A: Today’s guest is Melissa Hemsley, who is known as a cook, which undersells what she does. She’s a bestselling author, writer, presenter, and champion of sustainable home cooking. She began her career as a private chef for international actors and brands, including Take That. She regularly appears on cooking shows, news shows, and often speaks for the charities and community projects she works for.
When I think of Melissa, I think of: vibrant, a smile that lights up a room with such warmth, and a collaborative heart. If I ever wanted a dinner party pulling together, Melissa would be my only choice, not just because of the amazing food, but because of her ability to pull a room full of beautiful people together.
Welcome to the podcast, Melissa.
M: That’s really touched me. Thank you so much. I can feel a little weepy eye coming on. That’s lovely, Abigail.
A: I’m so excited that you’ve come on. It seems like we haven’t physically seen each other since before the Covid pandemic. Interestingly, my photo reel on Instagram occasionally comes up with, ‘This is the person you have the most selfies with,’ and other than my daughter, it’s you.
A: Whenever we’ve been at a little event or something, we’re always like, ‘Let’s get a quick selfie.’
M: You should send it to me, I’m all about reliving those nice moments. That’s one of the things to be thankful for. With social media and phone tech, there’s a lot to be disappointed in, but when they remind you of a lovely memory, that is good fun.
A: So I’m going to jump in with a question for you. I like to ask all my guests, as much as I know bits about you and what you do. I’d love for you to share with my listeners a little bit about you and your journey, so they can get to know Melissa Hemsley a bit better.
M: I’m bad at not rambling, as you know. It’s your fault because you invited me on the podcast knowing how much I can talk! So do let me know when an hour has passed. The parts of my journey that people might be most interested in are the bits I’ve been reflecting on recently. Especially post the Big P, and I still feel like I haven’t fully processed it all.
I’ve been thinking about which parts of my life I most enjoy and would like more of, and which bits I’m not good at, get frustrated with myself about, or that I avoid, and I was thinking about when I first started cooking professionally.
I am almost 37, so I would’ve been, let’s say 24, and cooking for Take That. I miss that point, not because of Take That, although they are lovely men, but rather the work. It was a simple day in the sense that I woke up at 5:00 AM, which is super early for me. Is that early for everyone? So at 5:00 AM, I would go to one of their houses and put on Classic FM.
These were the days before your great podcast and others like it, Abigail. Otherwise, I would’ve been listening to your podcast. I’d put on Classic FM and head out to the shops. I’d buy whatever looked good and smelled good that day, and I would cook all day till about four o’clock, and then I’d wash up and head back home. I’ve got long hair, and no matter how much I tied it back, I would smell of the kitchen. So the first thing I’d do is have a shower, and then I would enjoy my evening.
It was such hard work, but social media didn’t exist. There was Facebook, and that was just for hooking up with whoever you had a crush on when you were 16. I didn’t even have a website. My sister and I, we split the business in different ways, I rarely cooked with her. So it was the most simple, enjoyable day, and I felt so satisfied by what I achieved each day.
A: So had you had any official cookery training? How the hell did you get that gig?
M: I know. I don’t know. I think we got the gig because we didn’t have any training, bizarrely. Because they were looking for chefs, but they didn’t want what they called or what we interpreted as ‘chef-y’ food. They wanted really simple food, and you’ve eaten my food a billion times and cooked my recipes. They are always guaranteed simple and delicious.
They taste like the way I cook. I think of it as how you would cook for your best friend coming over, or how your mum might cook for you when you head home for the weekend. I think that’s how I got it. I had gone to a half a day knife skills class before, and I completely forgot everything they taught me.
A: What did you do until this point in your life? Were you doing food, or was this a career shift?
M: No, I think I had done about a month of an Open University Shakespeare course, and then quickly got intimidated by everyone’s fantastic insights and analysis that I couldn’t keep up with.
That was my post A-level education, not completing an Open University course. I had been on a sabbatical from my job at the time, which was related to food. I was the events manager for a group of pubs, bars, and restaurants. So I was around food all the time and helped people come up with menus for their, what we called births, marriages and deaths, christenings, weddings, and wakes.
