The language around being a non-drinker is ultimately insubstantial. In this week’s Real Podcast, Jon Wilks chats to Ruby Warrington about the ways in which communication can hinder someone new to a less alcohol-dependent life, just as much as a lack of choice can. On the way, they discuss the demise of ladette culture, the differences between US and UK drinking culture, and the ways in which the world is now opening up to alternative drinking and eating habits.
Click on the player below to listen. Alternatively, scroll down to read the full interview.
“‘Oh god, you’re not drinking? Don’t be so boring. Oh, you’re ruining everything. Oh, go on! We were meant to be having a nice night out.’ Suddenly, your simple choice – three simple words: I’m not drinking – can mean everyone else’s night is ruined. And that just seems crazy when you take a step back and look at what’s really going on.”
A familiar sounding scenario for many people who, for whatever reason, choose not to drink. And that’s why we’re talking in this week’s Real Podcast with Ruby Warrington. Formerly the Features Editor on the Sunday Times Style Magazine, Ruby has recently written Sober Curious, a fascinating book that offers a non-preachy take on our relationship with alcohol. Through her own experience, she details the benefits she has discovered from unlearning what she calls “the mindless habit of drinking” and pursuing the possibilities offered by a sober curious lifestyle. And, as you’ll hear, that doesn’t necessarily mean giving up alcohol entirely, but instead taking an active interest in what a sober life might offer to you. We met up in Central London to find out where the sober curious life has led Ruby so far.
Getting Sober Curious with Ruby Warrington
You were telling me before this interview started that sober curiosity is something you’ve been talking about for three or four years.
Outwardly vocalising and encouraging other people to get sober curious for about three and a half or four years, I suppose. I think I wrote a blog post for my blog about being sober curious in the summer of 2015, maybe. I don’t know the exact date.
My definition of what it means to be sober curious is to literally question every impulse, every invitation or every expectation to drink, whether it’s on your behalf or in the eyes of others, rather than just go along with the dominant drinking culture. And so, based on that description, I have been sober curious for about eight or nine years now – really just bringing this questioning mindset to all the different situations I’ve found myself expected to drink. It has been quite a long journey. The lessons learnt and the experiences along the way are all shared in my new book.
It has been very interesting to witness what began as such a personal thing now really begin to blossom. I see so many other people getting sober curious, too. It’s really fascinating. When I wrote for magazines I was always really most interested in writing those kind of zeitgeisty, social trend pieces – I think I’ve always just had quite an antenna for what’s in the public mood, I suppose. This was definitely not something I approached in a calculated way, like, “what’s going to be the next trend in drinking?” It was just very much feeling attuned to my own instincts about this mindless drinking culture that we’ve been consumed by for probably the latter half of the 20th century, up to now. It just started to feel out of alignment with our values collectively, as well as my values as a person. It’s a personal story and a mission and a quest, I suppose, that reflects a much bigger shift societally.
And if you pick up the book you get the sense straight away that it’s not a zeitgeisty thing because it’s something that you have lived. Again, we talked before about our similarities before the interview [we both come from a journalistic background and we both found ourselves having difficult relationships with alcohol], but you talk in your book about being in Camden in the 90s, and ladette culture and that kind of thing. While I wasn’t part of the ladette culture, I was certainly in Camden in the mid-90s and…
…But you would’ve been part of the male equivalent, which was the Nuts, Loaded thing. Similarly, it was very much about this life of debauchery and it being a kind of badge of honour, in a way, wasn’t it?
Absolutely. And yes, that Britpop era where your icons were heavy drinkers: your Liam Gallaghers, your Graham Coxons…
Exactly. Have you read Kill Your Friends? That typifies, in a very exaggerated, bombastic way, this culture of excessive consumption. And it was a reflection of excessive consumption that was happening in terms of material goods as well. It’s all wrapped up in the same vibe.
There’s a really interesting quote in your book… let me just find it. You talk a bit about the idea of the modern woman at that time being, “emancipated by having a pint of beer in her hand”. What do you think happened to the ladette?
Oh, the ladette maybe over-indulged a bit and had to go, “What’s going on here?” [Laughs] It’s funny: someone sent me a picture of Zoe Ball from that era the other day. She’s kind of my doppelgänger in many ways, particularly when we were both that age. I think Zoe Ball doesn’t drink now. When drinking to excess has been your norm, I think there naturally will come a point – whether it’s your classic rock bottom that we hear about often in terms of people’s recovery stories – or a subtler rock bottom, which might look like an inability to feel optimistic about life, or feeling really pissed off and angry that your entire weekend is given over to hangovers and you don’t actually get any real time off.
There are degrees of crisis point, I suppose. I think for anyone who has been drinking to excess for a long period of time, you’ll reach some kind of a crisis point that’s like, “No more! I just can’t continue with this!” For a long, long time, the only language or the only path that we’ve been presented with if you reach that point is, “Well, there’s AA for you and you’re an alcoholic. Have this label and that’s a done deal. Goodbye.” I never felt that was very fair, actually… although fair isn’t the right word. It didn’t feel to me inclusive enough. I felt that, for myself and for many people in my community and my peer group, we were having this question with alcohol but didn’t necessarily see ourselves as alcoholics or candidates for a 12-step programme. And so the sober curious idea came about when we said, “well, what if we all just spoke about this openly? Perhaps we’d find some other solutions.” You know, collaboration is how we breed ingenuity and progress. So it was like, let’s just talk about what’s going on here and see what comes out of it.
The alcoholic thing is a really interesting point. Obviously, you will know – and anyone who tries to take a break from drinking for whatever reason will know – that doing so comes with a huge amount of inquisition. So you can’t go to a pub with your friends without being treated almost as a sort of pariah. One of the things that I always find myself having to explain is that I wasn’t an alcoholic. There’s no description for myself. The only description for myself comes with a lot of explaining, that tends to be along the lines of, “I didn’t wake up in the morning desperate for a drink, but I couldn’t go out to a bar without having four.”
Right. There’s this grey area which doesn’t really have language around it. I’m still making it up. People often say to me, “So, are you sober now?” And I say, “I’m not sober but I don’t drink.” Even the word sober has so many connotations. If I said I was sober, people would automatically assume – and I would actually feel that I was implying – that I’m completely abstinent from alcohol because I’m recovering from the disease of alcoholism. And that’s not my story. I’m not sober. I may occasionally have a sip of wine at a toast during a wedding. I wouldn’t consider that a relapse, whereas if I was sober that might be termed a relapse and it’d have all these other kind of implications. It’s complicated. I think there needs to be even more language around it, which is what I’m attempting to stimulate by having this discussion.
Again, this comes across a lot in the book, and it’s obviously attached to what you do in other parts of your life: there’s a lot of conversation there that overlaps with what you might call mindfulness. The idea of having stories [about yourself, and being aware that they’re just stories] is a fascinating one. You go out and you have to present a story, for whatever reason – you feel pressured to present a story as to why you aren’t drinking. And actually you’re presenting that story to yourself on a daily basis.
There isn’t a succinct way of phrasing it, right? I’m a human being and that means I’m biologically very susceptible to becoming dependant on alcohol – a beverage which meets many of my biological needs in terms of my emotional needs.
In the book, I quote from a brilliant book called The Biology of Desire, which is by a guy called Mark Lewis, who is a former opioids addict turned brain scientist. He can really speak to what’s actually going on in our brains when we develop an attachment to something. (The subheading is, “Why addiction is not a disease” – which is highly controversial [laughs]. But without controversy, how do we have progress?) He talks about the desire function of our brain, which shows that we’re biologically hardwired to seek out and repeat any experience that either brings us pleasure or takes away our pain.
Alcohol, on a very superficial level, can appear to do both of those things. As a human being with a complicated life, especially considering the billions of pounds of advertising and marketing revenue spent by the alcohol industry every year to make sure that we perceive alcohol as the answer when we desire pleasure or when we are feeling pain, it’s really hard not to become dependent on it.
So, what am I? I’m a valuable human being [laughs] who happens to live in a culture where alcohol is celebrated.
And we’ll come on to that, because I think that finally we’re starting to see real change.
But before we go there… some of those questions [that you pose in the book] that are really worth emphasising, because I think for some of the people who listen to this, these will resonate. You ask these questions: “How come I feel like an outsider? A weirdo?” This was an interesting one: “I sometimes feel that I’m a problem to other people if I don’t drink.” Without wanting you to paraphrase the book entirely, how do you go about answering some of those questions?
