Melissa Hemsley has packed a lot into the two years since we last met. She and sister Jasmine have opened a cafe in Selfridges, starred in their own series on Channel 4 and added another book (Good + Simple) to their debut bestseller, The Art Of Eating Well. When I last saw them, they had the food world at their feet – open any newspaper or magazine at the time and they were there, plugging their spiralisers, aka the kitchen gadget du jour. And they were nice. Correction: they *are* really nice. I like them. I like their food.
And then the clean-eating backlash happened. In one now very famous article, food writer Ruby Tandoh called out clean eating, questioning whether some women were using it to gloss over an unhealthy and restrictive approach to eating with a “respectable veneer of health-consciousness” and criticising the wellness bloggers profiting from it. In a subsequent article, The Pool’s Sali Hughes added: “I’ve yet to meet a single qualified dietician (the term ‘nutritionist’ is meaningless, since it requires no formal training and can therefore be self-appointed) who hasn’t felt the clean-eating movement to be completely alarming."
The sisters got swept up in the outcry, an outcry we, as a website, were very much part of. They were accused of recommending the gut and psychology syndrome (GAPS) diet, a regime devised by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, a self-styled nutritional guru who Tandoh described as “as credible as a fortune teller on Southend Pier”, and who respected dieticians accused of making dangerous claims linking diet with autism “with no published mainstream scientific evidence to back them up.”
For a while, it seemed to me that the sisters wouldn’t be able to come back from the backlash but, a year down the line, they are thriving and pursuing their own projects. Melissa has a new cookbook out called Eat Happy, based on quick, simple food, with one eye on food waste. It looks like exactly the type of book I want to cook from these days so this is why I am here to talk to her today.
We’re not nutritionists or chefs; we’ve never given dietary advice. I never have said, ‘Eat this and you will cure this'
“I’m so excited I can finally talk about it,” she says as we sit down. “I was very clear what I wanted it to be – it had to be quick, 30 minutes max and one pot (but if it was a second pot, it had to be for a really good reason). And you had to be able to get the ingredients easily and not waste food; be mindful of the environment.”
We chat about how food waste is very much in the news now and how much the cookery climate has changed recently. “Isn’t it funny how things like gut health, digestion, vegetables, the environment all used to be unsexy words, but are now very important to people?”
I am interested to hear if Melissa feels if she has been on a journey these last few months. Is she in a different place now?
“Actually, I don’t feel like we’re doing anything different than we were before.” She adds, “We were never into clean eating, never used the term. It was a name made up by somebody else. Also, what does it <mean> exactly? Different people use it in different ways. At the beginning, if you had said to me ‘clean food’, I would have said pesticide-free, the most natural, unprocessed way you can do it…
“It became a thing, we were told we were part of it and no one listened when we said, ‘No, we’re not actually.’ But how can you stop someone writing that you are? People were lumping all young female cookery writers together and saying, ‘You are all clean eaters.’ I remember reading one article who called us the ‘clean-eating, dairy-free, meat-free sisters’, but you know our books – we’re not any of those things.”
She’s right; I do know this. Hemsley lamb meatballs are a favourite in my house and, two years ago, on the sisters’ insistence, I gave up processed margarine for butter.
But what about their endorsement of the discredited GAPS diet?
“Look, there are now loads of new books on gut health – Eve Kalinik and her new book, Be Good To Your Gut, Dr Megan Rossi – tons of new research that is really delving into what you should and shouldn’t be eating from a medical point of view. All we were saying was that broth is really good if you’ve got digestion issues…”
(Melissa wouldn’t be pressed on whether they took a wrong turn in advocating the controversial diet, but in a now-deleted article on their publisher Penguin’s website about the five books that shaped their food philosophy, the girls were reported to have said, “Dr McBride is now doing fantastic work in the US – focusing particularly on the relationship between diet and autism – but her research in the area of nutrition is relevant to everyone.”)
She continues, “We’re not nutritionists or chefs; we’ve never given dietary advice. I never have said, ‘Eat this and you will cure this,’ or, ‘Eat that and you will heal.’
“Also, we’ve never told anyone to stop eating a certain thing and not replace it with something else. All we’ve said is that you don’t need to eat the same food every time if you don’t want to. Take porridge: you can have oats, but you can also have buckwheat, rice, quinoa porridge. With bread, you can have flaxseed bread, rye... We’re saying, ‘Here are some grain-free, gluten-free and refined-sugar free recipes, but you – YOU [points at me] – can eat normal bread, too’. We’re not about cutting out food groups, but we’re proud to have a wellbeing focus. And, if you want to cut down on sugar or gluten, what’s the harm in that?”
To be fair, if I could accuse the Hemsleys of anything, it’s that they were behind the trendifying of ingredients such as cauliflower, kale and courgetti – broth is just a faddy word for stock, after all.
So, what was their problem? Perhaps, as Melissa herself acknowledges with complete seriousness, it’s because, “we aren’t everyone’s cup of tea”.
Perhaps it’s because they weren’t part of the “establishment” – a group of celebrities and food writers who had been selling books in their droves before the young guns came along and shook things up. They were home cooks who got lucky, whose ignorance and inexperience got people’s backs up.
Perhaps it’s because they were women – after all, Joe Wicks and Tom Kerridge have gone further than they ever did, publishing full-on diet books, and not received the same flak.
Perhaps, too, it’s because they were part of the glossy pack riding the wellbeing wave, who had big social-media followings (many of whom were impressionable young girls); who were blind to the eye of the storm, but who also never took a step back, took some responsibility and said, “Hey, maybe we got a few things wrong.”
Perhaps they were all of those things. What I know for sure is that hindsight is a wonderful thing and everyone deserves to be allowed to do something they love. And it’s very clear to see that what Melissa Hemsley really loves to do is cook.
MELISSA'S Little chocolate pots
These lovely little pots are not only rich and smooth, they use just five ingredients and take only five minutes to make. They are perfect for preparing ahead of time as they need to set in the fridge, then all you need to do is pull them out at pudding time and grate over a little chocolate to serve. You can use any type of milk here. Nut milk makes the mixture moussier and lighter. Coconut milk makes it really rich and quite thick but without tasting coconutty. These pots will keep, covered, in the fridge or freezer for a few days. If freezing, allow to defrost for 40 minutes before serving.
- Serves 4
- 180ml any milk
- 140g dark (70%–85%) chocolate, broken into squares
- 3 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- TO SERVE (OPTIONAL) Sea salt flakes
1 handful of fresh raspberries or cherries or a mixture
- Gently heat the milk in a saucepan for about 45 seconds until hot all the way through.
- Place 120g of the chocolate in a high-powered blender or food processor with the maple syrup, egg and vanilla extract.
- Very carefully pour a quarter of the hot milk into the blender or food processor (or use a ladle, if you prefer) and blend until smooth, then repeat, adding a quarter of the milk at a time, until all the milk is combined and the mixture is silky smooth. (You need to add the hot milk slowly so that it doesn’t scramble the egg.)
- Pour into four small ramekins or glasses and leave in the fridge for a minimum of 1½ hours, or 1 hour in the freezer, to set.
- When you’re ready to serve, grate over the remaining dark chocolate or top with a sprinkling of sea salt flakes or a few fresh raspberries or cherries.
- TIP: If using coconut milk, you’ll need the full-fat kind, which tends to separate in the tin, so pour it out, give it a stir and measure out 180ml for this dish, then use the rest in soups or smoothies.
Eat Happy by Melissa Hemsley (Ebury Press, £20) is out now.