I enjoyed spending a lot of time with the chefs, and I also started understanding seasonal cooking. I remember the chef calling me one morning and saying, ‘I’m not coming in until later, but you need to tell me as soon as the asparagus arrive. The asparagus are coming, the asparagus are coming!’
I remember thinking, ‘He doesn’t get excited about much, but he’s excited about this asparagus.’ I started to understand why it was so important, and how they’re out in the fields from the end of March to mid-June, harvesting the asparagus. It’s such a short six-week window. I guess now looking back, I didn’t realise it at the time. I started getting a bit of a food education from being around this great chef.
A: I know you share a lot about your mum and your conversations. I’d love to know, has your upbringing had an impact on your cooking styles and skills?
M: Good question. I think my sister, Jasmine, would agree that Mum didn’t teach us how to cook. We hugely absorbed how not to waste, which is the most important skill we could teach each other and our kids.
Doug McMaster, a fantastic zero waste chef, who has a restaurant called Silo in East London, says, ‘Waste is the failure of the imagination.’ Others in the zero-waste world, which hopefully will be the whole world soon, say not to think of ingredients or parts of ingredients as second best. So, isn’t it funny how we think of a cauliflower leaf as throwaway, or if we do eat it, do we eat it begrudgingly and think of it as second best to the floret? Or the broccoli stalk versus the broccoli stem. I absolutely love the broccoli stalk in a stir fry.
I think you can become a really good cook, and a confident cook if you never think of bits of ingredients as second best. Just think what’s in front of you in your fridge that needs using up and cook from there. That’s how I think we should encourage people to cook.
A: When we think and talk about it, it’s actually odd that we don’t all naturally do that anyway, isn’t it?
M:Food should be simple. Full stop. The waste issue should be non-existent in our dream world. Yours and mine, Abigail, and everybody else’s. Yes, the planet is heating up.
Do you remember when it was climate change? Then it became the climate crisis. It was re-branded because it needed to be, and now it’s the climate catastrophe. The world is heating up, just look at the temperature of the day we’re recording today. The summers are hotter, drier, and too soon the winters are too mild.
Speaking of asparagus, I read this amazing book Three Things to Help Heal the Planet by Ana Santi. It’s got 21 contributors, and I’m lucky enough to be one of them. I was reading a bit about how back in the day, the asparagus farmers used coconut husk fibres to create a little duvet for the asparagus to keep them warm, so that they didn’t perish in the cooler months, late April, before they were harvested. Now asparagus is shooting out in March, when it should be May. It’s coming eight or six weeks early. That’s completely affecting nature and therefore the food we eat.
We eat a lot of cauliflower and apples in the UK. Well, we buy a lot, and we throw away a lot, but they are within the top 20 of what goes in people’s shopping baskets. That way, the planet is at the moment, the fertile period for things like apples is not matching when their pollinators are ready to pollinate.
Things are out of sync big time, and for me, things have been out of sync on a personal level for a long time. During the pandemic, that hit me in the face, the ‘What are you going to do about it?’ So in general, I’m very much thinking about how to get more in sync with things and how to feel better connected to things.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to chat to you, because we occasionally WhatsApp or DM each other, but I was looking forward to a proper chin wag.
A: Interestingly, with my job as a therapist, I’m often one on one in a room with someone, but in the pandemic, there were many months where I couldn’t physically practice. So, like you, I also had time to reflect, and I was thinking that even though I have these connections, I don’t have time to nurture them, because of the way I work. Even pre-Covid, going to events and properly feeling connected to people was something I feel that I wasn’t good at because of my job, and I’ve made a definite extra effort to rebuild and connect with people more regularly.
We’ve talked a little bit about sustainability, and I know you support a number of charities. I saw on your website that you support The Felix Project, tell us about that.
M: I’m so glad you asked, because if one person listening today thinks, ‘my office picks a charity each year, maybe we’ll think of The Felix Project next year,’ that would be wonderful. There are so many worthy charities out there, but The Felix Project is so interesting and inspiring because it’s London’s largest food redistribution charity.
