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4th August 2017
Ripeness is all: a chef’s story

Ripeness is all: a chef’s story

Twelve years ago, Connected Pictures chronicled the culinary adventures of Oliver Rowe in the 10-part BBC series The Urban Chef. Much has changed since then; the restaurant has closed, and Oliver’s career in food has taken him in exciting new directions. Published last year, his book Food For All Seasons is as much the story of Oliver’s life in food as it a guide to seasonal eating.

Struck by the relationship between the rhythm of the seasons and the cycles of our own lives, we made Ripening, a short film about Oliver’s journey to the present day, directed by Stephen Ashwell and Miriam Van Emst.

Here, Adam Penny explains the ideas behind the film and the challenges of telling the story of someone you’ve known personally for many years.

How do you go about choosing the title for a short film?

We look at the themes and ideas that a film explores and decide on the title from there.

Short films are different to features. You want a title that captures the imagination and leads people to want to know the meaning behind it – that’s why they want to watch the film, especially if they know nothing about it or anyone who is in it. The film then gives meaning to the title.

So why ‘Ripening’ in this case?

The film explores seasonality, death and birth, the cycles of life, but we also wanted something that wasn’t a word that was already overused in the food world, like ‘seasons’ or ‘seasonality’. ‘Ripening’ just fit. It had a connection to food, to the seasons, and a connection to death and rebirth without being too explicit to the audience.

In what ways do you think the title influences the viewer’s expectations of the film?

It should set the tone for the viewer to explore the different levels of meaning. As well as

Ollie’s love for food and seasonality, he has an interesting story – a series of good times and rough times, an unexpected journey towards a ripened life. Crops need a mix of different situations in order to grow. Without the different seasons, it doesn’t happen. It can’t be spring all the time. We want to convey that experiences make you who you are; positive or negative, they ripen you as a person.

You’ve worked with Oliver for over 10 years and known him personally even longer. Does having such a long-standing relationship with the subject of a film (especially when you’ve witnessed first hand the peaks and troughs of their career) alter your approach to making it?

When you film a documentary for a brand or for love, you have to dive deep into the subject.

You keep exploring until you feel it and you feel that idea you’re searching for. When it’s someone you know so well, that journey is taken care of. Instead, you have to explore what you take for granted, what the audience doesn’t know and from there you start to create your narratives. It was the same for me when we made the documentary Hannah.

Why make this film now? Oliver’s book came out last year so why is now a good time to reflect on his career?

The book turned out to be more than what Ollie thought it would be – a reflection on his life. But I would also say right now is a time of evolution for Ollie, a time of new beginnings. But that wasn’t necessarily the film that jumped out when we started looking at what we wanted to make. I stepped away from the creative process in the beginning to let Stephen and Miriam discover what they wanted to explore with the film. They read the book, met Ollie, and chose what they thought was most important and most compelling in the story. 

What makes Oliver an interesting subject? What is it that you like about his approach to cooking/food/life in general?

He is a searcher and a creative, he never stops looking for channels to express it. I’ve seen him do it with art, music, with words, acting, dancing. His passion is vivid – it’s something that’s hard to put into words since I know him so well. 

The music in the film, and its timing, is particularly poignant (it stops when he starts talking about the restaurant). How do you go about selecting music and what do you think this specific track adds to the film?  

We look for music that adds emotion and sets the tone but doesn’t overwhelm. It sets the mood but doesn’t lead it. If it’s too much or too little, it loses its purpose. I always loved this quote from Audrey Hepburn in a letter she wrote to Henry Mancini who wrote the music for Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

‘A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality.’


Watch the full film here