When it comes to a fresh approach to eating, the London-based chef Anna Jones sets the trends. Her books, A Modern Way to Eat and A Modern Way to Cook, give a whole new spin on eating well, while her innovative approach that puts vegetables centre stage will have you reconsidering the way you see food, showing how simple ingredients can make a meal magnificent.
Jones’s inspiring and nourishing food isn’t just healthy; it packs in the feel-good factor, too – think beautiful and nutritious ingredients in vibrant, uplifting hues. The Style Report caught up with her in a rare spare moment between looking after her three-month-old son Dylan and cooking up a storm in the kitchen of her east London home.
What made you decide to quit your office job and translate your career into food?
‘It all happened pretty quickly. I read an article in a newspaper about following your passion, and within a few days I had booked myself a place on the training programme at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen foundation. Looking back now, it feels that was the right way to do it.’
You have worked with influential chefs, including Jamie Oliver. How did that inspire you?
‘I spent eight years working with Jamie in total, and learned a huge amount. He has such an approachable but uncompromising attitude to food, and passes that experience over to all the brilliantly passionate young people who come up through his Fifteen foundation. I hope that I’ve carried some of that into my own way of working. I always try to engage with peers who share common philosophies or those who I can find something totally new from, to add to my cooking. Learning about pasta from Antonio Carluccio has definitely been a highlight and shaping up my dough skills with the Fabulous Baker Brothers. The sheer knowledge they have of their crafts is inspiring.’
What is an average day for you?
‘Working as a freelance food stylist and writer, I flit between recipe writing, photo shoots and meetings, so my days are ever changing; I’m not a fan of strict routines anyway. Alongside that, I will often pop into a few of my favourite producers and markets to see what’s in season and do a bit of recipe testing in the evening. I’m on maternity leave at the moment, so the days have been a little bit different – with a few extra hours dedicated to naps and playtime!’
Your recipes put vegetables at the centre of every table – what is it about them that inspires?
‘After a few years as a chef and then working as a food writer and stylist I became a little jaded with food and realised my body wasn’t feeling the way I knew it could. As an experiment, I decided to move to a vegetable-centred way of eating for six weeks, giving up meat, fish and all but a little dairy. That was seven years ago and I haven’t looked back. It was, of course, a big change for me. The building blocks that I’d grown up with and the rules I had learned as a chef didn’t quite fit any more. So the challenge to find new ways to add texture, interest and flavour to my food have meant using a new palate of ingredients and some new techniques in the kitchen.
‘I am still led by the things that got me so excited about cooking in the first place. The haze of citrus oils spritzing off the skin of a freshly zested orange. The deep purple brilliance when you slice into an earthy beetroot; the warming scent of ginger and brown sugar baking into a crumble; the Willy Wonka magic of melting chocolate over a bain-marie, and so many more moments when my taste buds start dancing and my heart beats a little faster.’
What are your top tips for time-poor people that want to eat more healthily?
‘The recipes in A Modern Way to Cook are based around the practice of quick, calm cooking. I know what it feels like to arrive back home after a long day at work and want something on the table straight away, so the recipes are all about simplifying the process – batch cooking, or having a regular set of ingredients in your store cupboard that you can quickly knock up into a trusty dish. Eating well doesn’t have to be time consuming and boring. Be prepared – if you know you’ll be rushed in the morning make a pot of overnight oats to take to work with you; very small changes can make a big difference.’
Where do you find inspiration for your food? Who or what influences you?
‘I’m definitely influenced by the people who cook from my blog and books – social media puts me directly in touch with them so I can see what they respond to and love. I’m also inspired by other chefs like Heidi Swanson, Sarah Britton of the blog My New Roots and Jamie Oliver – I worked with him for a long time, so his approach to cooking will stay with me forever. Outside of that, everyday things and people inspire me – travelling, my family.’
How would you describe your cooking style?
‘I like to create vibrant, delicious food that leaves a feeling of energy and true satisfaction, combining wellness and deliciousness in every plate. I believe that food is a celebration, a chance to share quality time with your loved ones, and nourish yourself with amazing ingredients.’
What do you consider a beautiful plate of food?
‘One that’s full of colour and texture and you can’t wait to eat. I want to see food jump off the plate – that can be the slick of chocolate drooling out of a chocolate fondant or the drops of water on a freshly washed leaf of the crispest salad. When I cook for friends the simplest salad with a bit of thought, or an easy bowl of pasta topped with some bright herbs and a flash of red chilli means we start eating before we’ve even got a fork in our hands. I always try to take some time to make it look as beautiful as it will taste.’
What are your top three must-have ingredients?
‘Lemons – I use these as a sort of seasoning. I love using the zest, which has that bit more lemon oil in it, which gives an almost sherbet-sweet flavour, and then the juice, which gives the sharpness and adds another dimension to cooking. A grassy olive oil is such a staple for me, and so versatile. I love it drizzled over fresh ripe tomatoes with a crunch of sea salt. A good loaf of sourdough is so difficult to beat. I’ll often eat a slice of toast with a slick of nut butter, or use roughly torn pieces to top my coconut cassoulet.’
What do you like to wear in and out of the kitchen?
‘In the kitchen I wear Japanese denim aprons that sadly they don’t make any more. Outside of the kitchen I like simple, clean-cut clothes that can be dressed up or down.’
Where is your favourite place to eat out and why?
‘The River Café for a celebration – the cooking is completely faultless and I love its commitment to the seasons. Lyle’s and Spring in London are both doing some of the best and most original simple British cooking at the moment – they are always generous to vegetarians and the dining rooms, while very different, are both calm and so beautiful.’
What do you do to wind down and relax?
‘We spent some time over Christmas and New Year up in Anglesey where my fiancé John is from. It’s such a beautiful island, and I love walking on any of its beaches. John is an amazing surfer and although I’m not nearly as experienced, I like to join him when I can.’
What’s your most treasured possession?
‘A gold charm bracelet my mum bought me many years ago, hung with charms that my dad has collected from all over the world.’
Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?
‘This year, it’s wearing lipstick, chatting to one stranger a day, writing a new book and a promise to spend as much time with my new baby boy as possible.’