Perhaps, the most important thing is the food rescued, so it’s perfectly edible surplus food that maybe is past its expiry date or discarded due to a logistic issue. The Felix Project picks it up. Most of its volunteer led. So if anyone ever wants to spend an afternoon helping out, people cycle, they walk, and they use electric vans. They pick up this food, and then very quickly they take it to one of three depots in London, where the volunteers and some team members sort through everything and assign it. At this time of year, they have summer community camps. During the pandemic, they were feeding NHS workers, and anyone who needs an extra hand. It’s twofold in that it rescues food headed to the bins, and then it helps people out, such as those without food or struggling.
At first it was delivering tinned ingredients, but sadly, demand has gone up fourfold. It’s rising all the time, especially with winter coming and fuel prices and bills rising. So now they make ready meals as well, which is really helpful for people, because food banks have reported that people are doing without things like potatoes, carrots, because they can’t afford the fuel to cook.
There are also charities like The Felix Project, such as UK Harvest and Fair Share. There are so many great charities on our doorsteps that are having to help. The energy from these volunteers and the people that work at the Felix project is amazing, and we’re doing it first and foremost because it’s the right thing to do. It’s about helping other people out. I’ve got to say, when I go and spend time with them, even when things are upsetting or there’s some sad news, the energy is so uplifting, and so I love the team spirit, it’s amazing.
A: Feel good is Melissa’s latest book. I’m excited that I have my copy, and I have been thumbing through and already folding over pages, marking recipes to try. The book is called Feel Good, and there is no reference to food or anything in its actual title, and I love that.
What was the inspiration and goal of writing this, your fourth book?
M: It’s actually my fifth. There’s the art of Eating Well and Good and Simple with Jas (Jasmine Hemsley), and then there’s Eat Happy. You probably missed Eat Green because it came out during the pandemic. We’ve been talking so much about sustainability, which is amazing, we don’t talk about it enough. I always think of sustainability in terms of that saying, ‘Sustainability is acting like we’re going to be here forever.’ That’s not it, the actual quote is really good. It’s so good you could tattoo it on you, and I’ve just butchered it.
Eat Green was my journey to even more waste free thinking about refilling, using less single-use plastic, eating more seasonally, and interrogating my habits, like asking, ‘Why am I putting an avocado in my shopping basket again? Do I really need it? Is there an ingredient that’s more local to me that I could enjoy?’
So Eat Green was my look at that. Sadly, it came out on the doorstep of the pandemic, but it’s actually had a real bump in the following months. We’ve survived, and because of that, people are interested in doubling down on their sustainability efforts. I think we were getting there about two years ago, and then of course we ended up trying to survive.
Moving on to Feel Good, I’m so glad you liked the title, because it was the subject of many, many emails. It’s very hard to come up with names. I love your podcast name; did you have a burst of inspiration when you were sat on the loo?
A: We were going through many different name options, and they were good, but it just wasn’t sitting right with me. This genuinely happened; it was a Thursday night, and I had a dream.
My mum was in the dream, and my mum passed away in 2019, and she was helping me choose podcast names in the dream. She was forever an ABBA fan. We played a couple of songs at her funeral, and one of them was an ABBA track. But in the dream, she came up with ‘Knowing me, Glowing you’. Sometimes you dream, and you think, ‘I need to remember that for the morning,’ and it’s gone, but it just stuck with me. After that, I couldn’t not call the podcast ‘Knowing me, Glowing you,’ so thanks Mum.
M: I’m going to put it out there, it’s my favourite podcast name. I can’t think of a podcast name that is better.
The name ‘Feel Good’ came from a new book I started working on before Eat Green had come out, and I couldn’t come up with a name, and neither did I need to at that point. It was a long way down the track, but then during the pandemic, I had never done an Instagram live or anything beyond a story and sending out a newsletter before. I just didn’t know what I was doing. So I started thinking about how I could be useful during this tragic pandemic. I decided that I could come up with affordable, easy to cook recipes with lots of swaps, depending on what people can get their hands on.
Especially for people who wanted to cook in their communities, perhaps for their neighbour, who might be an NHS worker or key worker. So I started doing a series called, ‘Cook Together, Cook Alongs’. While we were cooking, people would contribute to the conversation. We’d share tips and talk about, ‘What are you doing to keep yourself well?’ or ‘I think it’s so important to cry, but what do you do to come out of it?’ Or ‘What do you do to perk yourself up?’
