“I wholeheartedly believe that a rushed bowl of quinoa is going to have way less nutrition than pizza and some beers with friends,” says Anna Jones, chef and author of cookbook <i>A Modern Way to Cook</i>.
"When I told my cheffy friends seven or eight years ago that I was vegetarian, I was met with nervous laughter. They looked at me like I had weird stuff growing out of my face."
I'm talking to chef and cookbook author Anna Jones as she gracefully sips her decaf latte and waxes lyrical about the virtues of a meat-free lifestyle. I keep thinking about the bacon sandwich I carelessly inhaled approximately half an hour previous. Jones is literally glowing with health. I am glowing from wearing too many layers on a humid day and having to jog to get to the trendy East London cafe where we had arranged to meet on time.
"St. John [Fergus Henderson's pioneering nose-to-tail restaurant] was the place of the moment and it was all about trotters and pig head terrine," continues Jones. "I was almost embarrassed to tell people that I didn't eat meat."
But now, that feeling couldn't be further from the reality.
"People fall over themselves to tell me what vegetarian food they've made," she says. "It's like a badge of honour."
Jones graduated from Jamie Oliver's chef apprenticeship programme at his Fifteen restaurant in 2004, after quitting her office job. In the years since, she has spent time in the kitchens of several London restaurants and worked with Oliver on his books, TV shows, and campaigns before releasing her first book, A Modern Way to Eat, in 2014.
"I was brought up in a meat and two veg family," Jones explains. "But it was while I was working as a chef for Jamie that I decided to give up meat for six weeks to see how it went."
Was Oliver really that much of a carnivore?
Jones laughs: "I was a bit jaded with food in general. I was cooking, tasting, and testing recipes a lot which was a dream job but I felt like I was at maximum density with food. I needed a fresh start."
What started off as an experiment marked the beginning of Jones' career as the modern vegetarian chef.
"It completely changed how I felt in myself. I felt lighter and brighter but the main thing was that I felt much more excited about cooking," Jones remembers. "I'd grown up building my plates around fish and meat. When you take that away, I found cooking much more creative. I could focus much more on the flavour and mood of the dish."
It's Jones' approach to cooking "for the love and joy of food" that makes her take on the vegetarian diet easier to digest. She doesn't ask her readers to channel their inner green goddess and there's no mention of the dreaded "wellness."
"I'm not an evangelical eater in any way," Jones states plainly. "I really think that putting vegetables at the centre of what you eat is a brilliant way to make sure that most of your meals are healthy and nutritious without having to get crazy about spoonfuls of matcha, or whether or not you have enough maca powder for your morning smoothie."
I did have to Google what maca powder is.
Jones admits that having a mother who instilled in her the values of healthy eating did impact her cooking style. Her brother and sister have also given up meat.
"We didn't have stuff like chocolate and Coke in the house. My mum would always be going to Holland & Barrett to buy these weird hippy jams," she remembers. "Looking back, I'm glad she did take the time to weave that into our childhood."
But don't get the impression that Jones is holier than thou.
"Because we didn't have sugar much growing up, my sister and I went through a couple of years when we were around 13 of craving really, really proper sugar-high chocolate and McDonald's," laughs Jones. "I remember my sister and I going through a phase of melting Mars bars in the microwave and eating them with a spoon. The mini ones, though, not the massive ones!"
I know what I'm doing tonight.
Jones credits the likes of the "clean eating" Hemsley sisters and blogger Deliciously Ella with changing how we eat, but is against turning certain foods into forbidden fruit.
"I don't think that nutrition is just about the nutrients that are in food," she says. "I wholeheartedly believe that a rushed bowl of quinoa and greens, eaten on a night where you're feeling a bit rubbish about life, is going to have way less nutrition than pizza and some beers while you're sat around relaxing with friends. It's about atmosphere, the grace with which the food is made and brought to the table."
This simple idea of sharing great-tasting food, that just happens to be meat-free, is what Jones aims to reflect in her cookbooks. Although the tagline on the front cover of her first book highlights the fact that its recipes are entirely vegetarian, her 2015 follow up simply states: "Quick, smart, and flavour-packed recipes for every day."
Jones explains that she wanted to distance herself from what she calls the "brightly painted cafes and hemp trousers connotations" that the word "vegetarian" can have: "I felt like the food I was eating was vibrant and interesting and modern and what my friends wanted to eat. I didn't feel like pigeon-holing it. When I was talking about a modern way to cook and eat, I just wanted to convey that I think we've moved on."
She sums it up: "The way to get people to eat in a bit of a better way is just to make amazing food and flavours."
I'll always find the lure of a good and bloody steak hard to resist, but with Jones purging veggie menus of beige mushroom risottos and uninspiring goat cheese tarts, I think I can get on board with flying the V flag.
Well, at least until I need that hangover-curing bacon sarnie.
Entries for the 2016 YBFs are now open, with Anna Jones heading up the Vegetable category. Head to the YBF website to nominate someone you think deserves recognition for their contribution to British food—or go all out and enter yourself. Entries close on July 22.