This is really the peer-pressure piece. When the group activity is drinking, for many of us in our society, we grow up in a culture where most of our group activities outside of sporting occasions revolve around alcohol. And even when the sporting activities have finished, many of us will drink. How many of my friends have run a marathon, and the first thing they do is go to the pub? [Laughs] By simply saying, “I’m not going to drink”, you’re marking yourself as an outsider, and that can be very uncomfortable.
Again, we’re biologically hardwired to fit in, to be accepted, to not want to make ourselves stand out or be ‘other’ or ‘different’. So, of course, by marking yourself as different by saying “I’m not drinking”, immediately you become a mirror for everyone else to look at their drinking – a mirror for them to examine their own drinking habits. So, very often, you’re going to have all of their insecurities and their own subconscious questions about their drinking projected onto you, and that’s a really uncomfortable place to willingly put yourself.
You must be familiar with One Year No Beer? They were telling me about some research that they did recently. For 93% of people in their survey, peer pressure was the number one reason why they chose not to take a break from drinking, or even stop completely. They just didn’t want to have to be answering all of those questions.
The thing about being a problem for other people when you don’t drink, the number of times (and thankfully, maybe because the way that I’ve approached it, my friends have never made me feel this way, but I’ve heard it from lots of other people), “Oh god, you’re not drinking? Don’t be so boring. Oh, you’re ruining everything. Oh, go on! We were meant to be having a nice night out.” Suddenly, your simple choice – three simple words: I’m not drinking – can mean everyone else’s night is ruined. And that just seems crazy when you take a step back and look at what’s really going on.
Absolutely, and I think it comes down to the ingrained culture, certainly in this country. Another thing that really resonated in your book was the fact that you were introduced to alcohol at the age of eight!
[Laughs] You know, I’ve seen other people with their three-year-old child: “Oh, he’s having a sip of beer. Isn’t it funny!” It’s seen as quite normal. I think my parent, my dad in particular, thought he was doing the responsible thing by not making alcohol this glamorous, exotic, forbidden fruit that I would then binge on as soon as I looked old enough to acquire it. But the hidden implication in that is that it was inevitable that I would become a drinker. It was like, “Ease her in gently rather than making it this forbidden fruit that then becomes something that I binged on or did to excess. I did that anyway!
It’s very similar. I don’t know what age I would have been, and I think most people have a memory of a similar ilk, but just being allowed to try wine at the table…
And then I have a vivid memory of probably being around 11 and going to a family party with everybody drinking, and you [the children] almost being expected to have a shandy.
Right! Exactly! So my version of shandy, which I wrote about in the book… I discovered at some kind of family picnic… Do you remember Lilt? I don’t think we have Lilt anymore do we?
I can’t picture seeing it anywhere recently.
It was quite delicious, though.
Well, Lilt mixed with white wine! I was making my own alcopops at the age of nine or 10.
It’s no wonder!
It is no wonder [laughs]. But this is not about placing blame on parents or society. This is just the way things are. For me, the sober curious conversation is not about being right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s just about acknowledging what’s happening, and then cultivating enough trust, self awareness and self belief to know it’s OK to make choices that feel good for you, no matter what’s going on around you, no matter what the pressures might be.
In your Sober Curiousbook, and as someone who is promoting sober curiousness, you’re not preaching in any way. When you hear about people not drinking, as you say, quite often it’s like a mirror being held up to them. So their natural reaction is to become slightly defensive and to feel as though, “Oh, god! They’re harping on about that again!” And it’s absolutely not that, is it? The word ‘curious’ takes you away from that in the first place. How do you balance that fine line between a largely non-alcoholic lifestyle and not preaching about it?
I try to show, not tell. Just by modelling and by behaviour. I would never see it as my place to tell anybody, “You know what? You’re probably drinking a bit too much.” It has happened maybe on one occasion. A close friend was going through a very difficult time in his marriage and I made the subtle suggestion, “You know, if you’re really confused about this, maybe take a break from the drinking. It has really helped me in situations just to feel more clear and more confident.” And so, offering advice but in that same breath saying, “Because in my experience this has been really helpful.” And just being super selective.
Alcohol ended up presenting as a problem for me, but there are tonnes of people who drink as much as I did who’ve never experienced it as a problem, and that’s fine. It’s about bringing it back to my own experience and really just modelling… like… “life’s great!” [laughs self consciously] … without wanting to appear smug!
Going back to this idea that it might be a generational thing… at the moment we’ve got this new generation of non-drinkers. Amazing stats. Around 30% of Londoners between the ages of 18 and 24 claim to be teetotal.
It is. And the other day I was reading about students. 38% of students in Britain now don’t drink. I don’t know what they’re doing! [Laughs]
38%?! That’s amazing.
So, this Sober Curious Movement… it certainly resonates with me, because I come from that age group where life was seen as better if you were pissed up and having it large, or whatever the terminology was back then.
And that’s just not the case now. At Real Kombucha, we work with a lot of younger people, and it’s much more about life being about experiences. You have that Instagram phrase, #LivingYourBestLife…
[Laughs] It’s funny, though, because we would’ve thought that living your best life meant cocktails on the beach at sunset in Ibiza. What constitutes “best life”? There’s a shift in values, which is the larger piece I was talking about. We’ve moved away, I think, from this idea that over-consumption or conspicuous consumption is a status symbol. It actually now seems a bit sad and a bit selfish. It just doesn’t fit with out more collaborative, collective, nurturing mentality in general now, you know?
Well, you used a phrase… I think it was something like “living a more vital life”, or something like that? Or have I got that wrong?
I might have used something like that. It sounds a bit too #wellness for me, and I’m not really into that. I really don’t like that idea of #LivingYourBestLife. I don’t like this hierarchical terminology that implies that some life is better than another. Because actually, I’m not living a better life. I’m living a life that’s right for me.
I’ll be honest, I don’t like it purely because it sounds too much like marketing speak. But if you had to have a hashtag around that kind of thing, I quite like it being about living… maybe not a vital life, but the idea that you can do a little more with your life – you can experience a lot more – if you’re not drinking.
Yes. I prefer, for example, the term “conscious drinking” rather than “mindful drinking”. For me, I want to be conscious. Choosing consciousness means awakeness and awareness. Being really aware of what’s happening in the world, and how I can respond and interact with it. That, to me, is the kind of life I want. I love the fact that you’re called Real Kombucha. It’s about an authentic life for me as well – an authentic life meaning a life that’s aligned with my values – what feels good to me.
Back in New York (because you’re based in the States), you’ve got your Club SÖDA, which is not the same as London’s Club Soda…
No, we call it Club SÖDA NYC specifically to get around that. But yes, we’ve been doing the Club SÖDA NYC events for just over three years. We always have a different theme at the events, and generally we’ll have featured speakers or a panel discussion on the theme. We may have some kind of interactive activities to get people talking. The whole point of that was to bring this conversation out of the closet and actually make it the focus of the event. Getting people together in a social way where we were specifically saying, “this is about not drinking, and it’s not about being at an AA meeting. This is a different approach to not drinking.” We’ve had dance parties, we’ve had a boozeless brunch, we’ve had all sorts of different, fun ways for people to get together.
And the book itself? You’re here [in London] to promote it…
Yes. Not surprisingly, actually, the press response here in the UK was really, really great. And so it just felt like a good time to come over here and do a bit of a launch. It’s my hometown. I did most of my most excessive drinking here [laughs]. And it’s very curious to me how, like you were saying, the alcohol-free movement is moving at warp speed here. And I want to see what’s going on!
Is that the same in the States?
It’s definitely picking up speed. The States is so big and, in a way, so segregated. A mass movement will, I think, take longer to gain traction in the US because there are so many different pockets and so many different things happening. But at our events, when we started off at our first event I think we had 70 people, and at the last one we had over 200. Maybe that’s just because more people know about it, etc, but to me it also speaks to the fact that more people are interested in sober socialising.
To go back to the point that the UK is growing at such as speed, I think that has to do with choice. Before we turned the tape on here, we were talking a lot about things not being black and white. In the foodie world, people are much more interested in having a vegcentric approach, or certainly giving people those options. I always joke (although it’s not really much of a joke) that when I came to university in London in the mid-90s it was unusual to find an avocado in a Tesco. The choice that we have now, both in terms of drinking and eating, has to have an effect on that, don’t you think?
