as a private chef, creating dining experiences for people in their own homes, as well as teaching classes and workshops for people of all ages in schools, colleges and workplaces across the county.
In the future, Chris has a longstanding ambition to set up a means of educating and training aspiring young chefs in the Stoke-on-Trent area. He sees this as creating a pipeline for the expansion of the independent dining sector in the city, as well as providing opportunities for its young people.
“I’ve worked with and played a part in the training of a few people who have gone on to do amazing things. You see what they’ve done and how they’ve travelled. It would be great if people travelled then came back to Stoke to set up their own restaurants. What can we do to move that forward? That’s something I’m passionate about.”
In the meantime, much of Chris’ day to day work centres around the Well Fed Initiative. Aimed at educating people of all ages about nutrition and eating well, the initiative provides tailored courses for everyone from small children to university students, with the option of curriculum-focused content.
“I’ve done a lot of work in primary schools, which is immensely challenging purely because most primary schools don’t have a space dedicated to cooking,” Chris relates. “It is a case of doing things in different ways to get kids cooking and thinking about healthy eating differently. Not making them feel like they’re being talked down to is part of that.”
Chris developed the principles of his specialised food workshops based on health service guidelines, to the extent that he has permission to use the NHS logo on the Well Fed Initiative.
“I’ve taken some of the guidance – which is something I did in my teaching anyway – and used it to come up with my own ways to get people eating more healthily,” he explains. “I work on a five F system, which talks about factors like feast and find, based on food psychology and exploring food.”
Part of the joy of food is the idea that it is an exploration of different tastes, textures and aromas – an idea that Chris believes should not be reserved for fine dining restaurants. Indeed, he’s trying to instil this way of thinking into even the youngest children through his classes, seminars and parties.
“What’s obvious with a lot of children is that, even by quite a young age, their relationship with food is already difficult,” Chris notes. “It’s very natural for children not to want to eat very green vegetables, for example, because of the strong chlorophyll flavour, but by cooking them in different ways and getting them to eat them in different ways you can overcome that.”
Doing things differently in this context will often include trying out mindfulness, which Chris introduces using the ‘raisin test’.
“We take any ingredient, usually fruit or veg, and they put it in their hand and look at it,” Chris explains. “It’s getting to know it, looking at the way the light shines on it, giving it a sniff, pulling it apart so you can really smell it, and putting it on your tongue but not eating it straight away. Then we’ll talk about how that’s where digestion starts.
“What amazed me the first time I did it was how it intensifies the flavour of what you’re eating. It’s so powerful. And alongside that, if you try it with food that’s heavily processed in a negative way, the flavour of that food is always absolutely dreadful because you’ve explored it properly. If you slow down the way you’re eating, you get to enjoy your food – and learn which food you enjoy.”
It’s all too easy to be distracted by screens these days, or just the rush of work and family life, but actively paying attention – not only to what we put into our body but how our body reacts to it – can help in more ways than one. Chris is fascinated by ongoing research into the gut microbiome and digestive health, and particularly its influence on good mental and overall health.
“I think personalised health is about listening to your body,” he says. “Sometimes we wait for something to be wrong, whether it’s a skin condition or IBS or a heart problem. It’s about getting people to think, ‘If I get my digestive health right, the rest can follow’.”
You can find Chris’ recipe for cured mackerel with carrot purée, pickled carrots and wasabi avocado in Sauce Spring 2019.
Feast with Friends