Tell us about your food journey, how did it start, what inspired you to become a chef?
I love to cook feel-good food. Recipes that are vibrant and satisfying and healthy not boring, and I am really interested in not wasting food. I’ve been cooking professionally now for 11 years, and I started as a private chef with my sister.
We were cooking for actors and bands like Take That which was great fun. Their brief was that they wanted food that would energise them but also include their comfort food as they’d be on tour. That’s always been the way I like to cook – healthy, hearty and satisfying food, which is not boring and supports you feeling good.
Many of my clients were good cooks themselves but they would run out of time to cook as they would be on tour in a different city each night.
I always think about the vegetables first being the focal point at the table. I love food to look as delicious as it tastes, but I think if you’re using a good variety of and plenty of vegetables, spices and herbs it will look and feel satisfying.
My first job out of school was working for an ethical shoe brand. I’m always trying to come up with recipes where you don’t have to waste food, and always see how I can use different parts of the ingredient or foods, for instance, mushrooms stalks, broccoli stems, cauliflower leaves and carrot and radish tops.
I usually chop off the bottoms of asparagus and I put it in a reusable freezer bag or container if I’m not going to eat it. Then, I simmer it and puree it into soups, risotto or dips.
From your Instagram, we can see that you are passionate about sustainable cooking. What motivated you and what advice would you give to others?
The urgency of the climate crisis motivated me to cook sustainably. Obviously, there are things that big businesses and the government need to do but on a day-to-day basis, there are things we could all be doing at home and at work. We all have an impact every day, from what we put on our skin, to what we put in our mouths, to how we shop.
We eat three times a day so there are many things we can do to make sure we are eating more sustainably. Small steps add up! For instance, if we have a choice of two packaging options, go for the compostable or recyclable one or ask your local shop to stock something in a more sustainable way. The more we ask, the more chance we’ve got for change.
Where I live in East London, everyone was talking about how great it would be to have a refill shop, so one of the corner shops started a refill aisle and it was such a success that now they’ve opened two more refill shops. Try looking for loose items, refillable items including spices, and compostable or recyclable packaging when you buy your mushrooms.
Using up every last bit of food is also important, so don’t throw away your mushroom’s stalks and don’t peel them. Just give your mushrooms a wipe with a damp tea towel and chop the stalks and fry them up. As a food waste tip, have a ‘bin audit’ – go into your binand see what you throw away, as it’s likely you may throw away the same things and it could give you inspiration to have another go next week at wasting less. Or try freezing them or eating them earlier in the week if you won’t eat it later in the week to avoid waste.
As a whole, we tend to buy the same foods each week so we tend to throw away the same foods too! Products like lettuce, bread, milk and eggs, as well as cucumbers and herbs and quite a lot of cheese and yoghurt too.
I like using Instagram as it’s a fantastic way to connect to each other and a great way for farmers, suppliers and charities to connect with us too. Instagram is a very visual place, including lots of close ups and stories of food, but I’ve noticed lots of people like longer form captions. There are so many recipes on Instagram, but long captions ensure we can chat to others about sustainability issues, recipe tips and cooking techniques that my audience care about.
What is always in your fridge or cupboard? What ingredients can’t you live without?
I love garlic and always have mushrooms in my fridge, these are two ingredients that pair well together. I’ve also always got herbs, but for sustainability reasons, I’m trying to keep my herb pots alive to avoid buying plastic wrapped herbs from the shops. As we’re coming out of winter, some that have lasted all year have now died but they definitely perked up so much of my cooking over winter. Having herbs in your fridge or dried herbs and spices in the cupboard always make cooking more exciting. I really rely on them.
I also mostly have eggs and butter. I always follow the seasons, so I’m excited to use asparagus, tomatoes, spring onions and radishes in the Spring/Summer seasons. Mushrooms are also a great ingredient that I use often as they are in season 52 weeks of the year!
Finally, I always have frozen peas, frozen greens and lemongrass in the freezer. As lemongrass can sometimes be harder to find, if I see some in the shops, I’ll always buy extra. I’ll use one and then put the other in the freezer. You can also use this in tea, or in a lovely coconut noodle broth. Also, lemons and limes are a must have. Frozen peas, spinach and greens can go straight into all kinds of recipes for instant green and instant extra portions of veg without breaking a sweat.
Are you a flexitarian or do you embrace food in general? Have you tried to reduce your meat intake for sustainability reasons or to reduce your carbon footprint?
I don’t call myself a flexitarian even though I use the word flexitarian to describe the recipes, because I’m not a huge fan of food labels. Only because they can be quite restrictive for some people to sum up entirely the way they eat. But some people do enjoy food labels and find it helpful particularly in restaurants to show what you can and can’t eat. It’s a personal choice.