Definitely. And you would expect the same in America, right? However, another reason I think it’s gaining traction faster here is that alcohol is just woven more into everyday life here. So, whether that means more people have found themselves at that crisis point of, “Hold on, I’m drinking a bottle of wine a night – how did that happen? I’ve got to pull back”, in the US I see a lot more hard liquor on a Friday night, and that’s how people drink. There’s less pressure to drink wine with dinner during the week. I really noticed when I first moved there: nobody would order a bottle of wine in a restaurant – it would always be ordered by the glass. And I think that just speaks volumes. If I was going out for dinner with a friend here it would be a bottle of wine, of course, between the two of us. But there, that would be seen as very excessive on a work night. But people will drink heavily and they’ll do lots of shots and hard liquor when it’s time to drink. They’ll go for it harder.
But that’s in cities like New York. Across the rest of America, it’s such a driving culture, a lot more drinking happens at home. And so there’s not really this social drinking situation – there’s a lot more drinking behind closed doors, and so I think that alcoholism is a huge problem. But there’s not been such a consumer demand and need for other options in bars because a lot more people are drinking at home.
It’s really interesting. Even alcohol-free beer… there’s not much of it there. I’m like, “Please Brewdog! Bring me Nanny State!” [Laughs]
Well, hopefully we’ll get over there eventually.
Yes! And there is quite a lot of kombucha. Kombucha has exploded off the back of that healthy eating, gut health trend that has been huge there for a while. There’s a lot of kombucha now.
I always talk about kombucha in this way: you can take a grape and turn it into a Shloer – a sugary soft drink – or you can turn it into champagne or a very fine wine. Neither of those things are any better or worse than the other; they’re just different drinking occasions. In the same way, you can take tea and ferment it into something that’s a health drink, you can add flavours to it and turn it into a flavoured soft drink, or you can take great tea and ferment it into something that doesn’t require flavouring and actually suits non-alcoholic drinking occasions. And that’s really the differentiator between what we’re doing and other brands.
Yeah, absolutely. I actually tried some unflavoured kombucha recently in Berlin – my brother has been working in a restaurant there. The guy who was running the bar was making his own kombucha. It was so delicious and subtle, compared to what I’m used to in the States. There, it’s about all the flavours, and the maximum different combos. Pink lady and basil was one of my favourites recently! It’s all about what’s new and novel and next. CBD kombucha is now the next big thing.
But I like the subtleness of this [drinking Royal Flush]. This feels to me like a genuine alternative to a glass of wine, whereas a lot of those heavily flavoured ones feel much more like it’s an alternative to a Coke or a lemonade, or a flavoured soft drink.
Well, you’ve said all the right things, so you’ve got the job.
[Laughs] But we’re tasting it now and I can still smell it. It’s really delicious. One of the reasons I love alcohol-free beer is that it was a crutch for me on those occasions when, initially, I was feeling awkward in a bar. The alcohol-free beer quietened that voice in my brain and made me realise I was actually just in a bar and it didn’t matter. For anyone who loves wine (because alcohol-free wines tend to be not very good – although that might be changing), I think this would be a great alternative for someone who’s looking for… “What can I have that’s almost a placebo effect on my brain while I get over the initial hump of awkwardness into it becoming my new normal?” Because it does become your new normal. Not drinking in bars is so not a problem for me now. I don’t even think about it. But in the beginning it can be tricky.
Well, I think there are two things. Certainly, there’s that perception of having something to drink. I always found that if you were able to pour something into a wine glass the questions didn’t happen, because nobody sees that you’re just having a Coke, or whatever. So you don’t have to deal with that social pariah status. And then there’s the slight placebo effect, as you say, of having something to calm your own nerves, your own anxiety. But the third thing is this: if you don’t drink alcohol (and a lot of people find this, whether they’re not drinking because they’re pregnant or they’re the designated driver), the options that you’ve traditionally had are dull. You have one orange juice…
…I hate orange juice! [Laughs]
I’ll throttle the next person who gives me any elderflower!
I actually quite like elderflower.
I’ll have the orange juice, you have the elderflower. The idea of having something that’s complex, sophisticated, interesting in flavour profile as much as anything else… that’s what we’ve been missing.
It’s similar to having been a “plant curious” eater, which I have been for around a similar amount of time – you start to feel like a bit of a second class citizen, and a bit pissed off. “Oh, another risotto. Great.” And that can be off-putting if you really want to make a sustainable change. It’s like, “God! Is this the future of my eating out, being confined to choosing the one thing off the menu?” It’s just a bit miserable.
Absolutely. And while you’re back in London, find a way to eat the cooking of Joey O’Hare. She’s pretty interesting.
Where does she cook?
She used to do pop-ups, so at the moment you’d have to go and knock on her door and beg her! She writes recipes and she’s very much about fermentation, using things like kombucha. She talks about how animal meat under heat does interesting things, but vegetables don’t. But actually, if you use fermentation, you can bring some really interesting flavours out.
And the other person I was chatting to and interviewing the other day is a bloke called Jamie Park. He cooks around the corner from here in a place called The Frog. It’s a very cutting edge, Michelin restaurant, and it’s at the forefront of trying things out. As he says himself, he wants vegans and vegcentric diners to come and be blown away by what they can do. So you should go there.
Yes, absolutely. It has been really exciting to see those sorts of things happening in food as well. There’s a restaurant in New York called Dirt Candy. If you ever come over you should check it out. It has got the Michelin star look and feel, but it’s all vegetables. They do these sliders – what Americans call mini hamburgers – and they do these carrot sliders in these little brioche buns. I don’t know how they do it!
And this is what’s exciting about the world at the moment, no?
It is! And this is what I mean about… the more of us who start asking for what we actually want, the more innovation will happen. The more choice there will be.
Thank you so much for chatting to us.
Thanks for having me!
This week’s Real Podcast was brought to you, as always, by Real Kombucha: Non-alcoholic fermentation at its finest. Our thanks, of course, go to this week’s guest, Ruby Warrington – make sure you buy her book, Sober Curious, available now at all good bookstores. Our thanks also to The Drift Bar for their hospitality during the interview. We’ll see you again in the next couple of weeks for more great foodie and modern drinking podcasts. You can find out more about Ruby Warrington at www.rubywarrington.com.
For this week’s Real Podcast, I jumped on the wrong bus from Waterloo and turned up late for my meeting with Joey O’Hare. That’s OK – she’s a kindly soul, as you might have guessed if you ever saw her on Masterchef: The Professionals.
It’s been quite a while since she came to prominence through that TV programme, but for those of us with an ear to the ground and a mind for fermentation, she’s only gone from strength to strength. So, when one of the Real Kombucha team suggested that she might be able to get in touch with her for an interview, I jumped at the chance. As you’ll see from the interview, she’s a kind of interviewee chef made in heaven. It’s rare to find someone so passionate about what they do, who also has the confidence and eloquence with which to spread the word so well.
So, strap on your ear goggles (or simply read the interview on our website, if you prefer) and join us as we bounce around subjects that include her beloved fermentation, kombucha (obviously), her food author recommendations, her ideas around vegcentric cooking, her involvement in the growing startup All Plants, and of course her favourite London veg-first restaurants.
You’re well known for having a veg-first approach to cooking, and you’re also known for being a big fan of fermentation. I want to come to all of that, but also I’d like to chat about All Plants, which is what you’re doing now. But first of all I think it’d be a good idea to go right back to the first time you remember being amazed by the kitchen.
Oh my gosh! What a question. Weirdly, it’s not the kitchen but it’s certainly a food memory, I remember loving apples from a young age. I grew up in Hampshire, and there was a couple of apple trees in the garden. I’m one of four kids and we used to use them for all sorts, whether it was apple fights, playing tag with the apples, and we’d then go and collect a bunch and peel and prep them down and they’d be used for crumbles and things throughout the autumn and winter. Or, literally, we’d be playing in the garden and we’d get hungry and grab an apple as a snack. I still love apples. I pretty much do have an apple a day.
Was there anybody that influenced you? A key person you wanted to be like?
Yep. It’s a bit of a cliche but certainly my mother, who is a fantastic home cook. She’s very, very humble and says that she’s learnt everything from me in her later years, but she didn’t [laughs]. She was always a real natural, and we were lucky to grow up on nothing fancy but just home-cooked food. So there was no ready-made freezer food; it was mum’s shepherd’s pie or bolognese. And beans and greens – we had lots of veggie stuff as well. So dad, occasionally, would dig up some pretty gnarly cabbages from the little veg patch [laughs] and enjoy those cooked up in a one-pot-wonder style.
A little bit. They had a small veg patch but they made it go really far, and we were lucky to always have those fresh flavours and that fresh approach to family cooking which I remember loving from a young age. And I certainly had a large appetite from a young age [laughs]. So I always enjoyed my food and learnt to appreciate it first and foremost from my mother.
