Rebecca Williamson is an accomplished cook, an international traveler, and knows a lot about chutney. She created and runs Holmsted Fines, a food business that produces some of the best chutneys we've tasted.
We talked with her about her experience at the Cordon Bleu in London, some of her favorite food-related things, and about the history of chutney—which is, as it happens, fascinating. Read on!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Dalton, Georgia, a small town in Northwest Georgia.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Who taught you to cook? And, if the answer is different: how did your interest in food and cooking ignite?
My Grandmother was an amazing cook, and she and my Grandfather spent hours in the kitchen cooking. Both had Eastern European roots, and their cooking was so different from meals I had at other people’s homes. They sparked a fascination with different types of foods for me at a really young age. They taught me to try everything and appreciate all things.
What led you to train at Le Cordon Bleu — and, specifically, the program in London?
I was living in London and had heard that Le Cordon Bleu had an English-speaking base there. Having spent a summer in France and developed a fondness of everything French, but not having quite developed the language skills, I knew Le Cordon Bleu in London would be a perfect fit.
What’s chutney’s history in England? Why hasn’t it been as big in the US?
Chutney is a fruit-based relish, a condiment that has the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. Chutney originated in India and it had a specific purpose: cooling the palate while eating spicy food. The British adapted the recipe during the Raj Period, British Sovereignty in India.
It was a luxury item at first in the 18th century, then became a household item in the 20th century because of the plethora of green tomatoes due to a short growing season. Actually, during WWII, chutney recipes were sent out by the Home Office In England to ensure that all fruits and vegetables from the garden were being used with their rations of sugar to optimize calorie intake as well preserving produce for the colder months.
Now, chutney is used on everything in Great Britain. It’s as common as a ketchup is in the US. Our biggest challenge is education, and encouraging chefs to use it in their restaurants so that the American public will become familiar with chutney.
What’s the general process of making chutney? What makes the difference between a fine chutney and a truly great one?
The process is cooking down fruits, vinegars, and spices for hours until the mixture achieves a thick but chunky consistency. A fine chutney will have the right consistency, but a truly good one will be made with the right sweetest-acidity balance, relying mainly on the fruit and not added sugar for the sweetness.
Trio of chutneys from Holmsted Fines
What’s your all-time favorite way to use your chutney?
As a sauce, by blending it and putting it on vegetables.
What’s your favorite local restaurant, café, or market?
Chez Fonfon—Birmingham, Alabama.
Do you listen to music or podcasts while you cook? If so, what/which?
YES. This American Life and Milk Street Radio.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris and Mark Bittman’s Food Matters cookbook.
What are your favorite non-cookbook books or authors?
The Girl with Dragon Tattoo series.
What’s your favorite comfort meal to make?
What’s your go-to dinner party meal to make?
What’s your favorite drink of the moment?
I'm going to ask you some quick-fire questions now—respond before you have a chance to think about them for too long! Dog or cat?
Tomato sauce or pesto?
Regular fries or waffle fries?
Chocolate or caramel?
Pizza or pasta?
Wine, beer, or cocktail?