“We don’t shout out we’re grain-free, gluten-free, vegetable oil-free, refined sugar-free, because people will go ‘oh that sounds like the free-from aisle’” – Jasmine Hemsley
HEALTHY EATING CAN get a bad rap sometimes – when the emphasis is put on bags of chia seeds and psyllium husks, or expensive gadgets and forsaking entire food groups, things seem pretty unattainable.
So when you hear that the Hemsley sisters – Jasmine and Melissa - Jasmine being the elder of the two – introduced courgetti (that’s spaghetti made of courgettes) to the masses, you might assume their brand of healthful eating is full of unpronounceable ingredients.
Happily, that isn’t the case. The pair have a second cookbook out this month (Good and Simple, published by Ebury Press), the follow-up to the massively successful The Art of Eating Well.
The book doesn’t advertise itself as being refined sugar free, or gluten and grain-free, though it is all three. As Jasmine tells me over lunch at Fallon & Byrne (they both go for salads, with salmon for Jasmine and a veggie burger for Melissa) they don’t want the book to “sound like a free-from aisle”.
For the Hemsley sisters, good healthy food starts with vegetables – and it’s a message that’s seen them sell thousands of cookbooks and attract a huge following online. Fizzing with energy, they’re also the best advertisement for their way of eating.
Surprisingly simple kitchen essentials
We sat down with the Hemsleys for a chat about their book and food philosophy – but first, we took them to Fallon & Byrne, where they showed us their kitchen essentials (which are all pocket-friendly and mostly fresh vegetables, as it turns out).
Video by Nicky Ryan
“We had been underground for so long”
The Hemsleys have a Filipina mother, Evangelina, and English father (Jack), and moved around a lot as children, due to their father’s army career.
They are somewhat accidental food stars – Jasmine was a model (her partner, Nick Hopper, is also a model and the creative director of all things Hemsley and Hemsley) and Melissa worked in sales and marketing.
Melissa turned to Jasmine, who was into eating healthfully, for help when she started feeling exhausted.
After doling out advice to family and friends, a celebrity actor – who to this day remains nameless – asked Jasmine to help turn his diet around. That was the first stepping stone to the sisters running a food delivery service for high-profile clients.
That led to food blogging for Vogue in 2012, and next month they open the eatery Hemsley and Hemsley at Selfridges in London. Things are certainly coming up roses, but the sisters say that their success is somewhat of a surprise.
The sales of their first book – 140,000 copies in one year – “blew everyone away”, says Melissa. “We had been underground for so long,” chips in Jasmine.
They put the success down to word of mouth, describing how social media helped them see how people shared recipes online, at parties, and with colleagues. “All of a sudden our customers were the world’s best advert for the book,” says Melissa.
They also used social media to guide their approach for Good and Simple, by figuring out what kind of recipes their readers go for. “What people did really want was the quickest, easiest recipes – hence good and simple,” says Melissa.
The sisters say this book is closer to how they eat on a day-to-day basis than the Art of Eating Well, which ran the gamut from easy to complicated, “even though complicated is still not that complicated” for the Hemsleys.
“We always say to people the revolution is here and is here to stay”
When their first book came out, they had to direct people to online stockists of products like coconut oil, quinoa, and their kitchen staple, the spiraliser.
Now these products can not only be found in health shops, but on supermarket shelves. So too can spiralisers, though the sisters’ own branded spiraliser is available in Brown Thomas.
But the Hemsleys do warn that just because something says it’s healthy, it doesn’t mean it’s great for you. ”We always say to people the revolution is here and is here to stay, but without putting a downer on it, always be really thoughtful and mindful about what you are buying,” says Melissa, as Jasmine nods in agreement.
Because just because it says it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you, just because it says bone broth doesn’t mean it’s the real deal and the bones have got good provenance, just because it’s cauli[flower] rice and it’s pre-bought – make it yourself, then it’s fresh and you know it was a good cauliflower.
