A chat with Anna jones, a London-based chef, food stylist, writer, Guardian columnist and mum.
You got involved in cooking and styling after reading an article on following your passion. Can you tell us more about that?
I was travelling to work on a train and feeling pretty disenchanted with my job at the time. I’d picked up the careers section of the paper and was reading an article about how you could determine your passion from whichever part of the Sunday broadsheet you turned to first. For me, it was always the restaurant section. That moment of realisation felt like it was happening in slow-motion—as if I were in a film. To this day, I still clearly remember how satisfying and comforting it felt to know that that’s where I wanted to head. Even though it would mean quitting my (pretty good) job.
I’ve always been a bit of a risk-taker and am very much an optimist. I tend to believe that things will all be okay in the end. That helps when you’re quitting a good job with nothing on the horizon! My trust paid off. Things moved very quickly. I went into work that day, googled cooking courses in London and found Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s apprentice program. I applied on the Monday, went for interviews on the Wednesday, and by the following Monday had quit my job.
How long did you work at Fifteen?
I spent the first two years of my cooking career there. Initially I was an apprentice and then became a working chef. Fifteen was amazing—like learning to cook on fast-forward! Each apprentice was paired with a trained chef and we worked our way around all the sections in the kitchen, from butchery (I wasn’t vegetarian at this point) to pastry. We also went on amazing sourcing trips to Italy. There we’d watch the first grass-green olive oil coming out of the presses and drink amazing wines.
What was your next career step after that?
After those first two years, I spent some time in the Chianti fields of Tuscany and at a hilltop village in Majorca. There I continued to learn while cooking for my living.
Then I went back to Fifteen and was asked if I’d like to write an article for a food magazine about the restaurant’s apprentices. I’d always loved the kitchen but I love writing too. I did a shoot with Jamie and noticed how the food was so beautifully arranged for the picture. I realised the story was told with words as well as pictures. Then I thought: that’s what I want to do!
So, I did some work experience with Jamie’s team, helping to write and style recipes for him. I ended up spending seven years working on his food projects and campaigns. It was the most exciting time; I pinched myself almost every week. I cooked for the G20 and shook hands with Obama. I cooked on Native American reservations and on deserted beaches.
You’ve been called the new Nigella. What do you think about that?
What do you think Nigella thinks about that? I am very pleased to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Nigella! She’s one of my heroes. I grew up watching her and hanging off her every word. Back then, all the TV chefs seemed to be men, with the exception of Delia, whom I love but didn’t relate to.
Then red-hot Nigella came along, with her poetic turn of phrase, unashamedly melting two packets of butter into a pan of brownies. I was, and still am, her biggest fan. There is only one Nigella—no new Nigella, just Nigella. I had the pleasure of meeting her recently and we really hit it off. She was a total bombshell, with a beautiful, brilliant brain—just as I had hoped—and she’s also very generous. I hope she thinks I’m alright, and that she’s not fuming too much about the comparison.
Did you imagine your books being so successful?
I didn’t at all. I’ve been blown away by their success. I’d hoped that my mum and dad and a few mates might buy them, but, in all honesty, I was very nervous before my first book, A Modern Way to Eat, was published. Having worked in the industry for ten years at that point, I’d always been behind the scenes. So, to stand up and say, “This is what I think, this is how I want to cook and this is my style, my life, my home!” felt really exposing.
I sometimes wish I didn’t, but I care deeply what other people think of me. And, I care about doing a good job. There are a million cookbooks out there, and I’ve worked on about one hundred of them. So, I vowed to myself that if I ever wrote my own, it wouldn’t be just another one on the pile. It would be beautiful and useful and would end up dog-eared and splattered.
You eat plant-based food but you don’t like calling yourself vegetarian. How come?
I find the term ‘vegetarian’ has ungenerous connotations. I don’t mind calling myself vegetarian—that is, after all, what I am—but I do think it puts people off somehow. It can conjure up feelings of deprivation and images of hemp trousers. I’d rather someone was pleasantly surprised to find out a meal was vegetarian after eating it than approach a plate looking for what’s missing. People are switched on to new food by the taste, not by lectures.
How much of your food philosophy stems from becoming vegetarian?
My cooking changed when I became vegetarian. The building blocks that I had grown up with, and the rules I’d learnt as a chef, didn’t quite fit anymore. It was a challenge to find new ways to add texture, interest and flavour to my food. But I’m still led by what excited me about cooking in the first place. The haze of citrus oils spritzing off the skin of a freshly zested orange, and the deep purple brilliance when you slice into an earthy beetroot. The warming scent of ginger and brown sugar baking into a crumble, and the Willy Wonka magic of melting chocolate over a bain-marie. There are so many moments that make my tastebuds dance.
What’s the one cake you make that everyone seems to like?
