Nestled on the Devon-Dorset border, Trill Farm is not the easiest of places to find. In fact, it’s something of a satnav nightmare. But once you arrive and you’re greeted by the fresh country air the journey seems worth it. As I stepped inside the restaurant, I was met with the sights and smells of a working country kitchen. In this light and rustic space pickles are preserved, students are taught, and dishes are lovingly made. I was there to speak with Chris Onions, founder and Head Chef of The Old Dairy Kitchen; an educational kitchen and community dining space based on the farm.
As his softly-spoken accent attests, Chris Onions wasn’t always ‘from round here’. Rather, he was born and raised on a small island off the west coast of Scotland known as The Isle of Islay. Nature had a real influence on him growing up and as we sat sipping on Trill Farm brew, he recollected how storms would routinely batter Islay’s coast in the winter months and how the sea would wash over the whole island.
“There was always the faintest tinge of salt when you licked your lips,” Chris reminisced, “When you came in from school you’d have to peel your trousers off your legs because they’d been blown by hailstones. It was moments like those when you saw how powerful nature was.”
His childhood home was the village of Laphroaig; a robust island community with a population of just ninety. Like many parts of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the town was famous for its scotch and ‘ Laphroaig’ was a particularly strong and distinctive variety.
“My dad worked for the distillery and I remember how they’d smoke the barley over peat” he recalled, “Whenever they undertook this process the whole village would take on this really intense aroma. That aroma would then mix with the scent of the storm – when seaweed would wash up on the beaches and ferment – and the combination of sea and smoke-infused everything with a deliciousness. Even the humblest soups or stews tasted better in those months. I think I fell in love with those moments.”
Chris started washing dishes at a local restaurant aged 14 and while he admits that it wasn’t the ‘fanciest’ of places, he would regularly attempt to recreate their dishes at home. “It was my first time working in a professional kitchen and I quickly learned to keep myself busy” he explained, “I remember feeling really accepted because I worked hard. That’s the thing, in a professional kitchen no one cares what’s happened in your past or where you came from. As long as you work hard, you have a home’.
But life on Islay could only take Chris so far and at the tender age of 16 he announced that he wanted to leave the island to pursue a career as a chef. “My mum told me it would ruin my chances of maintaining a relationship or family life but I didn’t care, I just wanted off the island. I wanted to move away from working at normal restaurants and I wanted to have that connection to where my food is from”.
Before settling at Trill Farm, Chris spent four years in Scandinavia, working in social care using farms and food as a means of rehabilitating refugee children and those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. “When I returned to the UK, I knew I wanted to have an open kitchen that would allow a dialogue” he told me, “I feel I have a responsibility to offer affordable food and to educate others where possible. I love going out and foraging for food with my students. I bring them back to the kitchen and see how they make a connection between their plates and the local food culture. We need to find a way to reconnect people with where their food comes from and I hope The Old Dairy Kitchen can do this”.
At the Old Dairy Kitchen, lunch is served twice a week with a simple premise: everything is brought in fresh from the farm and seating is communal. “I like to do communal feasts for a number of reasons” Chris explained, “In Britain, we’re not too good at starting up conversations, it seems. I want to create a sense of conviviality around the table, not dissimilar to a family meal. Having all these beautiful colours and sharing dishes being passed around is a great way to facilitate conversation. There have been some lovely connections made at Trill Farm already and I really do believe that food has a magical power to bring people together”.
The Old Dairy Kitchen also runs a range of cookery classes; including a unique course entitled ‘A Year in Preserving’ in which students learn to create different ferments and pickles within their own kitchens. “The kitchen is open plan on purpose”, he told me, “Guests can come up after lunch and ask us any questions they might have. I’ve noticed a resurgence in people wanting to know basic kitchen skills. People are curious to know what’s going into the bottles sitting in the cupboards and while it’s easy to go out and buy condiments, it’s an entirely different experience making them for yourself”.
Chris maintains that if you’re going to cook seasonally, you need to be connected with the time and place. “We’re in game season now and you’ll notice a shift in things”, he explained, “The farm slows down as we creep into the winter months and it’s important to take stock of all the madness of late summer. When we work with autumnal ingredients – such as wild mushroom and game – it feels like we should be cooking that food. It feels like we should be lighting fires, going for woodland walks and taking in the aromas of Autumn. It’s this essence of the surrounding land and the season that I want people to take away with them when they leave the restaurant. After all, a meal is not just about what’s on your fork, it should be about the whole experience”.