And so, having never done an Instagram Live before, I set up a second set of Instagram Lives. I did the Cook Together, Cook Alongs, and then the Feel Good Sessions. They were about interviewing people about community, comfort, and connection. So as I wrote this book, which didn’t yet have a name, I wrote recipes about joyful cooking or remembering joyful cooking. When I want comfort, I don’t know if you feel the same. I think about what my mum might cook me.
A: It would be Findus Crispy Pancakes. She was not the best in the kitchen, my dad was the foodie. It was a quirky upbringing. We won’t mention the monkey he bought home from the pub, and, well, I’ve just mentioned it.
M: So the focus was smells of childhood comfort food, food you crave, food that brings you joy. As I wrote it, one of the chapters, which is now ‘Stress Free Sharing with Friends’, talks about how you don’t need to impress, and you don’t need to make the best meal in the entire world. What’s most important, and don’t forget, I was writing this during the pandemic, is just being together.
Going back to the Take That guys saying they didn’t want fancy food; I often don’t want food to be the distraction. I’m not into meals where there are lots of elements to explain. I love knowing the provenance of ingredients, and I love knowing about the farmers and suppliers, but I don’t need a step-by-step complicated meal. I think I found myself, probably like lots of people, not just because I’m in the food industry, thinking, ‘I better make this a star meal.’ Your friends aren’t guests, they’re not paying to be there. So the whole book is about mood, food, and feelings.
Thinking about, ‘What kind of feeling did I want when I have my friends around?’ and I wanted it to be relaxed, and nobody likes a sweaty, stressed-out martyr in the kitchen. I have been that person. I have to be careful not to be that person, but I just wanted to enjoy it. So, much of the book is about enjoyment. I finished it once we were out of lockdown, and the feeling remained of less stress, putting your feet up, less time standing at the stove, shopping, overthinking, over complicating food and more time. Without getting too preachy about it, when I think of the meals that I have loved the most, sometimes I can’t even remember what I’ve eaten, but it’s just that feeling of being relaxed and just, appreciating it and taking the time to chew that I remember.
A: Is there an avocado in the book?
M: I think there’s an avocado on the side of one of the recipes. I’m still in love with avocados, but I’m trying to be mindful of avocado producers and suppliers struggling to keep up with demand. But you can’t beat a good ripe avocado, of which they are once in a blue moon. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to get them at the right moment, but I just smash them up, if they’re smushed.
I remember my mum once mashing up an avocado, putting it in the freezer, and trying to tell us it was ice cream. I don’t know why she bothered. If anyone loves guacamole or avocado on toast, a delicious alternative to avocado is smashed up peas and broad beans. Sometimes I do half avocado, and half of them. It’s also good if you love avocado and have 10 people coming around. You don’t want to buy eight avocados, because it costs a fortune.
A: So do you just slightly boil off your peas?
M: Exactly. I cook them so they retain their lovely bright flavour. It’s broad bean season now, so now is a great time. You can then whizz them in a food processor, or if you don’t want to get a food processor dirty, just smash them like you would your avocado. Then add coriander and loads of lime, some garlic, and you could chop a little bit of tomato through, all your favourite guacamole accoutrements, and a little bit of chilli. Delicious.
A: Lovely. Yes, the no-bake chewy, nutty bars I like, I like the concept of ‘no-bake,’ too.
M: Abigail, they’re so great, especially when you are having long days or sending the kids off.
I took them on my book tour to every bookshop I went to, and they went down a treat. It’s dates, coconut oil and ground almonds on the base. If you’ve got an allergy, you can use oats, and the top is melted dark chocolate. Then you stud them with cranberries, pumpkin seeds, and nuts.
A: Another one that grabbed me was the three-ingredient chocolate pots.
M: What is simpler than that?
M: And plant based, but of course you can use regular milk if you like. They’re lovely, and right now it’s cherry season, so I top them with cherries or raspberries. Or just good old more grated dark chocolate. But you’ve got to remember Abigail, to put a little pinch of sea salt, because salt brings out the sweetness.
