Chef Anna Jones dishes up to Katie O’Malley on her mentor Jamie Oliver and how vegetarianism is taking over the world.
There’s something about Anna Jones’s approach to cooking that’s refreshing. While she may be a vegetarian chef, making healthy dishes ranging from sweet red onion pizzettes to celeriac soup, it’s nice to hear that she isn’t scared of indulging in the odd treat once in a while. “Guilty pleasures should be celebrated and should just be called pleasures.”
With her second recipe book – A Modern Way to Cook – to be published in June, we sit down with the food stylist, writer and chef to find out about her brave career change and the increasingly popular vegetarian movement.
KO’M: You originally studied economics at university and worked in financial PR. How and why did you change your career?
“It all happened quite quickly for me. I was working in a job that I wasn’t really that passionate about. I was on my way to work one day and was reading an article in the paper about how you determine your calling by which part of the Sunday paper you turn to first. It was like a light bulb moment for me because I always turned to the restaurant section. I’d always cooked but I’d never really considered it as a career, but I read that article and thought ‘You know what, actually, this is what I want to do and I’m going to go for it’.”
That afternoon I went into work, I Googled cookery courses in London and found the apprenticeship at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen. I applied for it that day and two days later I had an interview, the following weekend I had a selection day and I quit my job the next Monday. It literally all happened in one week, which was amazing.
What was it like working with the Naked Chef?
“It was back in the days when Jamie wasn’t as high profile as he is now so we got lots of time with him and with all the other chefs he worked with. There was a one-to-one chef student ratio so you were always being taught by an amazing chef. It was a fledgling project, run by Jamie and his friends, so we were working with some incredible ingredients and going on amazing trips to Italy, tasting Tuscan wines and going to olive oil producers and it just got me even more excited by food.”
What was the best piece of advice you got from Jamie?
“You can be the most creative and brilliant chef and you can be really passionate about eating but unless you put in the hours and you are committed to learning the basics, you won’t make it. That passion and skill has to be matched with your work ethic. Another thing I learnt is an intrinsic respect for ingredients. I think that came from traveling to Italy and seeing the oil producers and the guys who made the wine and how their character came across in what they made. Some of the olive oil producers were real farmers, their character was earthier and a bit grittier and you could almost taste that in their oil. That complete connection between maker and land and the final product is one of the amazing things that I took from my time there.”
Talking about ingredients, if you could choose your favourite, what would it be?
“Lemons. They show up in almost all of my recipes and I actually use them as kind of a third seasoning. I use lemon in almost all of my dishes because I think it gives an extra freshness. You can use the zest, which has that bit more lemon oil in it, which gives that really almost sherbet sweet flavour, and then you can use the juice, which gives that sharpness and adds another dimension to cooking. I don’t think I could really cook without lemons.”
Here’s a tough one, what’s your favourite cuisine?
“I think so much of what I want to eat is driven by my mood, my surroundings and whether it’s a hot or a cold climate. But I would say there’s three places where I really take inspiration from.”
1. California: “I love how healthy food is really celebrated in California and it’s done in a really joyful way. Lots of the restaurants have healthy meals and lovely generous vegetarian food- that’s just part of Californian eating.”
2. South India: “I love those kinds of curry leaves, mustard seeds, the tamarind and coconut milk they use in South Indian cooking and it finds its way into a lot of my recipes.”
3. Italy: “I think my routes of cooking are in Italy because that’s where I was taught in the style that Jamie inherited from The River Café, so a lot of my training is based in those timeless Italian classics and making lots of pasta.
What’s the dish you’re cooking the most at the moment?
“In my new book – A Modern Way To Cook – there’s a bunch of recipes, and one of the ones that I’ve been making a lot and really love is a banana bread with oats and pecan nuts. It’s really hearty and wholesome and it tastes amazing; it’s lovely with a little bit of honey spread on top. I always think of my favourite recipe as the one I’m making the most at the moment. There’s an option to also scatter a few bits of chocolate through it as well – I mean, add a bit of chocolate, why not?”
As a vegetarian chef, have you noticed an increase in the number of people turning veggie?
“There’s been a huge surge both in people becoming vegetarian and in people who do eat a bit of meat deciding to eat vegetarian three or four nights a week. I think there’s been a shift in consciousness and people are much more aware of what they’re putting in their bodies. All the research out there says that if you want to live a healthy, vibrant life then making vegetables the focus of your diet is the easiest, cheapest and most obvious way to do it.
There’s been an explosion in the last few years [of vegetarianism] and I think that’s just going to be compounded and keep on growing.”
Finally, what advice would you given someone who wants to move into the food industry?
“Find someone that you really love and respect – whether it be a food stylist, a writer, a chef, a magazine editor – and just send them a really lovely generous email saying how much you love what they do and see if they can offer you any advice. Also, be really passionate and committed. You need to know that you’re going to have to put the hours in and you’re going to have to work from the bottom up.”
Anna Jones’s second recipe book A Modern Way To Cook will be released 19 June.
Anna’s first book, A Modern Way To Eat, is available on Amazon here.