Wednesday 25 April 2018

Jasmine Hemsley on the 'clean eating' backlash: 'What am I going to do, live in fear?'

As one half of the Hemsley + Hemsley sister duo, cookbook author and former model Jasmine bore much of the brunt of last year's backlash against 'clean eating'. However, it hasn't deterred her from writing a new food tome inspired by the principles of Ayurveda - which, she tells our reporter, have helped her to make sense of how she eats

Author Jasmine Hemsley. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Author Jasmine Hemsley. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Jasmine, left, and Melissa Hemsley on their Channel 4 TV show Eating Well with Hemsley and Hemsley
Support: Jasmine's fiancé Nick Hopper is creative director of Hemsley + Hemsley

Aoife Carrigy

'We are not necessarily what we eat," reads the opening line of Jasmine Hemsley's first solo book, East Meets West, the sub-title of which promises 'Simple Recipes for Ultimate Mind-Body Balance'.

I wonder did the Ayurvedic-inspired author consciously allude to the 2004 best-seller that catapulted Gillian McKeith to celebrity status? That since-maligned harbinger of the healthy eating craze captured the collective imagination a decade ago by seeking to unravel the mysteries of our dietary requirements through close examination of our, erm, stools. Suffice to say it didn't end well for Gill.

I'm sitting in an unassuming hotel lobby waiting for one of today's best-known clean-eating gurus and browsing through her glossy new cookbook one more time as I do. At nearly 300 pages, it's quite a tome. And with two dense 30-page sections either side of Jasmine's 140 recipes, there's both 'ating and reading in it.

Even the first couple of lines invite a bit of unpacking, continuing: "We are what we digest, absorb and assimilate - physically, emotionally and mentally." It seems that the ghost of McKeith hasn't quite gone away, but may have been assimilated into a more palatable contemporary take on clean eating.

Jasmine, left, and Melissa Hemsley on their Channel 4 TV show Eating Well with Hemsley and Hemsley
Jasmine, left, and Melissa Hemsley on their Channel 4 TV show Eating Well with Hemsley and Hemsley

When Jasmine arrives, her slight frame is shrouded against the bitter cold of the day under layers and layers of wool. The iced water brought by the waiter is the last thing that either of us want and we order some hot tea to warm us up.

Jasmine is dressed for her body type, as she explains. "Melissa always wears dresses 'cos she's always hot, but I always wear jumpers in winter 'cos I'm always cold."

I had been wondering if Jasmine was lonely on this promo tour without her little sister Melissa, given that the two have been such a high profile double act since they set up their Hemsley + Hemsley brand in 2010.

But I needn't have worried: her current entourage includes her boyfriend Nick Hopper, who was also the photographer for this handsome uplifting publication. As Creative Director of Hemsley + Hemsley, and photographer on the sisters' best-selling cookbooks The Art of Eating Well and Good + Simple, Nick has been part of the Hemsley success story from the start, if taking a supporting role to the co-starring sisters.

Even under all that wool, Jasmine proves as effortlessly glamorous in real life as in the many images of herself and Melissa that have saturated the lifestyle pages of the Guardian and Vogue or the timelines of clean-eating millennials since the stratospheric success of their first cookbook in 2014.

Those good looks - a cross of wholesome glow with a touch of exoticism from their mother's Filipino genes - combined with their focus on food that looks good but makes you feel good, too, made the pair a natural fit to cater for clients such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Vivienne Westwood. As an experienced photographer and former model respectively, Nick and Jasmine's professional contacts presumably came in handy, too.

Support: Jasmine's fiancé Nick Hopper is creative director of Hemsley + Hemsley
Support: Jasmine's fiancé Nick Hopper is creative director of Hemsley + Hemsley

This girl, however, is no fashionista diva. Instead, she comes across as down-to-earth and friendly - and not at all prickly when I raise the potentially tricky topic of the backlash directed at them as the poster girls of clean eating.

Was she conscious that she was heading even deeper into sceptic-magnet territory with a book that promises 'ultimate mind-body balance'?

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think, 'Oh my god, if they can't tell that I eat dairy when there's cheese and butter in my books then what the whatever are they gonna make of this?'" she laughs. "People have written the words 'vegan' and 'vegetarian' and 'dairy-free' next to us, and friends ask me, um, aren't you the people that promote butter and bone broth and chicken livers?"

Jasmine is media-savvy enough to understand that backlash is a natural part of the modern cycle of fads that give journalists like me something to write and campaigners like her access to column space. "Anything that really takes off has to be put into its place," she says, whether that's a new appetite for avocados or even for cheap, local, oily fish like mackerel which lead to over-fishing. "And I can see we do need that, because it can be taken out of hand or used in the wrong way, as can everything."

Never writing another book was not an option - "What am I going to do, live in fear?" - even if she was initially resistant. "I would say that it's been knocking on my door for 10 or 15 years, and I almost didn't want it to. But it made so much sense, it answered so many questions."