A: We never used to do sea salt, chocolate, and now it’s everywhere.
M: And sea salt, caramel truffles. Even my friend came over the other day, and I made her a berry chia pudding, and she put a little bit of salt in it. It was a good shout, because just that tiny bit brings out the natural sweetness of the fruit.
A: What I love about all your books, and I know you had the Hemsley Cafe in Selfridges. Even though you say you’re not trained, or a trained nutritionist, all your recipes definitely fall into the healthy bracket.
I know if I was supporting someone with their skin and they want some recipe ideas, you are someone I’m directing them to. In the front of your book, it says most of them are gluten free throughout the book. Is healthy food part of who you are? Maybe that comes from cooking with whole foods.
M: They’re naturally healthy and naturally gluten free in the sense. There’s pasta in there, and of course you can get any type of pasta you like. There’s so much now compared to the one type of pasta we had growing up. But in general, most ingredients are naturally gluten free. After cooking for bands, many of the people I cooked for had allergies and intolerances. So although I’m not plant based, I try to make my books as open to everyone as possible. So when I write that the recipes are naturally gluten free, it’s so people know they are appropriate for different allergies or intolerances. One of my best friends is Coeliac, and many people are, so it makes it more accessible for them. I’m not plant based, but at my last count, 85% of the recipes were vegetarian, and the 15% that weren’t all had options for swapping in or out.
I think it’s fantastic when people have dedicated books, such as a gluten-free book or vegan book, and all that. There’s so much out there for everybody, but I also wanted to create a book where everybody could feel welcome. Because at the end of the day, when you are cooking for your mate and having your stress-free, sharing-with-friends dinner, your friend might be plant-based, or coeliac, or dairy-free. I wanted people to not feel scared of that.
A lot of people would say, ‘I’ve got this person coming over. I don’t know what to cook, I’m just not going to bother.’ Or they’d get really stressed out and make a thousand things. Whereas actually, you could make one thing that every everyone could eat. In terms of healthy, I feel like if I say the word healthy, you’ve got two camps: one that thinks life is too short for that, or that healthy food does not taste good. Then you’ve got the other camp of people who love healthy food and wish they had more ideas for it.
It’s quite a polarising word. I personally like to feel good; you know, I’ve just come back from Sicily where I just had the absolute best food ever. There I would go out and eat food that I couldn’t or wouldn’t cook at home, perhaps more complicated food. But on the plane home, and I was craving the food I cook at home, which is a lot of soups and stews. Even in the summer, I make summer soups and stews. They’re hearty, but they are packed with vegetables and nutrient rich food.
My boyfriend said the same, he said, ‘I never thought I’d say it, but I think that was one pizza too many.’ So you don’t need a pizza recipe from me, but I can certainly help you out with uplifting breakfast options, making salads more satisfying and delicious hearty soups. That’s my self-appointed role, and most importantly, to not waste.
A: We’ve mentioned you cooking for Take That. Can we mention you doing cooking sessions with Gary Barlow on Instagram?
M: Are you a fan? I’ve never asked you this!
A: Darling, of course I am. I grew up in that era.
M: I’m a Boyzone fan, so if Ronan Keating had called me up and asked me to cook for him, I think I would have died. The only other time I’ve been starstruck was, I went to someone’s house to do a private dinner, and heard people arriving, and it was Ross from Friends! That definitely got me butter-fingered. He was lovely. But back to Gary, when he came over, I think we had just finished renovating our place, and I’m in deepest East London, basically Essex. I remember he travelled over, and he said, ‘I feel like I’m in France.’ It was so far from where I used to cook for him.
I realised as I showed him out the door, that it was a peak pickup time for the local school, which is on my road. Pushchairs almost ended up in the road, people were doing double takes, they were surprised to see Gary Barlow in Essex, to say the least.
A: Is he good in the kitchen?
M: He’s an excellent cook. Yes, they all are. This is the thing, they wanted our help and support, not because they couldn’t cook, but because they were going on tour, they were reforming, and they just needed healthy, uplifting food on tour, because you’re in a different town every night.