How does it go, then? In the early days, you’re there with your mum and you’ve got your apples all around you and it’s a very Hampshire childhood…
So, how does the young Joey start to become a chef?
That’s a good question. It’s a growing love of food and an awareness of food. And then, for various reasons, I became increasingly picky in my late teens. My relationship with food became quite unhealthy and I became quite unwell. I became slightly fascinated and fixated with food whereby I didn’t want to eat things I hadn’t cooked myself, for sort of very horrible, controlling reasons! But very, very fortunately for me, that transpired into something more positive. In becoming more hands-on with food, I learnt to fall back in love with it, as it were, and then I made the decision to go to cooking school rather than university initially after 6th form. And so I went to Ballymaloe in Ireland, which was so fantastic. I cannot sing its praises highly enough. And I kind of went from there.
Whenever you pick up a Joey O’Hare interview…
One of those millions of Joey O’Hare interviews out there…
All of those two!
Haha! Anyway… you pick up these interviews, you read about Ballymaloe, but I think a lot of people don’t know what that is. Unless they’re involved in the food industry, of course. Can you explain it?
Yes. So, Ballymaloe is two things. It is a cooking school but with a key difference. The most wonderful thing about it is that it’s a cooking school on a working, biodynamic farm. So rather than teach you how to make and omelette or a sauce, you go right back to the source of food, and you see it and appreciate it in a very holistic sense. So it gives you a strong appreciation for provenance, a strong appreciation for seasonality and cooking in harmony with the land and nature. It gives you a real appreciation of food, from root to shoot, farm to table, and zero waste as well. And a bit of hard work! The students are put on different chore shifts and rotas each week. It might be collecting the eggs, or going and collecting the herbs that day, or feeding the chickens. So it’s very, very hands-on.
So, how did you hear about that? Is it something that is well known in that world?
It’s very renowned. I couldn’t cite when I first heard about it. I think I’ve always been aware of it. I’ve always felt proudly Irish, yet I’m very ignorant of my Irish heritage, and I’ve always loved Ireland. So I was really excited to spend some time there after 6th form.
And so, from Ballymaloe you went straight into the kitchen in a job? You mentioned earlier that you went back to university…
Yes [laughs]. My route through my twenties was an interesting one! Immediately after Ballymaloe I did six months in France. There’s an Irish chalet company that recruits chefs and takes them out to the Alps, which was awesome. It was a really good practice to cement everything that I’d learnt over the three months course, and routinely cook three courses for 16 people, which was really very useful and formative.
So, then I knew that I wanted to be a chef and I had the bug, so very naively I printed out my “CV”, which was basically my name and the fact that I’d done Ballymaloe and six months of work [laughs], and a map of Michelin-starred restaurants in London (which is where my parents were living at the time – I was living at home so I started with the closest, being quite a practical soul). I just went knocking on doors, and I was really lucky in that the first place that I showed up at was Roussillon, in the Pimlico and Chelsea area. There was a young American chick who was on her way out and they hadn’t found a replacement, so the chef was like, “well, can you start tomorrow?” And that was actually Alexis Gauthier, who is a big vegcentric and vegan chef now. I’m sure we can touch on him later.
Absolutely. OK, so that takes you up to work… your first job.
Yes, I was 19.
I found it quite interesting that you went back to university after that to study English, and that you were interested in words.
I love words. I love language. I was in restaurants for a couple of years, and Alexis actually encouraged me to get a degree in culinary arts. I did it while I was full-time working in kitchens, but in college one full day a week. That was a two-year programme at Westminster Kingsway.
In my mid-twenties, having worked seven years, I was having a really tough time in the kitchen. It’s notoriously hard, and I certainly found it so at times. I just thought I wanted to keep my options open. I had always thought that my career would be in food, but maybe not literally at the grills and the pans. I dreamt of food writing or editing or publishing. I’d always been very strong at English Literature at school and I loved it, so I applied and was fortunate to get a place at Queen Mary University of London and did English Literature there.
Do you have any favourite food writers?
I do. I love Gill Meller. His writing is so beautiful and such a pleasure to read, but he alludes to everything that’s beautiful about food beyond just flavour and the fact that it’s nourishment. He talks about connection, community, culture, landscape, sustainability – his writing bleeds into all these other areas that food permeates. It’s just so beautiful.
Obviously you came to a kind of prominence through Masterchef: The Professionals. That must seem like quite a long time ago to you now.
It really does! It feels like a lifetime ago. It was filmed in the summer of 2015, and then it aired in the winter. But yeah… ages ago.
What did it do for your career?
Er… first of all, it was so much fun. It was completely terrifying and probably took a couple of years off my life in terms of stress [laughs]. But it was so fun, and I was lucky that the intake that we had that year was just such an awesome group of… I want to say guys and girls, but I actually didn’t meet another girl in my route through the competition. I only met male chefs. I’m not trying to be sexist there! But such a lovely group of guys, and we all stayed in touch with each other on social media and got together at charitable events and cookups – things like that.
Personally, what it gave me was a huge whack of confidence that I was really lacking previously. The fact that I was able to keep up and make it through to the final 12, for someone who had spent a lot of time as a private chef as well as a chef in a restaurant in the first part of my career, was really helpful.
Both of us keep saying, “we were talking about this earlier”. We had a chat before we started recording…
We had a coffee [laughs].
…but very briefly, we touched on Matt Campbell who was a big friend of Real Kombucha. He helped and introduced us to a lot of people, he was a fascinating chef and he was amazingly into his fermentation. I think there are similarities there, because that’s something that you’re known for as well. Were you the year before him on Masterchef: the Professionals?
I think I was two years before Matt. Firstly, that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. Matt was a completely extraordinary chef and an amazing guy. I never had the pleasure to meet him in person, sadly. We sort of supported each other on social media and had one of those very odd 21st century friendships where you message lots and you feel like you’re up-to-date with each other’s lives because you see so much about what the other one is doing. But we didn’t meet in real life, which is a huge shame.
But yes, much like Matt, who was a real innovator in vegan food (and I wouldn’t say that I’m anyway near his level) I love to take vegan cooking into that more elevated space where it’s really quite culinary and it’s celebrated just as much as an art, and there’s finesse to it. It’s not just a secondary choice for culinary delights.
I’ll let you go back to that thought, but the other thing that strikes me as a similarity is that Matt was also a private chef beforehand, so he came from that background and up through that route, too.
Yes, which I think is – like anything – good and bad. But there are loads of great benefits to being a private chef. Number one, you have full creative responsibility, which can be really empowering and forces you to keep innovating and think creatively. You can’t rely on anyone else for ideas and inspiration, necessarily. And it forces you to do a bit of everything. So, arguably, there’s a risk that you become a jack of all trades rather than a specialist chef, but I don’t think that’s the case. And even if it is, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think being able to stand up proudly having cooked everything from the canapés to the petit fours is pretty cool.
Yes, absolutely. In the music industry they talk about “cutting your teeth”. I suppose it’s the same as serving an apprenticeship. Being able to do all the things is hugely important.
I certainly think so. I feel very grateful for my experience in both restaurants and private homes, because what I got from restaurants – Michelin star places like Roussillon – was that kind of precision and that Best Kitchen Practice, where you’re held to very high standards. Clean, smart, efficient. You’re part of a brigade so there’s the whole teamwork thing there that’s perhaps missing if you’re solo or freelance. But there’s the responsibility and creative freedom that I love from the freelance side of things. So I’m super grateful for both.
So, let’s go back to the point we were making before. We briefly touched on that similarity between Matt Campbell’s and your interests in fermentation. You talk very eloquently about fermentation, and passionately. I can see you shrinking!
[Laughs] That’s because, embarrassingly, I talk about little else!
You coined the phrase vegcentric.
Yes. It’s a word I’ve used to describe how I cook pretty much since Masterchef.
You’re not actually vegan yourself, are you?
No. I may as well be. I love a plant-based diet. It’s one that really suits me. I respect it for the environmental conscientiousness that it has, and its healthful nature. But I’m a chef and a massive foodie, and if I go out to different restaurants as a treat (not the whole time!), once a month or for a celebration, if it’s a chef that I am really interested in and really respect, and I can see that there’s great provenance and that they’re supporting what seem to be very responsible farms and farming practices, then I would happily enjoy and appreciate a little bit of animal protein from time to time. But that is very few and far between, so that’s why I say vegcentric. It’s not advocating full vegetarianism or full veganism; it’s prioritising seasonal veg and putting that at the centre of the diet for sustainability reasons. And then, if one chooses, opting for animal protein in moderation, and that’s very much on the periphery of the diet.