But I’m in the spirit of flexitarians and I like all flexible recipes; it’s important to be flexible with food and recipes, great recipes inspire you to use what you’ve got. I enjoy good quality eggs, butter, meat and fish but I don’t plan recipes around them, I plan recipes around vegetables such as mushrooms. For people that love meat, it’s a treat when we eat it, however mushrooms can be used as a great meat substitute. We should ensure nothing goes to waste, buy the best quality meat you can afford, so it’s something to celebrate on occasions.
How do you bulk out a meal?
Mushrooms are a great food to bulk out a meal. For instance, I love to make a mushroom mince with finely chopped up mushrooms and adding walnuts into the dish. A popular recipe in my last book Eat Green was lentil and mushroom Bolognese/ragu and people especially kids loved it, as they’ve never chopped mushrooms so small before. People either slice mushrooms or they keep them whole, so it’s a new cooking technique for people to use.
I also like to make half mince and half mushroom mince, which works with shepherd’s pie, Bolognese, chili con carne and tacos. There are loads of ways to use mushrooms, and if you want to try an alternative to a Full English, you could use roasted portobello mushrooms which look amazing baked with an egg cracked inside and it tastes great and satisfying. My preference for cutting down on meat is to replace it with more vegetables, not to replace it with meat substitutes every time.
On the topic of seasonality, what’s your favourite season?
I like Spring the most, because of the great weather, the blossoms, spring ingredients and you are so ready after winter to have something lovely fresh and green to eat, and you have the promise of this all summer long soon after.
Winter is a time for us to rest more and cook dishes such as a lovely long 4-hour stew or a mushroom bourguignon for winter is juicy and delicious. People think mushrooms are more for autumn and winter than spring or summer, but they can be used all year round. Mushrooms are fantastic roasted on salads or grilled or on the BBQ.
Many retailers buy their products internationally, but we’ve got a fantastic variety of mushrooms from British and Irish mushrooms and they are available all year round. If we grow it here, why wouldn’t we purchase it, it’s just making small changes, so we have less impact on the planet.
Seasonality is not as complicated as it seems. We use vegetables to celebrate different occasions, for instance, we know that squash and pumpkins are more centered around Halloween, and our hardier vegetables are more wintery, while summers include staple vegetables like tomatoes and cucumber. Foods like asparagus are so exciting as it’s not in season very long.
Who are the chefs you look up to, any that inspire you?
The first two restaurants I want to visit after lockdown is Asma Khan’s restaurant, who is an amazing chef and a great storyteller. She cooks food from her homeland and employs all women who don’t know how to cook professionally. She then trains them up to be business leaders and professional cooks, so they can start their own businesses one day, so she has an amazing ethos. Her restaurant is based in Covent Garden, and she has an episode on Chef’s Table on Netflix for more inspiration.
I also love Imad Alarnab, who is a Syrian refugee and will be opening a restaurant after lockdown. He has raised £250k for Syrian refugees and makes Syrian dishes using UK ingredients, which I love.
Then there is Tom Hunt who is known on Instagram as the eco chef, and I’ve learned so much about zero waste through him. Also, Douglas McMaster opened the UK’s first zero waste restaurant called Silo which was based in Brighton for 5 years and is now in Hackney Wick.
Lastly, I love Chantelle Nicholson who has a restaurant called Tredwells, and she is all about zero waste and seasonality.
I love people rediscovering their heritage, as my mum is from the Philippines, so I’m the first generation here, and I’ve only visited there twice. I’ve learnt about the food from the Philippines through the food my mum cooked for me over the years. My Mum is fantastic in the kitchen because she uses what she’s got and she’s a real inspiration for my cooking.
How was lockdown for you? Did you learn anything, a new skill, do anything fun?
It was a rollercoaster of emotions, but also, I learned to be more grateful for things, and feel more appreciative of what I have got, which is the best lesson. But also, it’s been very stressful in a lot of ways. It’s horrible watching what’s happening, and people losing loved ones.
Having said that, although there are no silver linings from the pandemic, it has reinforced the fact that I would love to spend more time supporting the charities that I do. I’ve enjoyed doing more community cooking with the Felix project, and there is evidently a hunger crisis in the UK, which is another reason why we should not be wasting food.
Also, I really enjoyed my Instagram community over lockdown, for example, people would say “I’ve got mushrooms, what should I do with them?” Every recipe I create I encourage flexibility, so if you have a spare mushroom or carrot, incorporate it into the recipes you are making. I hope I’ve been useful to help people save money and not waste food throughout the lockdown.
What is next for you? Will we see you on a TV show, or what is your dream move you could do next?
I’m working on an exciting project that I hope everyone will enjoy, doing more of the same things that I love. I do like the TV side of things and I have done TV before. I’ve filmed some TV with Dr Rupy in the past who is great and we share a similar style of cooking.
Rewind to this time last year, I hadn’t done an IGTV before, so I set up two series of IGTV’s. One called Cook Together Cook Along where viewers ask about chefs I like, and I also cooked with the chefs I love. The second IGTV was called Feel Good Sessions, where I talked on a Monday night, as I wanted something to look forward to. I chatted to people including Dr Hazel who is The Food Medic, as well as a range of therapists and experts in their field. We had relaxed conversations about things we could do to express our feelings and boost our mood. We also talked about cooking, the food we love and comfort food.