We worked with a tour chef when they were on tour, because that’s a whole skill set I don’t have. Tour chefs have to source ingredients every day, and I like going to bed at about seven o’clock. So the idea of cooking food when the band comes off stage at 11 o’clock wasn’t for me, but we supported them when they were here and sent food off with them. I love doing that.
That takes us full circle to the first bit. I’d love to spend less time in the digital world. I don’t count podcasts, but I would like to spend more time cooking, and I’d love to go and further my food knowledge and training. My mum is from the Philippines, and I’d love to learn about Filipino food. I’d love to go to Thailand and Italy.
A: I usually ask my guests about beauty. First, how do you feel about the aging process?
M: I feel good about it. I’m almost 37, and again, through my self-reflection, I’ve realised that I like myself so much more now. I’ve been doing a lot of courses and self-development, and they ask you to put your hands up if you love yourself, and obviously most people, almost everyone doesn’t.
In terms of aging, more turns around the sun, I’m bang up for it. I like myself better. I love myself better. I’m nicer to myself. So inwardly and outwardly, yes, the things that I was shy, self-conscious, or ashamed about I now love. I don’t look in the mirror and go, ‘God, I love you,’ but I can look in the mirror and be happy. I will also look in the mirror and go, ‘Hmm, you have not been sleeping enough,’ and I then try to do something about it.
I put myself to bed earlier, or I will endeavour to watch a little bit less TV tonight, for example, and give myself a lovely face massage, of which you are a total queen. And I’ll think of you, and I’ll think, ‘Can I spend an extra 30 seconds rubbing that oil in, rather than just slapping it on and rushing off to do some washing?’
A: The answer is yes, you definitely can. Do you have any desert island skincare or beauty products?
M: Well, I think you know what I’m going to say, because you know lots of the products I love. And this is not a setup I love. Do you know Sharon of MV SKINTHERAPY? She’s a Brit living in Australia. I love her Hand Rescue treatment. I love all her products, but I’m very excited because I’ve been growing calendula in my garden, and she uses a lot of calendula. I also love De Mamiel, founded by Annee De Mamiel. I love her Altitude oil, which is designed for when you’re on an aeroplane and want to smell something very grounding and relaxing, but I just wear it whenever I’m feeling a little stressed or a bit stomach clench-y. I love Mauli Rituals Body Oil. I love By Sarah Oil. I love Ren products. I absolutely love my products.
One of the things I end up buying for my friends is olive oil, for my friends, and then a beauty product, because so many of my friends are mums. We’ve got five godchildren between us, Henry and I, and a lot of the time, mums don’t buy anything for themselves. So I like to share and buy them lovely beauty products.
A: So, what’s next for Melissa Hemsley?
M: Apart from growing my calendula, I would love to continue exploring my personal self-development, which, while we’re in the spirit of talking about our dearly departed parents, was kickstarted by my dad passing away seven years ago.
Even though I had done a lot of therapy in my own life, I really shut down and didn’t want to talk about anything, even though I knew the power of therapy. So I let it fester, which is only natural, and everyone’s got their right time to deal with things. I’ve so enjoyed learning more about myself.
I would like to spend more time in the community. I would love to spend more time in women’s circles and more time on retreats. All of these are costly, both in terms of time and money, but they should be available to everybody.
I’m really interested in seeing where I can offer food in that space. Everybody deserves great food. Everybody deserves to be touched by a professional and massaged. We know the benefits of being touched and booking a session in the diary. Sometimes I think the best thing about going on holiday is putting it in the diary and then looking forward to it.
I love that anticipatory feeling, and I love that feeling when you know you’re going to have a wonderful treatment that you deserve and absolutely is essential. I don’t know what it is Abigail, but there’s something there bubbling away that I’d like to do.
A: Well, whatever’s bubbling away, I’m looking forward to it. Melissa, this has been an absolute joy chatting with you. Where can my listeners find you?
M: They can find me on @melissa.hemsley on Instagram. Don’t go following Melissa Hemsley, she’s someone else. I’ve just redone my website, melissahemsley.com, where you can sign up for my newsletter, and I have lots of free recipes. I’ll hopefully see you at a fun festival or event too.
A: Amazing, Melissa. Thanks so much.