The 'it' in question is Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old Eastern philosophy that provides the framework for yoga, mindfulness and meditation as well as healthcare practices such as acupuncture and homeopathy.

"Ayurveda made me understand why fats are good for us, why whole foods are good for us, why eating slowly is better," Jasmine says of the influence that these ancient principles have had on her evolving relationship with food. "It reminded me that I'm nature and nature has forces which affect me."

I sip on my hot tea as she continues. "It answered the questions of why I prefer cooked food, and why I only really like raw food in the summer when it's refreshing and when my digestion is really strong. And why, in winter, ice-cream doesn't appeal to me and salads really don't appeal to me."

The idea of supporting gut health through food choices was core to the Hemsleys' first two books, so a book inspired by Ayurveda - with its central concept of 'agni' or digestive fire - was a natural progression for Jasmine. "I wanted to do something that reflected what I'm really into."

The book came about as a direct result of some time out with Nick. "We'd just done a TV tour of the second book in Australia and America and we were on the telly in 28 countries and had just opened a café [in Selfridges] and I was pretty burnt out," she admits.

"One of my meditation teachers said, 'Go and have a sabbatical', so we went to India for six weeks and we did some Panchakarmas, which is basically an all-in-one Ayurveda spa." She returned home full of beans, as the saying goes, and set up a pop-up café in Mayfair "doing cheap lentil dahl and hot spiced milk; just really simple home cooking that actually anyone can do."

Encouraged by the public feedback - and a growing interest in all things Ayurvedic, paralleled by advances in Western science's understanding of our gut as our 'second brain' - Jasmine figured now was the time to translate those ideas for Western palates and larders.

"As a society, we're becoming a bit more holistic about ourselves," she says. "We're less about what we look like, we're talking more about our mental health and there's a shift away from health being about calorie counting and fitness levels and how long you spend in a gym. Today it's more about inner peace and some of the things that yoga has brought us as a language; the realisation that slow and mindful can be just as powerful."

The resulting book is big - "this is a big story to tell" - and initially quite impenetrable, with its esoteric jargon of 'doshas' and 'prana' and what looks like a lot of food rules. The good news, Jasmine tells me, is that "this is the complete opposite to restrictive, all-or-nothing diets. You don't fall off this wagon. Instead, every time you work with nature, you're getting vitality."

A skim through the introductory page is enough to familiarise yourself with the basic concepts behind the 140 recipes. Some might require stocking up your pantry, for chestnut flour perhaps (for her buttery pancakes with tangy five-spice plum) or natural sweeteners like jaggery (recommended as both cheap and unprocessed). But many feature everyday food, fruits, vegetables, pulses and meats along with lots of herbs and spices: rib-stickers like her Lanchashire hotpot with pink peppercorns to bring heat and fragrance to an otherwise earthy dish; or her warm salad of roast brassicas, aubergines and peas with a lemon mustard dressing and plenty of fresh chilli and parsley.

"These recipes are still easy to do - I'm not a trained chef - but with the idea that you can tweak it to how you're feeling," she explains. It is this ability to customise your food that gives this book its edge. And the key tools are the Ayurvedic concepts of prana or 'life energy' and doshas or 'mind-body types', namely vata (characterised by the element of air), pitta (fire) and kapha (earth).

"If you're feeling very pitta, which we'd call hot and bothered, or you're having one of those days where you've been the boss all day, don't have so much chilli or ginger, because that will keep you hot under the collar.

"If you're feeling really up in the air and you've been dashing from one place to the next, add some ghee or oil or some meat to get grounded. Or if you're feeling sluggish and lethargic, add ginger or chilli to pick you up."

Ayurveda believes that each of is are dominated by one or two of these doshas, but also influenced by environmental factors. So for Jasmine, who is naturally vata-pitta - "up in the air, always moving from one idea to the next, quick as a bird and quick to forget" - coffee is normally to be avoided. "But when I go to Devon for Christmas, that fresh air will hit me, Nick's mum will feed me, and I'll turn into mother earth and you couldn't get me off the sofa for a walk after lunch. So then I could drink the coffee."

Likewise, Ayurveda teaches that we are influenced by the prana or energy of food, something we can use to our advantage. 'Sattvic' food might be characterised as being in its prime - perfectly ripe and fresh fruit, for example. 'Tamasic' foods such as processed foods and leftovers should be eaten in moderation, as should 'Rajasic' foods like chilli and onion and garlic. "Rajasic energy is very big, very passionate and very fiery - just like the Spanish and the Italians!"

"It's not that Rajasic and Tamasic are bad words, it's just that sometimes you need to recognise, 'You know what? I love staying up late, drinking, shouting, eating garlic and drinking red wine, but I'm knackered, maybe I'll try a few of the other things to balance it out."

All of which sounds like the kind of good sense that any mammy tuned into her gut feelings could tell you. Or like what the 19th-century French gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, was getting at when he wrote: "Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are."

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