‘Cooking at the Heart of Life’: Food Entrepreneur Charlie Bigham Talks About Changing the Industry | A vision for better food

For the man at the helm of a food empire whose annual sales exceeded £153m during the pandemic, Charlie Bigham is surprisingly laid-back – and quick to laugh. But one thing he takes seriously is his food.

He told me gently but firmly when I arrived at his headquarters in northwest London to talk to him about where the work had begun. “When I started, I wanted to make the right food with the right ingredients, made in the kitchen by people who care — not ‘activists.’ That is where we started, and that is where we are still today.”

Kitchen view

It is true that at Charlie Bigham’s, the sights familiar to most food factories – the vast pans accessed by stairs, thick tubes designed to pump food from one place to another – are noticeably absent. Instead, chicken is hand-broiled on cooking plates, and large bubbles are made from pots and pans with delicious-smelling dishes.

Lifting the lid of the pot, I treat myself to the fragrant aroma of a creamy mushroom sauce that prepares a batch of chicken and mushroom fritters, while another part of the kitchen fills with the aroma of warm caramel as rows of sticky candies are placed in their wooden crates.

“To control quality, you need to cook in small batches, so we are set up to be more like a large catering kitchen than a factory,” Bigham says, among the welcome staff. “We don’t want a lot more than you can stir, or pour the ingredients by hand. So we’re going to cook maybe a hundred portions of the dish at a time, and make it 10 times a day, rather than making one huge batch in industrial-sized bowls – because that’s where you start See concessions. It’s a philosophy that was central to his planning when the company expanded five years ago, building a kitchen in an abandoned quarry near Wales, in Somerset, where some of his best-selling dishes are now prepared.

Charlie Bigham's Kitchen, Built in Somerset Quarry

Bigham was still in his twenties when he first had his vision of a different food company, having quit his job as a management consultant to spend nine months traveling through Europe, the Middle East and India in a campground with his girlfriend (now wife) Claire.

“I’ve always loved cooking, shopping, eating, and chatting about food,” he says. “It’s something we all do, and it’s at the heart of life. Growing up, my mom was a good cook, and we always had our meals together around the table. When I quit my job, I started thinking about what I could do next, based on the things I loved. Then, as I traveled, I fired My Business Idea.For most people around the world, a proper meal is a batch of fresh ingredients that are put into a hot roadside frying pan – and that appeals to me, because it’s authentic, fresh and delicious.

“But for a lot of people in the UK, a comfort meal was something in a plastic bowl, you put in the microwave – there was no soul to it. Nothing was available for people like me, who love food and enjoy cooking, but may sometimes like On a holiday night – something delicious that you are happy to sit down to savor and chat over a glass of wine. Hence the inspiration.”

Bigham savored one of his special meals.

Starting at home in his own kitchen, with the help of a chef named Spike—”chefs always have great names”—Bigham developed his first dishes, going door-to-door selling his meal kits to high-end food stores like Partridges and Harrods.

“Unfortunately, the combinations weren’t very successful,” Bigham laughs. “So instead of trying to get people to try delicious Caribbean lamb, we drifted towards making dishes that were already in people’s repertoire. We thought, ‘What if we make the best fish patty, with great ingredients, without cutting any corners? True, we can produce something more delicious than anyone else.”

Twenty-five years after that flash of inspiration, Charlie Bigham’s fish pie is still a best-selling dish — and he still doesn’t want to cut anything. He develops close relationships with all his suppliers, meets with his chef twice a week to help refine new and existing dishes, and regularly takes meals home to enjoy.

“One of our values ​​is that we take real interest and care in everything we do, and I probably eat ours twice a week – it would be a shame if I didn’t,” he says. “It is one thing to sit in the kitchen tasting dishes, but it is not the same as eating our food as we are sold. The way we approach things is that there is not a single thing that is 100% different from the way someone else might do – instead, we have 100 things are 1% different, which is something that really adds up.”

Detail of growing herbs

These differences include the company’s work with the community and local charities, and a commitment to encouraging employees to stay in business for the long term. But one of the most impactful is Charlie Bigham’s packaging. Most have been made of wood and cardboard over the past 15 years — a move far ahead of their times, which has since, says Bigham, banned the use of 130-meter-tall plastic trays.

“If you eat, you are very aware of the environment – ​​you meet farmers and producers, and you are close to nature. We thought there had to be a better way than wrapping things in plastic, so we developed wooden bowls made of poplar. It is a fast-growing crop, It’s sourced relatively locally in France, and for every tree we cut, six more trees are planted. It was an expensive decision, but definitely the right thing to do.”

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Before I got home, laden with free meals—which, by the way, are so delicious and so fresh that it makes me wonder why he bothered to cook from scratch at all—I asked Bigham how he felt about how far he’s since cooked his first dishes in his home kitchen.

“I feel proud of what the team has achieved over the past 25 years, but it’s really exciting to look forward to the next decade or so to how much we can do,” he said with a smile. “We like to say we’re not cutting corners – we’re just excited about what the next phase is going to be.”

Even the best home chefs love to spend the night sometimes, and that’s where their Charlie Bigham dishes come in. With everything from steak pies to paella and salmon en crus, it’s never been easier to feed your family well.

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