As you lead a busy lifestyle, do you find it hard to eat healthy? What are your golden rules to put in place?
In general, I would use the word ‘rules’ in the loosest way, as everyone knows how their body feels best. I would say focus on vegetables being at the heart of the plate, and I don’t know about everyone else but I think lots of us might benefit from more time to have laptop free lunches, to digest and eat without email and zoom stress.
My loose ‘rules’ are to eat what makes you feel good, and I believe having a rough meal plan each week can work to make life easier for you. We’re all so busy during the week, so if you can do a big shop in the week, and top up a little if you need, you’ll have more success in saving money, not wasting food and having less stress around food.
It’s great to have a rough idea of meals throughout the week, including as an example a Meat Free Monday or Taco Tuesday, where you could use mushrooms instead of mincemeat. And then come Friday, for lunch how about a ‘fridge raid frittata – grate up a courgette or carrot, mix with some eggs and some chopped leftover potato and sprinkle with a little spice or cheese and bake it – you could do this the night before and have a really delicious wedge to take to work, Or you could base your meals on the places you miss travelling to, for instance, I love to make a Greek salad, or a Sri Lankan curry and I’m missing my Mum’s Filipino cooking so I’ve been enjoying ginger brothy mushroom noodle soups inspired by her.
It’s good to have a rough idea of what you want to cook that week, and I also love to use herbs and spices in dishes to make them more exciting. I also love batch cooking, such as making a ragu or soup and then changing up the toppings, so it doesn’t get boring.
Melissa Hemsley Top Tips:
Reducing meat and using alternatives to cut on costs and buy better quality meat
I enjoy using mushrooms as a great substitute to meat and to help good quality meat go further. I like to use the ingredients in comfort food recipes that I love such as cottage pie, Bolognese, and wherever you’d use mince in tacos or lettuce cups and in stuffed peppers and aubergines. I chop the mushrooms finely, fry until golden so they resemble mince. You can also use and chop the mushroom stalks and add to the dish which reduces food waste!
When you have a bit of extra time on the weekend, try your hand at batch cooking. Cook once, eat twice, sometimes more! When you batch cook, you can tailor this depending on how much you like to eat and your freezer or fridge space. I often batch cook some curry pastes or simple soups, where you can change up toppings and you can eat throughout the week. Or simply make a double batch of your favourite dressing or drizzle to last you all week.
I like to be in touch with nature as much as possible (not easy with our busy indoor lives) and eat with the seasons. I’d recommend getting to know what produce is in season and shop accordingly. Ingredients like mushrooms are available all year round. I often look out for UK and Irish producers to ensure I am using the best of British produce.
Store cupboard essentials
In your weekly shop, make sure you buy products such as mushrooms, eggs, rocket, garlic, butter, citrus (lemon and limes), ginger, carrots and a mixture of fresh herbs. These can be incorporated into a variety of different recipes.
Make the most of herbs
In spring, treat yourself to a new set of herb pots and if you look after them, you’ll be able to use the herbs all year long. Make sure you experiment with where your herbs should be placed in the house, to make sure they are getting enough sunlight.
Planning is key
Planning your meals can be great fun rather than a chore It helps you save money, reduces food waste and gives your family something nice to look forward to each week. Make sure you leave a day on the weekend to get a nice takeaway or support your local restaurant.
Be creative with ingredients
Recently, there is much more excitement around plant-based cooking. Try and experiment with different vegetables and use spices to really enhance your produce. Try out some new cooking techniques so you don’t get bored. For example, frying, roasting and boiling – food can taste completely different depending on how the ingredient is cooked.
How to make the most of your meals
Every time you cook, keep a bowl next to you and add any leftover ingredients that can be added to a soup, smoothie or stock to reduce your food waste. This technique is visual, and you can see what ingredients you can challenge yourself to cook with.
Make sure you always have a tray of roasted vegetables nearby, you can use them for soups, salads or a frittata. Roasting is also a great way to concentrate flavour and a good way of making use of a flopping carrot or celery stick.
Sharing feels good, there’s so many chances to cook and share in our neighborhoods or our communities – if you find the idea of lots of home cooking overwhelming because you’re so busy, I hear you! How about teaming up with a work friend or a buddy and taking it in turns to try something new each week. Maybe one of you is in charge of breakfast – give my ‘fruit bowl bake’ a go which is like a banana bake plus grated apples and whatever else you’ve got in your fruit bowl, and perhaps the other person takes on lunch to share with you. – something easy and transportable for work like a mushroom and roast veg frittata or a big hearty salad that you can make the night before.
Note on food waste and mushrooms
Mushrooms are grown in a vertical farm, so they have a smaller land footprint than other crops. Because vertical farms are controlled environments, all resources required to produce the mushrooms can be exactly determined to minimise waste.