I hope it’s quite an inclusive word, and it’s sort of a label that’s not quite a label. To me, it’s the most sustainable and healthful diet for all of us. I would argue that you can be a vegcentric vegan if you’re prioritising British seasonal veg in your diet, because let’s not forget that white bread and margarine sandwiches can be a vegan diet, and that’s not healthy for anyone [laughs]. But if you’re putting seasonal plants at the centre, that’s fantastic for you and the planet. I think a vegetarian can be vegcentric, and I think an omnivore can be vegcentric.
You mentioned before that you’ve been using that vegcentric term since Masterchef. How about the style? Were you interested in the plant-based thing beforehand?
I’ve always loved veggies, but no – I must be honest. Around the time of Masterchef, I started reading some books by the American food writer Michael Pollen. He’s a food journalist, and I find his work so sensible and so inspiring. I think he make more sense than any of us on food. He’s a fascinating man, and he really influenced my own thinking on food. Vegcentric is his line of thinking repackaged slightly. So I had a growing awareness for it around 2015. I can’t claim to always have been that way inclined, but it’s a sort of process that I found very interesting, and I’ve tried to educate myself about it as it’s gone along.
After Masterchef, you started your own pop-up, Hare on the Hill.
I did, and my USP was that it was a vegcentric supper club. And I hope that that speaks to something I mentioned earlier about vegcentric being inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s not about what we don’t include in the diet. It’s about one diet for all of us that ticks all the boxes and is very inclusive. So the way I structured menus was… well, I always did croquettes for starters, because who doesn’t love something deep-fried and salty to start a meal [laughs]? But there was always two croquettes with a lovely sauce. One would include meat or fish, and one would be vegetarian. And then there were sharing plates on the table and one or two might have meat or fish, like a rillettes or a pâté with some sourdough, and then there’d be fermented pickles, and then there’d always be a vegetarian option and a grain-based salad as well.
So the sharing course was “one menu for all”, which made my job in the kitchen more about creating the best dishes I could, rather than thinking, “Who’s vegetarian?” or “How many pescatarians have I got?” or “This person needs a different dish”. It was all sharing, all very communal, and then the main course was always plant-based. It wasn’t necessarily vegan, but incase I had any vegans in I would never rely on cheese or eggs to be the bulk of that. So, celebrating plants at the centre of the main course and the centre of the meal. A vegcentric menu that people seemed to enjoy, and I liked the communal aspect of it that meant that, in such an open and sharing forum like a supper club, the vegan dish didn’t need to be the poor man’s option, or that you felt strange because you had to have the vegetarian main course. It was all very inclusive.
Had you noticed at that point that people were moving towards that sort of thing, or were you just happily surprised that everybody seemed to have gone the way that you’ve been going?
[Laughs] No, people were [going that way]. It was very much a rising tide. All of us now talk about eating more plants in our diet, and I think that started about three or four years ago.
I feel like I’m about to open the cage doors and let you run riot, because you love talking about fermentation. But, obviously with me being here as a representative of Real Kombucha, fermentation is our thing. So, tell me about your interest in fermentation. I guess I’m interested in where it came from – did it come out of your interest in plant-based stuff, or was it there before? – and I’m also fascinated with the idea that fermentation can be seen as part of the artist’s palette; you can do some much with it. So what does fermentation bring you as a chef? Go!
Go! [Laughs] Such good questions! I’m excited! So… to answer the first half on where it came from, I think it totally was simultaneous with my growing interest in a vegcentric diet. That’s because I think the two go hand in hand. I would go so far as to argue that the complex flavours of fermented foods and condiments are vegan (or vegcentric) cooking’s closest ally. I love a plant-based diet – I’m pretty much vegan myself – and I would never be rude about plant-based cooking at all, but just by nature of having a smaller larder in terms of ingredients you can draw on, it runs the risk of being less exciting than an omnivore’s larder. Just numerically speaking. And animal proteins do interesting things under heat. They caramelise, and very effortlessly for the chef, they give fantastic and complex flavours which are harder to create in the plant kingdom. Not impossible, but harder.
And that’s where I think fermentation comes into the plant-based chef’s larder. The beautiful complexities of flavour that layer up over time in ‘krauts, kimchis, misos, kefir – that is so helpful for creating food that is completely exciting, that you’re so looking forward to sitting down and eating. And even just a little inclusion of a fermented product can totally enhance a vegcentric dish.
Give me an example.
Argh! [Laughs] Well, basically, anything with a bit of miso before you roast it is super easy. I brew a lot of dairy kefir. That’s pretty much the one thing that stops me being fully vegan…
It’s sitting right here, bubbling away.
Yes, there it is next to the water kefir. That has got such a savoury tang that I’m completely addicted to. I use it in a lot of savoury dressings, so that whizzed up with some fresh herbs makes a sort of creamy green sauce with far more intensity and complexity than you could ever hope to achieve through a mayonnaise-based sauce or even a crème fraîche or yoghurt sauce. It’s like the best yoghurt and crème fraîche dialled up to 10! So that’s an example of a really simple fermented food hack that quickly injects a lot of complexity.
I suppose the idea that you can cook with ferment-based sauces suggests longevity or a long period of gestation, because you’re essentially dealing with slow cooking or slow creation. So is it a good idea for somebody to have these things around the house, bubbling away like you’ve got there, or are you talking about the kind of thing that people can just buy in and throw into their food?
I think, if people don’t have the time or inclination, you can totally buy it. There are great kombucha brands now – of course there are [laughs] – but you can get good kimchi that is unpasteurised, so you’ve got lovely live bacteria – the food feels very living. You can buy great quality miso. I really think people should make their own ‘kraut, because (a) it’s so much fun, and (b) it’s so easy and cheap. When you buy it it’s not cheap and you lose out on the fun.
But that’s another example. I’m big into zero waste as well, and the byproduct of ‘krauts and kimchi is the brine – that probiotic-rich ferment liquor that’s sitting in the jar. I use that half the time instead of vinegar. A few spoonfuls of that in my lunchbox to take to work is brilliant. It’s got all the acidity and zing and complexity that you could wish for.
I’ve used it in the sense that I understand it. If you cooked with it you’d be killing… not the flavour because it would still taste delicious, but the beneficial live bacteria. I’ve used it in things. Going back to Hare On the Hill, there was a pre-dessert course that was this dinky little vegan cheesecake set in little glass teabag holders that I bought for, like, 50p each (they ended up being the best investment ever! The amount of time those guys got used was crazy!) Anyway, it had a little ganache on top to offset the creamy base, and it was always something quite zingy. I had over-brewed my kombucha, which tends to make it slightly vinegary – almost a nice shrub flavour – and I did a kombucha shrub granita on top of the vegan cheesecake. They offset each other beautifully. So that’s one example. Salad dressing is another big one. Again, not cooking but using it to enhance plant-based cooking.
I have great plans to try and put some of this stuff together, but I have to admit that I’m not even slightly a cook or a chef. So the great plans will first involve learning to be a cook or a chef…
Haha! Or just do really easy stuff. Kombucha popsicles in the summer! You know you get those plastic moulds? Freeze it down. It’ll be great.
You could stick some fruit in it, or maybe if you want to make it sweeter (because it looses sweetness when you freeze it), a dash of elderflower cordial and you’ve got a Dry Dragon popsicle! Dry Dragon with a bit of elderflower in a popsicle would be stunning, I think.
Cool, well you heard it here first. Joey O’Hare’s Kombcuha Popsicles!
You can have that as a bit of new product development [laughs].
So… Hare On the Hill. What happened to that?
It naturally ran its course. It was super hard work. I was cooking from here, from this tiny little Brixton kitchen, and renting a friend’s food photography studio in Clapham. The venue was stunning. In fact, I’m humble enough to admit that the venue was probably the best thing about it! It was just so cool [laughs]. It had all these beautiful props and styling, and gorgeous lighting. I just absolutely loved it, and I’m so proud of what we were able to achieve. And I say “we” because we built up this band of merry helpers, and it was so much a collaborative team effort. Some of those people have become best friends.
We had a ball, really enjoyed it and it was so fulfilling. And I was taking on other bits of freelance work and recipe writing for different plant-based brands, and, naturally, I think I got everything out of it that I hoped to achieve. I wasn’t ready to make the leap from semi-permanent supper club to real bricks and mortar restaurant. That was next-level scary. I have so much respect for the people who do that, because I think that’s extraordinary.
Is that something you’d like to do one day?