“People are going to challenge us, we’re talking about butter”
The Hemsleys don’t shy away from fat in any shape or form – there’s ghee (clarified butter), butter, meat, bone broth (a broth made from stewed bones), eggs and avocado a-plenty in the book. For those of us of the vegetarian persuasion, there are veggie and vegan options too, but the sisters will always eat the skin on their roasted chicken.
“This idea that fat is bad for you spawned this massive health food industry that actually [is] selling us more junk that just happens to be lower in fat, lower in calories,” warns Jasmine. “Actually they’ve taken natural foods, removed the fat and had to dump in loads of other stuff. The classic example [is] the low-fat yogurt filled with emulsifiers, thickeners, tons of sugar to give it flavour and taste.”
They were worried at first that their approach wouldn’t be a welcome one.
“Luckily for us when the first book came out, all the science [about fat] hit the papers, which was incredible because one of the things we were most nervous about was ‘people are going to challenge us, we’re talking about butter’, and they’re going to challenge us about bone broths and saturated fats, and ‘you can’t live without grains’, which is still the common thing,” recalls Jasmine.
Instead of packaged foods, they advocate that people eat wholefoods like chickpeas, mung beans, quinoa, and buckwheat.
“[Use] vegetables as the basis of a meal, like cauliflower rice, courgetti, lentils – we love a dahl,” says Jasmine. They even advocate eating protein-packed dahl – a lentil-based Indian dish – for breakfast.
To clean eat or not to clean eat
One term you won’t find in Good and Simple is “clean eating”. “We talked about it as unprocessed food, veg grown with pesticides, and then people started talking about clean eating in a different term,” says Melissa. “Sanitised eating,” adds Jasmine.
They’re not a massive fan of labels as it is. ”We talk about our philosophy, but we don’t expect people who open our book to only eat our food. It’s not like a diet. It’s more an approach,” says Melissa.
In the introductory part of Good and Simple, they introduce readers to their philosophy – food has to be delicious, nutritious, and sustainable.
They outline the idea of a ‘better than’ choice, and putting more vegetables on your plate. “Even though we eat meat and we eat fish, our meal is based around vegetables,” says Melissa.
It’s not about changing your cupboards overnight, it’s not about buying into one thing and sticking with it; it is not about giving up all the things you love.
Because as soon as you look at healthy eating, you realise it’s not the be-all and end-all, it’s about having a holistic attitude to everything.
In particular, they advocate people take control of what they eat by stepping into the kitchen and making their own meals – and without fearing they’re ‘not a good cook’.
“It is so simple to make a soup or a stew for dinner, and take a portion in in a hot flask the next day – and your lunch just cost you 75p, 50p,” says Jasmine.
“Everything is moving in the direction of actually reclaiming your skills, reclaiming that control of your life, and maybe that 45 minutes spent cooking a couple of things for the week is going to give you back so much more.”
The Hemsley sisters are often name-checked in the same breath as other female healthy food bloggers like Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella. Why the draw to food blogging? “You’ve discovered something that makes you feel absolutely wonderful – you just want to share it with people,” says Jasmine.
“It’s very inspiring and it’s brilliant to be part of that movement.”
What’s clear about the Hemsleys is that they don’t want to be pigeon-holed. “We don’t shout out we’re grain-free, gluten-free, vegetable oil-free, refined sugar-free, because people will go ‘oh that sounds like the free from aisle’,” says Jasmine. “We’re not paleo, we’re not raw, we’re not vegan – so it’s really difficult to say what we do. But what we do is delicious food with a focus on digestion, incorporating all the natural fats, and it tastes good.”
In addition, they appear to have a wide fanbase – as we finish up lunch, they tell me their fans aren’t just Instagram-loving foodies. They’re a broad bunch, from new mums to 95-year-olds.
“It is literally something for everyone, and we’re constantly surprised,” says Melissa. “I love it when someone comes up to me and mentions a really obscure [recipe], one that maybe doesn’t even have a photo next to it, one that I’ve maybe forgot about, and says ‘that’s the one I make once a week’.”