Grilled: Melissa Hemsley

We talk eco-anxiety, using up those leftovers, and reforming our cooking habits with this cook and entrepreneur before she heads to the West Country on her book tour

The year 2020 marks a significant milestone for cook, entrepreneur and food writer Melissa Hemsley. See, it was a decade ago that she and sister Jasmine launched Hemsley and Hemsley – a service to help people with digestion and diet issues and promote positive relationships with food and cooking.

Celebrities were soon on their books as private clients, as were brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Vivienne Westwood. Next came a column in Vogue, two recipe books (The Art of Eating Well and Good and Simple), a café at Selfridges in London and a Channel 4 TV show, Eating Well With Hemsley and Hemsley. The pair even released their own spiraliser, having been among the first to champion the practice of turning vegetables into spaghetti.

Their emergence coincided with the first waves of the ‘clean eating’ movement (a concept which, although linked to the sisters in many people’s minds, the Hemsleys have verbally distanced themselves from). All glowing skin and glossy hair, they portrayed the ultimate vision of health, at a time when we were all looking to our diets more keenly than ever to enhance our lives.

And not only were their health-radiating appearances nothing to do with Photoshop (we can confirm the glow is very much apparent IRL), but they were joined by sunny dispositions to match. Of course we all wanted in on their secret, so we looked for guidance in their eating habits.

A decade later, the sisters are busy pursuing different interests, although their café at Selfridges is very much still run as a joint effort. Jasmine has gone down a wellness and nutrition path, while Melissa’s interests lie in shaping wholesome, satisfying dishes into practical and adaptable everyday recipes – so this has been the focus of her two solo books.

“For me, [going solo] was about hoping to inspire people who didn’t cook at all, or very rarely, to get stuck into the kitchen – I’m drawn to people who say they hate cooking! I started developing specifically 15-minute to 30-minute recipes, which had very basic methods and easy-to-get ingredients but still tasted as good as any takeaway or ready meal.”

This is very much the path that Melissa’s cooking has taken as a whole, her food evolving to appeal to a wider audience than perhaps the Hemsley and Hemsley recipes might.

The new book, Eat Green, builds on Melissa’s first, taking its ideas a step further by putting vegetables in the spotlight (although meat and fish are involved to some extent too) and having a real emphasis on tackling food waste. It’s something of a manual for modern, time-poor and environmentally aware cooks, giving tips and inspiration on rustling up speedy, nutritious meals without having to compromise on flavour or eco principles.

“We all want to eat in a way that is delicious, nourishing, exciting and good for the planet, while saving us time and money,” says Melissa. “Eat Green is about getting you cooking confidently to do just that, whether you’re an omnivore, vegetarian or something in between.

“It’s stuffed with flexi tips, waste-cutting advice and easy-to-adapt recipes to give you the confidence to use up your odds and ends, to reinvent your leftovers, to make the freezer your friend, to use your ingredients in their edible entirety and to switch up your vegetables depending on the season (there’s a seasons chart at the front of the book).”

There’s even an A-Z of odds, ends and leftovers, listing ways to use up any food that’s remaining from the meal before. Making very small, waste-saving changes in the kitchen like this can teach us how to be more resourceful and ultimately make a big difference to the amount of good food we waste each month.

“Next time you look in the fridge and think ‘I can’t see a dinner here’, think frittata, think soup or think stir-fry. [I] guarantee you can rustle up something for one of those. I love a fridge raid frittata because it means a quick dinner and I always hope to have a nice thick wedge left over for tomorrow’s breakfast or packed lunch.

“I also like to keep a designated shelf in the fridge (space permitting) for food that needs eating up. That way, you get into the habit of going there first to avoid waste and buying more of what you might already have.

“Another tip is to make friends with your freezer. If you think you won’t get through something then chop it up and freeze it – frozen bananas, berries and greens can all go into a smoothie, or chopped greens can be thrown, frozen, into a bolognese, stew or stir-fry.”

This champion of the freezer is also a big fan of using ice cube trays for food – not only to save ingredients but to create “flavour bombs” to easily bolster the flavour of dishes in an instant.

When writing the new book, Melissa says she took her lead from readers, who she met while touring with Eat Happy. As well as listening to what they wanted more of, she’d ask people what fruit and veg they most often find themselves wasting and based many of her new recipes on those. (She found carrots and carrot tops, broccoli and stalks, herbs, and salad leaves were among the most binned ingredients. We knew you were wondering.)

As with her focus on waste, other issues of sustainability, economy and climate are woven into Melissa’s work. Being made an ambassador for Fairtrade, presenting the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Awards and cooking for Extinction Rebellion using rescued food are all among the career highlights that she lists to us, and she’s also written on the subject of eco-anxiety in her Vogue column.

“Some people might roll their eyes at the term ‘eco-anxiety’, but it’s definitely a feeling I’ve heard a growing number of people talk about. When I first heard it at the beginning of 2019, maybe the end of 2018, I really understood what people meant. It can feel incredibly overwhelming, which sometimes can make me despair or freeze for a moment, considering what to do and how to move forward.

“My advice, if asked, is always that we can all do our part and that small changes – which work for you and that you can stick to and repeat every day – can have a big impact. I believe in voting with your spending power – spending your money with farmers, shopkeepers and companies who are trying their best with sourcing, packaging or growing food as close to nature as possible and caretaking the land.”

Like many cooks and chefs, Melissa credits her mum with instilling in her a fierce set of culinary principles, many of which tie in with her environmental focuses.

“She is the queen of leftovers,” says Melissa. “She taught me the best cooks don’t waste a thing, and she won’t go out food shopping until she’s cleared the fridge first. That’s a key lesson I’ve learnt and pass on.

“When I look back at the four cookbooks [I’ve written] now, they have mum’s wisdom – which, when I was younger, I thought of as nagging – all the way through them. I’d say 95% of everything she told me when I was younger turned out to be right!”

Although food has always played a huge part in Melissa’s life – brought up as she was with comforting, home-cooked meals – it wasn’t until she flew the nest that she began giving it real thought.

“My Filipino mum is a great cook – not fancy, no recipes, just good home-cooked food. She makes great British food (as shown to her by my paternal grandmother) and brilliant Asian food, then she just mixes them up to make her own fusion.

“Like many in my generation, I wasn’t taught to cook, so didn’t cook until I left home. At first, I cooked because I needed to and missed my mum’s lovely nourishing soups and comfort family foods. Then I realised that I loved cooking for all my friends who missed their mums’ food, and I started feeding everyone.”

And she’s still a feeder to this day, describing cooking as “bringing instant joy to people through something as simple and enjoyable as chopping, stirring and simmering.”

She continues: “I love that cooking empowers people, especially less confident cooks who feel a ‘failure’ in the kitchen. I really enjoy giving lessons and watching people change their mindset around cooking, then bounce out, ready to take on the world.”

That’s not all she loves about spending time in the kitchen, though: “I find cooking relaxing and chopping meditative, so it’s a good destresser for me.

“I prioritise my mental health, and home cooking has a huge part to play – what we eat and the act of preparing it, too.”

This well-known cook is very familiar with the Bristol and Bath food scene – she’s especially fond of Poco in Stokes Croft (co-owner Tom Hunt is a good friend of hers) and plant-based restaurant Acorn in Bath – so is keen to get down to our neck of the woods, she says, for her Topping and Company event.

If you miss her there this month, fear not – we’ve got a taster of her new book here, in the form of one of its hot-off-the-press, bang- in-season recipes, spicy sprout and mushroom noodles with five-spice.