Interview: Steve Ashworth, winner of Somerset Life's Food & Drink Hero
PUBLISHED: 15:59 20 May 2019
Combine a passion for food and drink, a commitment to helping others and an endlessly cheerful personality and you have a perfect culinary hero
He's a familiar face to anyone in the county's food circles - or in fact the culinary scene across the South West. But Steve Ashworth, the winner of Somerset Life's Food Hero accolade in our 2018 Food & Drink Awards, is not a chef, or a farmer, or indeed a restaurant owner.
His day job is in finance, working in Bristol, but he's spent years dedicating his every free moment to the local culinary scene, simply for the love of it. Food and drink - whether cooking for himself, sourcing great products or dining out - is his hobby.
After winning Best Dish title in the South West Chef of the Year competition six years ago he began to appear on food and drink judging circuits and as a panellist at food festivals. He then started organising pop-up events, persuading top named chefs to make guest appearances in venues across the country - raising money for charity at the same time. He was one of the founders of the Feast food festival in his home town of Taunton and has gone on to serve on the Bristol Food Policy Council and chair the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership's Rural and Food Sector Group.
It's not just enjoying food, it's also about promoting the industry and, on a basic level, getting good, local food out into communities.
He hails from strong community roots, growing up near Burnley in Lancashire where his parents had a deli. "But I use the term loosely," he chuckles, "we sold cheese, biscuits, bread, along with tripe and black pudding."
He recalls: "I'd come home every lunchtime from school up the road and have my lunch at the back of the shop."
Steve remembers an old school chair in the corner where locals used to come and sit and chat to his parents before buying a pound of tripe.
Which is what made it all the harder when an Asda opened nearby. It's a familiar scene to what was happening across the country at the time; those same locals who came and sat on the chair started going to the supermarket, getting the free bus which stopped right outside the Ashworths' shop.
It marked the beginning of the end for the shop, and had a particularly painful legacy for the family.
"Dad died one lunchtime; and it was all down to the Asda bus," he announces.
Steve's a jolly fellow, anyone who knows him will think of his smile and hefty dose of Lancashire humour, and typically, the smile is still there, even as he recalls the tragic incident.
His father collapsed after an altercation over the parking space. "Dad died in the road after being told he had to move his van for the bus."
Steve was a young teenager at the time. His mum carried on with the shop for a bit, with help from one of his older sisters, but then a couple of years later Steve was diagnosed with bone cancer.
"I lost my left leg the day before my 17th birthday. From the age of 17-21 I had two more episodes of cancer and in 1985 - I remember it was the day of Live Aid - I was given two weeks to live… which obviously they got wrong!"
Perhaps it's this catalogue of trauma that's given Steve a zest for life and for getting things done.
His mum was a great influence in his early cooking days. "She had an Aga and made an amazing meat and potato pie that I still do now."
But it was moving to the South West that marked the real beginning of his culinary journey.
"I was drawn to Bristol and the very early food scene that was developing there in the early 90s. I'd try local restaurants and you could see that Bristol was having something happen to it."
After he and his wife Jane married they honeymooned in Scotland, visiting famous restaurants like Scarista House and The Witchery by the Castle. Returning home they heard about the Friday Food Club in London where chef/patron Lee Behan attracted rising stars in the food world. Soon they were visiting and getting to know the chefs, who Steve says, were starting to move to the South West. "It all started to change and carried on gathering momentum."
Steve started looking closer to home for his culinary adventures and began a mission to try and promote the Somerset scene.
"We have amazing produce, growers and manufacturers; amazing cheese and cider, with markets showcasing it and restaurants using it, but we've really got to work at getting a name for Somerset."
Fully aware that many who enjoy the fabulous South West dining scene, including himself, are "living in ivory towers", a lot of what he does now is also about giving back.
He's working hard in Bristol, digging deep into the roots of food poverty.
"No child should go hungry," he says. "But there are families who have to choose between heating a flat or eating - a choice they have to make every day."
Organisations are delivering food where it's needed, but he says the challenge now is to teach people how to cook the donated produce.
"We can get food to people, but if they don't know what to do with it it's pointless."
It's upsetting and worrying. We need a lot of social change - and it will be same in Taunton and across Somerset.
It sounds like a full time job, but this 'happy chappy' from Lancashire still approaches his food and drink work as a hobby, which may be why he's as in love with the industry as he's ever been.
"I love getting into a kitchen for a day - it's the most exciting place I can think of. They are amazing places - seeing the teamwork. And I can sit for hours in a restaurant or café, just people watching and watching the dynamics...it's like a ballet," he says.
Steve's Somerset foodie highlights:
1. Brett Sutton, The White Post, Rimpton, Yeovil
Brilliant food with an amazing view. It takes your senses on a food journey of flavours and textures with a real emphasis on quality local ingredients.
2. Richard Guest, Augustus, Taunton
This is the food I love. No bells and whistles just great food that whacks your taste buds and gives you a big hug.
3. Ashley and Georgie, Tristan's, Taunton
Good bistro-style food to relax into with family and friends. Great hospitality.
4. Liam Finnegan, Castle Bow, Taunton
It's iconic and special when we visit. One of the first places my wife took me to when I arrived in Taunton. Fine dining at its best.
5. Matthew and Iain Pennington, The Ethicurean, Wrington
A superb ethos towards seasonal food linked to the garden, that brings local, sustainable ingredients on to the plate, showcasing the vegetables. With their amazing views and walled garden this is a Somerset gem.
6. Braziers, Wellington and Taunton
Working in Bristol we have great coffee shops. Then we found Braziers roasters. Delicious coffee and tasty brunch. I crave it every Sunday for brunch and Tonedale Mill is the perfect setting. Add their own roasted coffee, a growing menu and secret supper clubs it's a must go to.
7. The Quantock Restaurant, Bridgwater and Taunton College, Taunton
Best value and delicious food cooked by the students, with the support of their tutors. A quality experience and the future of catering.
This is a catch all, maybe a cheat, but I am passionate about supporting local shops like Withies Deli, The Little Wine Shop, Bowditch Fish, Riverside Butchers, Pynes, Somerset's Farmers' Markets, Granny Smiths.
Some of my other favourites would be: Clavelshay Barn, Albatross, Lutrell Arms (our wedding venue), Pony and Trap, The Pig Hotel (our grown up children's choice for Christmas celebration). And apologies to those I've missed, but have had amazing experiences at.