I think yes and no. Yes, in the sense that you always fantasise about it, but no in terms practicality. I don’t think that’s my course. It is so much hard work. Like I said, I have crazy levels of respect for the chefs who turn their hand to it, take a risk and make it happen. I have had some experience in that, being responsible for the management of a cafe site in this case, and it is back-breaking stuff.
But with your love of words then surely it’s a Joey O’Hare cookbook for you, right?
I would love to do that. I’m not ashamed to say that that’s absolutely the dream. Whether that’s on my own way into the future, or with All Plants, who I work with at the moment and I’m sure we’ll come on to. That’s very much on our radar as a brand. I would love to work on a cookbook, for sure, and in the meantime I blog a bit on my personal website, www.foodwithtime.com, and I share recipes about fermentation and big seasonal salads.
That does lead us very neatly onto All Plants. Tell me about All Plants, because it’s quite an interesting thing.
All Plants is awesome! In a nutshell, it’s a vegan foodie startup… although I don’t think startup does it justice. It’s smashing it! It’s such an amazing and inspiring company, founded by two very cool brothers. One comes from a foodie FMCG background, and one comes from a consultancy background. They have wicked complimentary skillsets. They’ve built up a team of about 30 in the office and 50 in the kitchens. We’re growing quickly.
50 in the kitchens?! That’s not a startup!
I know! It’s impressive what our outputs are. We’ve had a fun Veganuary, that’s for sure! Lots of people taking up the pledge and signing up. We make really delicious and exciting plant-based convenience food. It’s direct-to-consumer, which is awesome. It’s a subscription-based model. Customers order in boxes of six, whether that’s single-serve meals or double-serve meals for you and a partner or flatmate, and you can choose the regularity with which you receive your delicious suppers.
OK, so what’s the difference between that and something like Hello Fresh?
So, there are a few models like Hello Fresh where you get the ingredients and then you cook it at home, whereas this is ultra convenience. So you can microwave the meals or oven-cook them. All the cooking is completely done for you. It’s a really planet-forward company, so we’re pretty much carbon neutral, all the packaging is recycled or recyclable. Over 40% of our customers return the insulated boxes, which is really nice because reusing is actually better than recycling because obviously you’re producing less new stuff. So we reuse all the packaging. The guys have gone through everything… the attention to detail in terms of our sustainable credentials is just so inspiring. I totally recommend people checking it out!
But what do you do? [Laughs] You’ve just sold it, but what do you do?
I’m a senior development chef, which is a great role. I started in November and I look after some EPD (existing product development), looking across our range at how we can really drive culinary excellence in everything that we do, and looking for micro-refinements. But to be honest, the range is so strong at the moment…
So, you just kinda sit there?!
[Laughs] Yeah, I just sit there. It’s great! And then I do NPD (new product development) – listening to customer feedback and noting areas that they really want to see dishes in, whether it’s comfort food or really adventurous street food-style dishes. We have a small team and we ideate around those briefs. It’s a really interesting process. It’s very easy to make something delicious at a domestic scale, but then managing that process through to a large-scale cook by the kitchen team… it’s great fun. There are so many challenges that you wouldn’t even think of. When you scale up a recipe, it is never just straight maths. It’s not, “Oh, let’s increase it by 200”, or whatever, because garlic will do one thing, ginger will do one thing, salt will do one thing… It’s like you’re a puppeteer and you dangle all those strings and look after those ingredients throughout the scaling process.
It’s an interesting point. We find that with kombucha as well. People make the assumption that if you can brew a four-litre Kilner jar of kombucha, you can do it in a 400 litre vat because of maths. But actually, science gets in the way!
Science gets in the way, all sorts of things get in the way. With kombucha, it’s the methodology as well. Even just the amount of negative space you might have in a fermentation vessel can dictate the rate at which it ferments. So you can’t say, “Oh, it’ll ferment in a week as normal”. And you guys will have the added variations in temperature and daylight. There all sorts of variables at play, and it’s not just a simple equation. I wish it were, but it’s not. Actually, I don’t wish that at all. It’s quite fun.
Somebody said something interesting to me the other day. They said, “the great thing about being vegan is that you have to become mindful in the kitchen”. As you’ve just said, you have to think about what you’re left out and what you’re going to put in its place. So you have to become thoughtful about what you’re doing, rather than just bang, bang, bang – pulling stuff out of a freezer, or whatever.
Exactly. And mindful in two respects: one, mindful as in vegan cooking makes you work a little harder as a cook because if you put a steak in a pan, if that’s your jam, that will be delicious because of the way it caramelises, whereas veggies aren’t necessarily going to give you that complexity straight away, so you’ve got to be mindful and think, “how am I going to inject texture and umami and depth”. Maybe it’s different temperatures, like a nice cooling sauce on a warm curry. You’ve got to be creative and playful to create something super exciting.
So you’re mindful in that respect. But also, I think, because you are making a decision that is very planet-forward, that bleeds into all that you do. So you might opt for things that aren’t packaged in tonnes of plastic. You might be thinking more about implementing zero-waste policies in your kitchen, so using all of the veg, not just hacking off the top and tail and throwing it in the bin. I think it naturally draws out other more mindful behaviours in the kitchen, which is a great thing.
All Plants… is it London-specific? Do you have to be in London to use it?
No, not at all. It’s UK-wide. It’s fantastic. You can get it anywhere.
You just logon to…
www.allplants.com [laughs] I think we’re running a cool campaign at the moment where you can nominate a friend and you both get £20 off and we plant a tree. There’s lots going on – lots of reasons to sign up.
Just to bring it back to London a little bit, because that is where we are… I’m interested in the idea that a recent report said that Bristol is the most vegan city in the world, but I think there’s no doubt that London has such a wide range of plant-based and plant-first options now in terms of eating out.
Yes, it does.
And it has rocketed from just a few years ago. The idea that being vegan is a struggle is absolutely not the case anymore.
No, we’re very lucky.
If you are going to go out… Er… Nope! Let’s cut the question shorter!
Where are the three best plant-based restaurants for you at the moment, in your opinion?
Oh, good question. Two immediately spring to mind and I like them because they’re so different. One is uber-fancy, Michelin star, crazy special occasion, and that’s Gautier in Soho. And that’s going back to the first head chef I ever worked for, Alexis Gautier. He has really pushed vegan cooking into “Haute Cuisine” (he’s a Frenchman, so I don’t mind using that phrase!) He has a whole vegan tasting menu with wine pairings, and it’s proper, stunning cookery. It’s nice to see that challenging the fine dining space as well. There are a few other chefs doing it, which is wicked, but I think Alexis is doing it brilliantly. So that’s somewhere that’s really exciting.
Do you spend a lot of time there?
Haha! No, I don’t! I did go a year ago. He’s so nice. He recognises me and says a big hello. He’s so friendly. But, no… I wish I could spend more time there.
And another one, totally different end of the spectrum, but there’s a new brand called Club Cultured. They’re three lads who are fermenting their own tempeh here in the UK, and (a) it’s delicious tempeh, and (b) they do these wicked club sandwiches and arancini balls, and it’s just really highly flavoured – awesome flavoured street food. But they haven’t taken it too far down the vegan junk food route – we’re seeing a lot of that at the moment and it totally has its place, it’s just not how I personally enjoy eating. Tempeh being the whole fermented soy bean smashed into a kind of patty. I suppose the closest thing in a club sandwich would be the chicken breast, and texturally it’s not too far away.
Where are they based?
I think they’re a kind of pop-up, so they move around to different street feasts and markets. They appeared at Vegan Nights recently, which was great. I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing. I think they’re smashing it and I think their food is delicious.
And thirdly, I would say… there’s a new restaurant on Mare Street called Plant Hub, which I respect because it’s not just a cafe but also a culinary academy and they have a good events schedule. There’s life-drawing classes with vegetables and, y’know, naked models [laughs]. There’s cooking courses and lots going on that’s spreading the vegan message beyond just vegan food on a plate – kind of what that means more broadly, which I think is really cool. So, yeah… those are my three.
Excellent! Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you so much for having me!
And if people want to find out more about what you’re doing?
Yes! Instagram probably is the best.
Can I just say, I like your Instagram for two reasons. One, that it’s your typical foodie Instagram thing, but I like the interjection of the books.
It gives you something to think about and some recommendations for things to go off and read. I’ve got a couple of things on my reading list that I got from you.
I like it too, because people comment back and say, “Oh, that’s great – you’d really enjoy blah blah!” So I get recommendations, too. It’s a great space to share. I must do more of that, actually. I read a lot, but I only save my best, best books to share on Instagram… one of which has been Eating Animals, which has been influential on me of late.
