A BOY from Bengal who grew up weaned on fish has taken on a mission to help fishermen from Cornwall whose livelihoods were decimated by last winter’s storms. Now 36, Sanjay Kumar is a boy no more, but the senior sous chef from Newquay’s Headland Hotel still has a boundless energy for all things fishy. He has immersed himself in Cornwall’s fishing heritage and its current industry, becoming a well-known face at fish markets and events like Newlyn Fish Festival. And while learning about the wealth of fish brought ashore by Cornwall’s fishermen, he has taken it upon himself to learn about the difficulties and hardships of their unique livelihood.
So when Sanjay saw the damage wrought by the power of the storms on the Cornish coastline, he knew the devastation would be visited most on local fishermen. Already a staunch supporter of healthy eating groups and foodbanks in Cornwall, he contacted Cornwall Community Foundation, which raises money to distribute to needy groups, to see how he could help. One of the first outcomes of their collaboration will be a fundraising fish feast where guests will pay to eat at a swish barbecue put on by Sanjay and fellow chefs at the Headland to raise money for fishermen. On one of his regular visits to Newlyn Fishermen’s Mission last week, Sanjay talked about the difficulties fishermen face, their tough lifestyle, and how little the general public knows about this key industry.
Sanjay says: “In India people call Bengalis the ‘fish and rice people’ like here you call people from Liverpool Scousers. “When people are born their first taste of food is a piece of fish, when people get married they get a piece of fish for luck. That is how I grew up, surrounded by fish.
“When I was first working in the UK as a chef, in places like Kent, a lot of the produce I used was coming from Cornwall, and I wanted to know more about it.”
Sanjay marked his move to Cornwall in 2008 with a visit to Mousehole Christmas Lights, and has been cooking at Newlyn Fish Festival since 2009.
He also became immersed in Cornish fish and fishing.
He says: “As I read more and more about the fish species available in Cornwall I got more and more shocked at how little people in Cornwall know about what’s out there.
“So I decided to try to help educate people through my menu, to help bring about a change, to let people know what is out there, and then they can decide for themselves.
“We have this great source of protein but people aren’t using it – just the ones they know like cod and haddock.
“But my fish and chips is always hake, because it is more sustainable than cod.”
Finding out more about fish brought Sanjay closer to the people who land it and the people who record its heritage, like Nick Howell of Newlyn’s Pilchard Works.
Cooking at Newlyn Fish Festival every year, Sanjay always involves local schoolchildren, and teaches them their heritage as well as how to cook.
He says: “It is about giving their story back to them.”
“That all got me closer to the person and the life of those landing that fish,” he says. “The social cohesion around fishing.”
He also read up on the practicalities and costs.
“People say to me ‘fish is too expensive’ but I say it is valuable … it all made me really aware of the need to bring a change in Cornwall by letting people know about fishing, and I wanted to do that through my menu.”
Then, when the winter storms took their toll, every one of Sanjay’s suppliers and his friends in the fishing industry were telling him how hard a time the fishermen were having and he wanted to help. He said: “The Family Fish Feast is a chance to connect with the fishermen rather than always feeding people at a premium.”
Sanjay knows a fisherman can sometimes only get £5 per kilo for larger lobsters, but half a lobster in a high end restaurant will still cost more than £20.
He says: “I make my bread and butter, my living, because the fishermen go out at night, work long, unsociable hours, working with the endless chugging of the engines and the rough seas, to land that fish. I know the lifestyle is so hard.
“I went out with a fisherman from Newlyn hoping for mackerel and all he caught was whitebait – they never know what they will get.
“Cornwall Community Foundation’s Family Fish Feast will celebrate the best of Cornish produce but also create a real awareness of that danger, that lifestyle.
“I also try to help the fishermen understand how to eat better at sea.”