Melissa Hemsley is full of life – bubbly, energetic and simply happy. So I wasn’t surprised to find a smiley Melissa when I met her in Ballymaloe. She was there on a whistlestop tour to cook for guests attending the Good Living Day. Rachel Allen was assisting her in the kitchen, to which Melissa squeals, “I’m cooking with Rachel Allen!” She flew in that morning and was due to catch a train that evening to Dublin. So I said, let’s talk when you have more time – she rang me the next morning, and it was as if this was her most important task while on our shores. Hemsley is personable, likeable, and her energy is infectious. So, if you’re struggling for inspiration on how to live the good life, I’ll say this: Hemsley appears to have it sussed. Here’s her take on all things health and happiness…
I grew up with a Filipino mum teaching me how to make a meal with what was in the fridge – how to eat more vegetables; more “brain food” – oily fish, spinach, avocados… Back to basics food – fermented kimchi, which Koreans had been eating for years. We’ve become so far removed from our food, trying to make it as cheap and long-lasting as possible, and everything that food was meant to do – either be preserved or eaten fresh – got forgotten. I don’t think anything will beat a home-cooked meal made with love. Tinned lentils need some help, but you don’t need to be a chef to make tinned lentils taste good. It’s about changing the way people think about boring things and making them great.
I’m still not entirely sure what “clean eating” is. It was never a term [my sister Jasmine and I] used about ourselves. If somebody said to me, “I eat clean” I think that would mean food as minimally processed as possible. I think people refer to Jasmine and I as clean eaters because they think of us as dairy-free, meat-free, calorie-counting dieters, and we are none of those things. What I do is all about the celebration of food, and it’s about the individual. I can’t tell you how to eat – nobody should – you’ve got to work out what feels good to you. One person may love kale and feel good after eating it; for others, it can be really hard to digest and they hate the taste. Eating kale does not make you healthy; nor does not eating kale make you unhealthy. We need to stop using extremes. The way I eat is as close to as nature intended as possible. If I eat meat or dairy, I’ll try to buy organic. I buy organic free-range eggs. In England, they’re phasing out caged eggs. Spending power is so important – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
My staple ingredients include tinned chickpeas, lentils, and tomatoes; tomato purée; key spices. I love harissa. To pass shop-bought hummus off as something fancy, I’ll mix in a bit of harissa and add olive oil on top. Lemons – use the zest as well as the juice, and after the juice is squeezed out, I rub the lemon over my kitchen surfaces. Good olive oil and butter. Ginger – I add it to teas, cocktails, soups and stews; if I have leftover quinoa or rice, I’ll fry it up with ginger and garlic and adda fried egg on top. I love the tops of the veg – carrot tops, radish tops, beetroot leaves – I take beetroot leaves, give them a good scrub and fry them with garlic. I love cabbage, and will make a slaw, or have it with scrambled eggs. I’ve got a recipe where you can turn carrot tops into a pesto. It’s important to make the most of the product – farmers toiled over it for you.
When I travel, I pack snacks and herbal tea. I’ll make my own bag of nuts and dried fruit. I’ll also Google the places near my hotel and stock up on good things when I get there – coconut water, fresh juices. When I go to a restaurant, I’m never shy about asking for extra veg on the side. Some people think that’s rude, but I’ve got a café in Selfridges, and want people to leave satisfied, so if I can help them, I will. You’re not making a fuss, you’re just making sure you’re happy.
If you haven’t found the exercise you love, keep looking. There are so many options – there’s a boxing with Pilates class in London. And if you can’t find what you want in your town, go online – I did a hip-hop dance workout recently, and was sweating in my living room with my dog watching me.
When it comes to supplements, I have a vitamin D spray for when I’m not getting outside. That’s about it – I feel I get a lot from my food. Then fresh air, plenty of sleep, and not taking myself too seriously is important.
My idea of indulgence? A bath – I add salts and lavender oil. I don’t see food as an indulgence… but my idea of a treat might be a meal before a meal – if my boyfriend and I are going out for dinner, we might stop for a glass of wine and tapas first, then have our main course somewhere else. Having a long meal is my greatest indulgence – two or three hours to have a proper dinner or long, lazy lunch, the kind you only get on holiday. That would be my dream.
As told to Meg Walker.
Photograph by Issy Croker, from Eat Happy: 30-Minute Feelgood Food by Melissa Hemsley (Ebury Press, approx €22.50).
This interview first appeared in the May issue of IMAGE Magazine.