Hello, and welcome to the Real Podcast, produced by Real Kombucha – non-alcoholic fermentation at its finest – and presented by Jon Wilks. This is our second episode (you’ll find the first on our blog or on any of our podcasting channels), and we’re continuing very much in the vein established in our first. Allow me to explain. (Note: You can click on the podcast player below if you’d prefer just to listen.)
First and foremost, our blogs and our podcasts are an attempt to document the adventure we’re on. We launched Real Kombucha in the early autumn of 2017, and it has been a wonderful journey so far. We’ve met some fascinating, passionate people along the way, so we use our digital platforms to help spread their word, too. These people are experts in their field, so it’s a real privilege to spend time with them, learning about what they do.
So, for this podcast I came down to Bristol, and I have to be honest: there were three motives at play. Firstly, it was to find out about the booming vegan and plant-based food scene that has found a home in these parts – so booming, in fact, that articles across the web last week claimed that Bristol had more vegan-related Google searches than anywhere else in the world. Secondly, I wanted to get inside the mind of some of the chefs serving that plant-based scene – to find out how veganism might represent a wonderful form of constrained creativity. And thirdly I wanted to cheekily eat some of their amazing food. Well, wouldn’t you if you had the chance?
Ultimately, what I think I found was a scene and a city that embraces and celebrates open-mindedness. But before we jump to any conclusions, let me introduce the cast. I’ll be chatting to Rob Howell, the Head Chef at Root, a veg-first restaurant in the ultra-hip Whapping Wharf; to Elliott Lidstone and Tessa Lidstone, the Head Chef and co-owner of Box-e, also in Whapping Wharf, and to James Koch, the co-owner at Suncraft and the Gallimaufry on Gloucester Road. (Each of these work with Real Kombucha on their non-alcoholic options.)
It’s at Suncraft that I began, sitting down with James to ask him about those Google results. Some reporters went as far as to say that Bristol was now the recognised vegan capital of the world. Did that surprise him?
James: To a certain extent, yes, because it still feels very young and formative, but I suppose that’s similar all over the world. Bristol itself, I’ve been here for 22 years and the more it gets under your skin, the more you get under its skin, and you realise it is a slightly peculiar place relative to the UK and the rest of the world in its politic, probably. It’s quite a liberal republic society here – very progressive. The sort of things that push people towards an interest in veganism, such as animal welfare, the environment and personal health – they’re all things you see here.
Over at Box-e, Elliot and Tessa Lidstone agree.
Elliott: It certainly feels, since we’ve opened, there’s been more of a trend to vegetarian and vegan eating. Definitely.
Tessa: I think the nice thing about it is that people are very interested in where their food comes from. So, whatever it is that they’re eating – vegetables, meat or fish – we get a lot of customers ask us where we get our produce from… which I like, I have to say. I like that people are a bit more self-aware.
Elliott and Tessa Lidstone, Box-e. Photo by Chloe Edwards
I’m aware, of course, that I’m talking here to people that cook an awful lot of vegan food. I wonder if perhaps their views are skewed, so I head next door to Root, where I find Chef Rob Howell glowing over a freshly cooked sourdough. I wonder if you’d find a keen reception if you were to ask your average Bristolian on the street about being vegan.
Rob: It depends which street you’re walking on! [Laughs] I think so… I really think so. It’s the same here with my diet. I’m not a vegan in any sense. I love my meat and fish, and in the last couple of years I don’t eat a quarter the amount of meat or fish that I used to. [Veganism] is great here for staff food, too. At the moment we have ox tongue, and that’s all the meat we have. Where I used to work, staff food would always be trim or minced meat or some sort of curry you’ve made with trim. Here, all we have is vegetables. It’s nice . You feel better for it. I think that shows in Bristol, in the UK, even. Slowly but surely, people are understanding that we don’t need to have a massive piece of meat with every dish. It makes sense.
As someone who has flirted with vegetarianism and veganism for the past 20 years, it’s clear that there’s been a vast sea-change in the way people think about these things, and one that seems to have become fairly mainstream fairly quickly. Rob himself has seen it firsthand. He tells me that when the restaurant launched only a couple of years ago, he was putting four meat dishes on the menu each day. Two years later, that has fallen to one.
A freshly baked sourdough at Root, where inspiration comes from anywhere
Rob: I felt the need and demand for the meat dishes wasn’t there. We’d have them on and not sell even one a day when we were doing fifty or sixty covers. We went down and down [on the meat dishes], and now I think people come because it’s vegan. We have parties with big tables and they come because there’s vegan options. Especially at Christmas, people would choose us because out of 10 friends, four would be vegan.
And if you’re assuming that it’s an older, traditionally left-leaning crowd that is embracing this move towards a more vegan, plant-based lifestyle, then James Koch has news for you.
James: From early on, we recognised that we wanted to distance ourselves from (and there’s nothing wrong with it at all) “hippy culture” and political veganism, and that this is something that is, if it hasn’t already, going to go into the mainstream for good reason, and there’s no need for us to be hard on the politic about it. So, it’s an option for good, healthy food that happens to be vegan, and certainly it’s a very broad demographic of people that we have in here.
Funnily enough, when we were doing some research on it, we went down to a restaurant in London. One of the things I was really blown away by was the demographic in this place. It looked like it was 14 to 20, and it was just really buzzing. I was talking to the kids in there, and they travel from the other side of London to be there. I was expecting it to be similar here [in Bristol], but it’s very, very broad – from a younger demographic that are interested in their health (and it seems to be the same with younger people: less smoking, drinking, taking drugs, so it stands to reason that diet might be in the mix with those things); from younger teenagers to past retirement.
While James says the “heavy politic” is unnecessary to his business, it’s still clear that it’s a key part of what turns people onto a more plant-based lifestyle. Later on in the conversation he tells me, “I personally will eat vegetarian/vegan, and occasionally I’ll have something that has fish, meat and dairy in it as and when I feel like it, especially if it’s well-sourced and I can trust where it’s come from. And probably that’s what most people, more and more people are behaving. That said, I think people are becoming more and more aware of the reality of the industrial farming complex and it’s uncomfortable. We’re brainwashed, really, to not know what really goes on in these organisations, and it’s difficult to unlearn it once you see the footage that’s very easily available on social media.”
Grey skies, bright lights. Box-e at Whapping Wharf
Over at Box-e, Tessa agrees. In fact, it’s a key part of the ethos on which their restaurant thrives – an ideology that you might call ingredient-led rather than chef-led. It feels like a wonderfully ego-less, humble way of cooking, and I have to say, I love it.
Tessa: The cheesemonger that we use, she pretty much exclusively sources cheese from the neighbouring counties. But you think how much amazing cheese is produced in Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire – literally just a stone’s throw from where we are. It’s the same with vegetables. There are so many beautiful vegetables produced really close. There are big fruit farms like New Cross Fruit Farm that grow loads of asparagus. We get quite a lot of customers come in who have allotments and they’ll give us produce that they’ve got too much of. My dad has an allotment as well, and he’s always given us spare produce. People like the fact that we’re a small restaurant and they know that Elliott changes the menu regularly. If something comes in that’s super fresh, or our fishmonger or our veg supplier says, “We’ve got this at the moment and it’s beautiful… do you want some?” we’ll say, “Yeah! Let’s do that!” It’s almost working the other way around. Instead of Elliott saying, “I’m going to have this, regardless of whether it’s ripe or not in season yet”, we kind of do it the other way around. We’ve got a nice relationship with a lot of our suppliers in that sense.
Does she think that expands beyond the glass walls of her shipping container restaurant?
Tessa: There was perhaps a point where people thought, “Oooh, we can get strawberries 12 months of the year. Isn’t that great!” And then they took a step back from it and thought, “Actually, maybe it’s not that great.” It’s kind of like the rise of consumerism saw that possible, and so people did it because it was possible. Now it’s like, “Just because we can get strawberries 12 months of the year doesn’t mean we should.” So, people have kind of reached the boom and then got back from that slightly. And then I think things are enjoyed more. Yorkshire forced rhubarb has just come into season, and it’s like, “Woah!” It’s exciting to have that on the menu, and we’ll have it for as long as we can get it. Asparagus! How lovely to have asparagus for that small period of the year when you can get it. It doesn’t mean that for the rest of the year I’ll buy it from Peru. I kind of savour that moment when you can have something that’s really tasty, grown fairly local to you. You kind of enjoy that more.
