AUTHOR: TOM TANNER
Just over 60 miles west of Cumbria in the middle of the Irish Sea lies the Isle of Man, the only entire nation to be a member of the UNESCO world network of Biosphere Reserves. It’s this little–known fact (on this side of the water at least) that inspired a 27-year-old chef, with no formal training, to create a dish that’s just won her an international award
Pippa Lovell wept as she won the S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility at the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2020, UK and Northern Europe regional final.
In May, Pippa will represent the region at the Grand Finale in Milan. Our sister organisation Food Made Good Global partnered with S.Pellegrino on this new award, created the criteria and participated in the judging. Here, Pippa tells the SRA about her inspiration for the dish, lovingly called What She Found and spells out her hopes and dreams for her own unique restaurant and for her fellow chefs.
Studying music and theatre at university is a far cry from running a restaurant serving hyper-local food on the southern tip of the Isle of Man. Washing pots to help pay her way through uni fostered Pippa’s interest in cooking. Head chef jobs in Manchester followed by a stint at Restaurant 108 in Copenhagen helped Pippa realise that what she really wanted to do was run her own restaurant operated to her own rules – most of which revolved around a strict adherence to seasonal food found on the doorstep.
Thus, Versa was born. The name comes from the expression vice versa – a reference to a restaurant’s relationship with the land. It’s situated in an old coal shed, with 24 covers and a view out to sea.
“Everything we serve comes from within walking distance. If it’s not, then it doesn’t appear on the menu. I think the furthest away any of the ingredients come from is 18 miles. I change the menu every week, entirely based on what’s available.”
With Pippa foraging at least half of the ingredients herself, taking sole charge of the kitchen and serving every dish for the first few months after opening in July 2019, you begin to understand what a passion project this is.
But it’s definitely one that the people of the island have bought into. Almost daily, Pippa will arrive at the restaurant to find something by the back door – from onions to lobster. The generous donor of eight ducks was rewarded with a full tasting menu dinner.
With winter well and truly on the way, Pippa is fully prepared. Hard work harvesting the abundant surrounding larder means customers in the hungry months will still get to enjoy the best of the island in the shape of syrups, oils, purees, sauces and pickles and preserves made with gooseberries, elderberries, blueberries, nasturtium capers, nuts, sea weed, fennel and herbs – the list goes on.
“Anything that I can make vegan I will,” says Pippa. “This is a really small island and we have to think about being independent of the outside world, imagining if we can’t source from anywhere else. We must ration the amount of meat and seafood we use.”
That leads us to the dish which won Pippa the award, which does actually feature meat – but for good reason.
“Yes, Laughtan lamb is special to the Isle of Man and without the island’s biosphere status the breed wouldn’t still be alive. The lamb is the catalyst for the other ingredients on the dish as they are responsible for its existence.”
The lambs are bred in the next village. Pippa smokes the meat in gorse from the field in which it grazed. It then goes in the sous vide in water from the stream that runs through the same field.
Accompanying the lamb is an emulsion made with watercress Pippa picks when out walking her dog on a Sunday morning.
The garnish is hairy bitter cress, ‘foraged’ from right outside the back door of the restaurant and local wild garlic.
The butter and buttermilk come from the dairy, just over the field and the island’s Bushy brewery is the source of the oyster stout which glazes the dish. The final ingredient is fermented carrots, donated to the restaurant.
To take the award back to the island means the world to Pippa, although she felt she’d succeeded long before lifting the trophy.
“I’d already won. Just entering confirmed what I am doing and vindicated my approach. I entered to test myself and to see if what I was trying really did work to see if I had the skills.
“Now though, through winning I think I’ve helped make so many people who were involved with produce on the plate feel proud. When we feel proud about something we want to look after it more. I hope all of them will to do even more to preserve the planet and take ownership.”
This is very much still the beginning for Pippa. When she closes Versa for a few weeks in the depths of winter she’s going to work at L’Enclume in the Lakes and Kai in Galway – eager to learn more skills from like-minded chefs.
Pippa’s success has given her the platform to share three pieces of invaluable wisdom with fellow chefs:
- Please just have fun again – enjoy what you’re doing more.
- Have respect for yourself and realise your choices can have an impact.
- You have to eat with the seasons as by doing so it is a catalyst for so many things