Oh, thank goodness for February. As we wave goodbye to the month of clean eating and liquor-less-ness and once more embrace the soul-warming winter fodder that fuels us through the dankest of days. The season of piping-hot pies, slow-cooker stews, red wine ragýs, and melting chocolate fondants on Valentine's. For food is love. Here, we speak with Ian Ballantyne; private chef and self-appointed ďmaker of food, fires, and friends"†who knows this all too well.†

What does food mean to you?

To me, food is everything. It's what brings us together in times of both joy and sadness. It nourishes and nurtures us. It makes us smile and feel alive. Food can be used to break down barriers and connect people. It is present at every celebration and I feel so blessed that I get to be an integral part of so many peoplesí special occasions and celebrations. When I'm cooking Iím in my happy place.†

For our guests, travel and memories are very much interlinked - do you have any food memories that have inspired you on your journey?

A food memory that has really stuck with me is from a time spent staying in a remote fishing port in India. We met a chef there and were invited to dine with him. He had such a simple set up - we were sat at a plastic tables and chairs - but it was the most delicious food Iíd ever eaten, all made from incredible local ingredients freshly gathered that day. This memory really ignited something in me and inspired my belief in the power of simplicity and the importance of ingredients over everything.†

Allowing space for our guests to get together to connect is essential for us - how important is this for you when cooking for people?

Meaningful connection is what itís all about, and food can be key to that. Getting around the table with family and friends to share something that youíve made is really special - whether itís a grand spread for an occasion, or just something simple. Many times when I cook for families, I ask if the children would like to help as itís a great way to connect with my guests and feel like Iím passing on something that I love. Teaching them how to make bread and pizzas, and sometimes even help to serve their family the food theyíve made, is really rewarding - they always come away feeling so proud of what theyíve achieved.

Our owners and their stories are integral to our unique homes. How importance is the provenance of your ingredients for you?

Guests often ask me where Iíve worked, what I like to cook, who Iíve cooked for, and where the ingredients have come from. I'm passionate about supporting local producers, and am fortunate to be able to showcase the best produce within my creations. I love what I do, and am fortunate to have enjoyed a diverse and interesting career. One moment I might be sharing my experience of the highs and the lows of owning restaurants and running events in the big city, the next the local farmer and their approach to soil management. All of this discussion forms part of the experience.†

In addition to seeking out quality produce, are there any other elements that are foundational to your cooking style, and you as a chef?

Layering flavours and textures is really important to me. Thinking about the journey of eating a dish - from the first mouthful - how does a guest experience it and how can I elevate it? Vegetables can often be a side note, but I see them as just as important as meat and fish. The flavours you can create with them, when treated properly, are amazing. I cook in a way that aims to inspire and excite my guests, with simple presentation, and layers of complex deliciousness.†

Tell us more about your Feast nights at Gulliverís Hall in The Cotswolds.

The Feast nights at Gulliver's Hall are true celebrations of what brings us together as people. The Barn, which you reach at the end of a long chestnut-lined path, is the most atmospheric of spaces. Beautifully restored, the roaring open fireplace sets the backdrop for trestle tables laden with sharing platters; the centrepiece for which features over-fire, slow-cooked beef and venison from the farm. The monthly feasts afford the opportunity for locals to gather to share and celebrate the seasonality of the menu, with guests staying at the house over the time of the feasts invited to join. This style of cooking suits those seeking a memorable dinner for a milestone birthday as much as those hosting a wedding at the house - it's perfect for a sociable, celebratory occasion!