So, we’ve talked a lot about how veganism is opening minds and bringing people together, both in Bristol and beyond. Eventually we have to stop talking, though, and start digging in. I see this as the ideal opportunity to get a bit cheeky and ask for a bit of free food. Elliot steps up to the plate, literally, pulls on his apron and talks me through light but luscious dish, the photos of which you can find on the blogpost accompanying this podcast. As he cooks I wonder aloud about how he found his way into the chef life.
Elliott Lidstone at work in the Box-e kitchen
Elliott: I’ve always been into food anyway, and I used to do a lot of scouting – I used to go to scout camps, so obviously I used to cook there and for people as well. So I realised that, actually, I quite enjoyed cooking for people, not just cooking in general. And after that I knew that the direction I was going to go in was catering, so I went to catering college and went from there, really. But yeah, from being in the Scouts I think really cemented my idea that I was going to do something with food. What’s secret Scouting flavour combination? Bolognese was standard, but I always used to bring some bits and bobs from home to tart it up a bit. The secret weapon? An Oxo cube!
So, is there a sense of restraint that comes with preparing vegan dishes as a trained and celebrated chef? Rob Howell recalls his apprehension on the day Josh Eggleton, the owner of Root, asked him to think vegetables-first.
Rob: When Josh Eggleton first said about it, I was a little bit unsure. My background is that I’ve worked in three very good fish restaurants, so my background was fish before working at the Pony & Trap for five years. Vegetables wasn’t my forte, as such. It’s been amazing. Starting in the kitchen, equipment-wise, we had nothing. We still do. I said to Josh, “I need a vac pack machine; I need this, that…”, but you don’t need any of it. When you strip it back it’s more exciting to go back to basics. We’ve got a couple of inductions and a chargrill and we do absolutely fine.
Back at Box-e, Elliott muses on the same question.
Elliott: I think it’s being sensible and looking back, and not just concentrating on an ingredient. It’s so easy to put cheese or dairy into something without even thinking, as classically trained you would do. So, whenever I do something vegetarian or vegan, I take the main component of whatever it might be and work back from that and try and make sure that everything harmonises – not having a dairy or meat product as a substitute for something. Every season has its own wonderful vegetable or fruit, so it’s just about taking whatever’s around at the time and really emphasising that.
Once again, it’s about reaching for what’s around you and keeping an open mind. Tessa agrees.
Tessa: Some people have very set ideas of how a vegetable is going to taste, like beetroot. Then they’ll taste it and think, “Oh, there is another way of eating this and it doesn’t have to just be pickled in a jar. Although I love any kind of pickled food, so I’m not going to diss a pickled beetroot!”
The perfect combination at Box-e
Meanwhile, Elliott has finished cooking my lunch, so I ask him to talk me through what he’s put together.
Elliott: I’ve just cooked you a roasted leek with goats curd, capers and some Jerusalem artichoke crisps. Leeks are lovely at the moment, so I really wanted to do something with them – starting off with them. If you steam and then roast them, you get that lovely caramelised flavour. I also wanted something with a bit of tartness, so the goats curd is lovely – you’ve got the creamy, lactic flavour of that. And then the Jerusalem artichoke crisps have got that lovely texture to them, and the leek is soft, you’ve got the texture of that as well as the goats curd. The capers bring another acidity to play as well. It all kind of works together.
In my head I can taste all the bits individually, then think what would work with that texturally. Once you put it on the plate and taste it, you’ll know what might need tweaking – more acidity, less acidity. It’s just experience, I think. It’s like if you make music: if you can play the piano and don’t have to read music, you just know what’s going to work. It’s similar to that, really. It’s what you do every day, in and out. Second nature, I guess.
I’m intrigued by this idea of a chef being able to taste things in their minds. Does Rob have that same culinary clairvoyance?
Rob: Some of the dishes go on without fully sitting down and eating the dish as a whole. You know the elements. Sometimes you’ve just got to go for it. Some of the dishes we’ve created – the hispi cabbage with seaweed butter, pickled shallots and radish was literally a dish from when we first opened and we had nothing. We were really busy one lunch and we’d run out of so many things, I kind of chucked it together without thinking about it. A year later (obviously it has changed through the seasons) it’s still on the menu. Sometimes you just have to run with it, and sometimes you think, let’s taste this because it’s not the straightforward meat and two veg. We do try and… not push the boundaries; we’re not breaking any… not doing anything crazy new. The main thing is actually making food that you wanna eat, that’s actually tasty. Sometimes you have to put away your chefiness, trying to make it look its most beautiful. We’ve got some pakoras on the menu, totally vegan and gluten-free. We serve them with some salted plum and pickled plum, but to eat it’s just reminiscent of going to your local curry house… do you know what I mean? It’s not breaking boundaries, but it’s tasty and we’re busy and people like it, so it’s great.
Rob Howell (right) in the kitchen at Root, Bristol
Now we’re on a roll. I love digging into the way that people access their creativity, so I pepper Rob with more questions. Where does he get his inspiration?
Rob: It’s through not one thing, but many things. Social media has changed everything, cooking-wise. Sharing ideas… you’re seeing hundreds of dishes everyday on Instagram, and I think that obviously some are going to stick with you and you’re definitely going to take inspiration from that. You can’t possibly not. I love to eat out – I don’t eat out as much as I used to – but you definitely draw inspiration from that. It makes a massive difference when you go out and you realise what you like to eat, and then bringing that back into the kitchen.
We went to Ivan Ramen and had a ramen there. It was amazing. We had a cauliflower dish with some koji butter, but it was like a curry sauce. It kind of stuck with me, so I came back and tried to make a really mild curry sauce…. I made a curry sauce but it’s totally vegan. I roasted it with a nut butter instead of using cream and I was really happy with it. You wouldn’t know it’s not like a chicken-based thing. We roasted some celeriac to riff off a curry dish. We were going to do some puffed rice, but we went for tapioca crisps. The salt-baked celeriac is like the chicken element in the curry sauce. We’re working on it now and it should be ready today. I’m really happy with that.
Elliott is much the same, and I find it interesting that he likens the creative process to that of a musician.
Elliott: It’s always at the back of my mind. Something’s ticking away, and I’ll always write things down. Trying to find the time to play with dishes is always the tricky part, so maybe I’ll scrabble bits together and do a prototype dish – maybe get some other people to have a taste of it and then go from there. So it’s always constantly ticking away. It never stops.
Tessa Lidstone at Box-e, Bristol. Photo by Chloe Edwards
As my time in Bristol comes to an end, I’m left pondering the city’s place in the burgeoning Vegan scene. Certainly, the rise in successful vegan Google searches would suggest that there’s plenty here for the growing community. Undoubtedly the city’s natural left-leaning politic has something to do with the ease with which that community feels at home, but there’s also a sense of pride that fans the flames and helps it to flourish. When Jay Rayner came to review Box-E, he spoke of something that he called ‘the defined Bristolian style’. I wonder what that might be, and it’s Tessa who has the final word.
Tessa: I would say a fire for doing something different and being independent and standing up for that. I was pleased to see that that was still here when we opened – that people really celebrate small business here, or creatives or individual artists doing their own thing, and people are very proud to say, “This is Bristol, and they’re mine, actually. These people come from here.”
Our thanks to James Koch of Suncraft and the Gallimaufry, Tessa and Elliot Lidstone at Box-e and Rob Howell at Root. You can grab your Real Kombucha, brewed for open minds, from www.realkombucha.co.uk. Podcast music by Airtone.
As part of our #DryJanuary work, we’ve been helping the good folks at Penguin Books to promote their new book, Try Dry: The Official Guide to a Month Off Booze. With a foreword by dry comedian (no pub intended), Lee Mack, it’s a very comprehensive collection of ideas, essays, tips and hints to help anyone attempting Dry January to get through it all unscathed.
To find out a bit more about the world of non-alcoholic drinks, the publishers asked Real Kombucha founder, David Begg, to chat to author, Lauren Booker, on their Try Dry Podcast. You can have a listen on the embedded player above, and find out a bit more about how Real Kombucha got off the ground, as well as a conversation around the very encouraging way in which society seems to be moving towards a healthier attitude towards alcohol.
To anyone attempting Dry January, we hope this half-hour conversation is beneficial to you. At the heart of what we do, and what the book intends to do, is the idea that it is possible to change the way people drink. Good luck in your continued efforts. We’d love to hear how you get on.
Welcome to the first episode in our all-new podcast series, in which we’ll be chatting with some of the amazing creators and innovators that we’ve met – and continue to meet – on our journey. You can get straight into it by clicking the Mixcloud player below, or by scrolling down and reading the transcript. Enjoy! (more…)