Interview with Chris Onions, The Old Dairy Kitchen

Nestled on the Devon-Dorset border, Trill Farm is a charming pastoral escape for those of us looking to forget the stresses of everyday life. Accessible only by traversing narrow, hedgerow-lined roads, it’s certainly not the easiest of places to find. In fact, it’s something of a satnav nightmare. But once I pulled up outside and was greeted by the fresh country air, the journey seemed long behind me.

Stepping inside the rustic barn that houses The Old Dairy Kitchen at Trill Farm, I was immediately met by the sights and smells of a working country kitchen. In this calm, relaxed space, pickles are preserved, students are taught, and dishes are lovingly made by Founder and Head Chef, Chris Onions.

As his softly-spoken accent attests, Chris Onions hasn’t always called the West Country home. Rather, he was born and raised on a small island in the southern Hebrides, called The Isle of Islay. Also known as the Queen of the Hebrides, Islay had a profound influence on Chris growing up and as we sat down to steaming mugs of Trill Farm brew, he recollected how a childhood growing up in remote landscape informed his tastes and ideas. The village of Laphroaig provided the backdrop to his childhood; a robust island community with a population of just ninety. Storms would routinely batter the coastline during the winter months and 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 home from school you’d have to peel your trousers off your legs because they’d been blown by hailstones. It was in moments like those that I saw how powerful nature could be”.

Like many parts of the Hebrides, Laphroaig was famous for its scotch and theirs was a particularly strong and distinctive variety. “My dad worked for the distillery and I remember how they’d smoke the barley over peat,” Chris recalled, “Whenever they did this the whole village would take on this really intense aroma. The aroma would mix with the scent of the storms – when seaweed would wash up on the beaches and ferment. The combination of the sea and the smoke just infused everything with this deliciousness. I remember that even the humblest soups or stews would taste better in those months. I think I fell in love with those moments.”

Chris started washing dishes at a local restaurant aged fourteen. By his own admission, it wasn’t the fanciest of places; but he would regularly attempt to recreate dishes at home and hone his talents in the kitchen.
“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 has happened in your past or where you came from. As long as you work hard, you’ll always have a home”.

But life on Islay could only take Chris so far and at the tender age of sixteen the world was calling. Chris announced to his mother that he wanted to leave the island and pursue a career as a chef. At first, she wasn’t convinced and warned him that it would ruin his chances of maintaining a relationship or family life. But he 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 was from.”.

Before settling at Trill Farm, Chris spent four years living and working in Scandinavia on a project that used farms and food as a means of rehabilitating refugee children and those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. It felt like a thousand miles away from the remote island of Islay and for a young, ambitious chef, it was a breath of fresh air. Through social work, he discovered the transformative power of food and found a life purpose.

“When I returned to the UK, I knew I wanted to have a kitchen that would allow for an open 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 watch how they make a connection with their plates and the local food culture. We need to find a way to reconnect people with where ingredients come 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 England, 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. I really do believe that food has a magical power to bring people together”.

The Old Dairy Kitchen host weekly Sunday lunches and 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 intentionally left open plan so that guests can come up to Chris after lunch and ask him any burning questions that some to mind. “I’ve noticed a resurgence in people wanting to know basic kitchen skills,” Chris tells me, “People are curious to know what’s going into the bottles that are sat in our cupboards. They want to create sauces and pickles of their own. 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 explains, “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 mushrooms or 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 our kitchen. After all, a meal is not just about what’s on your fork, it should be about the whole experience”.