Fuelling Chelsea

At last we can reveal the secret of how to get Gold at Chelsea

Words: Cleve West

Pictures: Vivian Russell

Pictures: Crocus

In a perverse sort of way I enjoy making show gardens.  Getting up at 5am and working 14 hour days for almost a month doesn’t sound much like fun (and occasionally it isn’t) but the teamwork, camaraderie and creating something that you have put so much thought to over nine months or more can be as exhilarating as it is exhausting.  Being on site from 7am to 9pm everyday is a test of endurance so food plays a vital role where morale is concerned and keeping everyone focused.

Catering at the showground during build-up has improved significantly since the greasy-spoon wagons of old, (the whiff from which alone could double your cholesterol count from 100 yards or more) but vegetarians and the more health conscious exhibitors tend to bring packed lunches and it’s been interesting to see how each team differs in their approach to nutrition.

In 2009, designer Ulf Nordfell  bought salads and other healthy options for his crew to get the best out of them.  They stuck it out for two days before sloping off for chips. In 2011 a member of Marney Hall’s team doubled as chef and would bring in a veritable feast so delicious it would have put some of the more notable local restaurants to shame.  Our show garden was directly opposite her site so we were more than grateful for any leftovers that came our way.  Japanese exhibitors often bring their own food and make a point of sitting together for a good lunch, a fine example of team bonding. These healthier options work well at the beginning of the build but as time runs out, so does self discipline and for some of us a quick high-carb chip-fix is always on the cards.

Nipping out to a café in the Kings Road always feels like a bit of a prison break after being locked for  hours in the Royal Hospital show ground.  On the other hand, standing in a queue with dusty jeans, dirty boots and a grimy high-vis vest next to normal, clean, good-looking dudes that grace the Kings Road is never good for the self-esteem and you soon find yourself scurrying back to jail where you feel more at home.

Visitors to the showground during build-up need to wear a hi-viz vest and steel-toe boots to be allowed in.  Those that also bring cake are revered and asked to come back.

Come show week, we have the luxury of the exhibitors tent tucked quietly away in the Ranelagh Gardens.  Most would prefer a break in the Kings Road but the amount of time and shuffling necessary to get out and back into the showground never seems worth it.

Chips or no chips, one thing I couldn’t possibly be without at Chelsea is Indian chai.  The ritual of making two big flasks of it a day started in 2006 when my Nepali friend, Dhundi Raj Bhusal, came to help me with the Saga Garden.  The deal was that if Dhundi did the driving I would supply ample chai for us to drink during the day.

Making real chai involves grinding spices by hand. It can’t be rushed. My own personal recipe, which I reckon to be the best this side of Calcutta, is like Juliette Binoche’s  magical confectionery in the film Chocolat, it has magical properties.  Chai can lift spirits, calm nerves, strengthen resolve, restore a sense of humour.  It can even make you fall in love given the right circumstances.  If I were to make fresh chai for Brentford FC every Saturday morning before a game they’d be European Champions within three years.  Of course I have to give Dhundi Raj some credit as he showed me how to make it in the first instance but even he admits that my special recipe now has the edge.

The only problem is making it last a whole day.  I like to eke it out and save just enough for a 6pm chai break when energy is flagging and we need a second wind.  Dhundi, however, tends to drink most of his by 11am which, frankly, is irresponsible and annoying especially when he looks greedily at my flask.  The selfish gene in me comes out blazing when it comes to sharing so I tend not to offer it around even if I need a favour.  Alarmingly, at last year’s show, Dhundi started sharing not only his flask but mine!  It could have risked our friendship except that I can only think that he must have offered a whole flask to the RHS judges who saw fit to comment that the fact that my beech hedge wasn’t in full leaf added to the atmosphere of the garden and didn’t detract from it.