I make a lemon and cannellini bean cake that always goes down really well, and yes, it’s made of beans. When I first made it I thought it was going to be rubbish and that I’d gone a bit mental. But when a springy, light, well-crumbed sponge appeared thirty minutes later, it was a revelation. The added bonus is it’s totally grain, gluten, refined sugar and dairy free. Yet it tastes indulgent and amazing, as any cake should. I love a good old-fashioned slice of cake with all the butter and sugar, but I think it’s nice to have something a little lighter up my sleeve, too.
You don’t seem to adhere to food fads, or special-something-free diets. What do you think is so important about this approach?
I try to steer clear of fads, and include ingredients when they work in a recipe for flavour or texture or because they’re needed for a particular time of day. For instance, I love chia seeds in my morning oats as I feel they give me an energy boost and I like how they make everything go all creamy. I think the move towards greater awareness of what we put into our bodies is a good thing. But, it’s also become a badge of honour to follow a certain foodie or to cook a certain recipe, and it’s all getting a little unbalanced.
No food should be labelled good or bad—this attitude simply breeds fear and guilt. It’s all food! Wellness and clean eating have really just become the new words for dieting and weight loss. Matcha powder, chia seeds and yoga classes can act as thin veils for these kinds of things. There is good in it, of course, but I wish there were more honesty around it, too.
Now you’re a parent, have you noticed any changes in your food values?
We’re just starting to feed Dylan and it’s such an adventure. I do feel super aware of what we’re eating now because he wants to grab and share everything, so I want it all to be as pure as it can be. He likes to feed himself, rather than be spoonfed, so there’s a lot of mess. He eats lots of steamed vegetable sticks, avocados, good bread and fruit.
Becoming a mum has given me a huge reality check. As a chef I never thought that making a tomato sauce from scratch was a big job, but now that I have a little one I totally understand why Mum would occasionally resort to the jarred stuff. I have vowed to try and keep things as pure and simple as possible, but also not to give myself a hard time if I need to take the odd shortcut.
How important do you think it is to create healthy food traditions within the family?
I think it’s one of the most important things we can do for our families and children. Food is at the heart of a home—it’s certainly been at the centre of my family—and it was how we shared and communicated while growing up. There are so many factors that come into play for children. But a solid foundation in food, at home, gives a really secure grounding, physically, emotionally and socially.
Recently I’ve been looking at, for want of a better term, the ‘cult’ of wellness, and the affect it’s having on young people. It’s great that we’re beginning to consider eating more healthily, but it also means new problems are emerging related to obsessive eating and health one-upmanship. I’ve seen the desperate looks on people’s faces as they consult the latest fashionable food blog about what to do if they run out of chia seeds. Yet we’re still facing an obesity crisis. It’s all pretty upside-down. That's why I think parents need to take a good look at ourselves and sort out our own attitudes to food, and really make sure none of our hang-ups are being passed on.
What food traditions did you grow up with?
We weren’t the kind of family who had the same meals every night, nor did I learn how to make jam with my mum or my nan. It was a bit more ad hoc in our house. But I do remember that we always had dinners around the table. It was also clear from a young age that I loved cooking, and my brilliant mum encouraged that. We had make-your-own-pizza parties for my birthdays, and Mum bought me endless numbers of cookbooks and let me cook our family dinners from a young age.
I vividly remember going to my nan’s for Sunday roasts. My dad is one of twelve children, and on Sundays the whole clan would turn up. There’d be so little room that my sister and I would share the arm of an armchair pushed up next to the table. We’d have a roast and afterwards we’d wait patiently for our aunts and uncles to bring out the chocolate from the sideboard. Three of them worked at the nearby Cadbury factory, and they’d bring these huge bags of sweets home with them. It was almost more than we could handle, with our sweet teeth! We’d get a couple of minutes’ free rein, and then it was all put away in the sideboard until our next visit.
How do you think we can support more self-conscious kids with food—both philosophically and literally?
I think there is really good and really worrying news when it comes to how older kids are eating now. It’s great there is more awareness around good food, but there’s also what I deem to be an unhealthy awareness. Bread and gluten: bad. Sugar: bad. Fast food: bad. Fruits and vegetables: good—but not too much, and not in juice. It’s all so confusing for us as adults, so I can’t imagine how it is for young people.
The bottom line is it’s not good or bad. It’s all food, and it shouldn’t have a psychological tag associated with it. In my opinion, that breeds unhealthy attitudes and creates stress and guilt around food. I have seen how messed up young people’s attitudes to food can become. Something as simple and harmless as eating a chocolate bar can play on someone’s mind for days. For a lot of young people, the guilt and pressure around food is so much more harmful than the food itself. In order to support these young people, we need to create joy around food, and shareand celebrate as much as we can around the table.
Eating should be a pleasurable experience first and foremost, as well as a means of connecting with the earth through seasonal growing. Really, that’s the way to tell the story.