Spoon {meets} : Anna Jones

When it comes to modern vegetarian cooking, great style and a tasty lifestyle, the name Anna Jones is the one to mention.

Anna has a lot on her plate - after leaving a well paid financial PR job, she chose to pursue a life long dream and become a chef. She replied to an ad in a newspaper advertising Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s new restaurant, and so was trained under one of the most inspirational modern chefs - Jamie himself. From there life only got better. Today she is an internationally renowned chef, with a second cookbook coming out this summer and a strong, well established online voice. Anna is also about to become a first time mother.

We gathered around a long oak kitchen table to talk about her life, routine, relationship to food, her work and cooking. She told us how it felt to cook for world leaders - Anna helped Jamie to cook dinner for the G20 summit at 10 Downing street, but also shared memories of cooking at schools and traveling England with educational projects.

Anna lives in Hackney, London. Her house used to belong to a carpenter, the back garden still bears traces of its previous owner - we find a beautiful tree house with an old fashioned world map glued to its decaying walls. Only a doorstep separates the garden from Anna’s kitchen. While we sip tea and munch on earl grey cookies, we can’t help but get sucked into Anna’s world. It’s a happy place inviting others to rediscover flavours and life choices.

While she makes us another cup of tea we observe Anna’s surroundings, she has an impressive tea pot collection and her pans are nicely piled up in a corner, waiting to be used again. Another impressive collection of colour coded cookbooks tickle our curiosity too.

How did you get into cooking, styling and writing? What came first?

Cooking came first. I cooked from a really early age - I was a bit of a geek! When other kids were playing outside I’d be in the kitchen making lemon mousse. The big change came when I was 22, I was getting a train to work one day and I read an article, which said you have to determine your calling by which section in a Sunday paper you read first. It’s a great advice - a light bulb in my head switched on and I made the decision to change my life. I got to work, looked online, found Jamie’s training programme, applied, and the next day I had an interview. By the next Monday I quit my job and next thing I knew I was in the kitchen cooking. It was really fascinating. When people make such huge decisions they usually look for signs, for me it was an obvious thing to jump straight into.  
That’s how I started cooking professionally, but I was cooking at home for years and years. My mum hates cooking and when she discovered I have a passion for it, she really encouraged me - she bought me my first cookbooks and always made sure I have plenty of ingredients to experiment with.

How about school, was it an encouraging place to pursue a cooking career?

Oh, no. When I asked if I can do something a little more creative for my A levels, I was told I should do economics.

I always had a deep fascination towards cooking. Up to a point when it seemed like magic to me - whip some eggs, add some sugar and an hour later it turns into a meringue. As a kid it felt magical to me. I was never scared to burn anything and my parents really praised me. I can make an average, a bit unappealing dish to my dad and he will say it is the most delicious thing he’s ever eaten. Such a relationship and the ability to bring joy to other people always kept me going.

Can you describe your style?

For years vegetarian cooking has been a disappointment to people - you go to a restaurant and you are given a dish that feels more like a side than a main. I was always lead by pleasure and joy of eating, but also real love of great ingredients and excitement. The more time I spend in the cooking world, the more I realise I have a responsibility to make sure my food and cooking style is not only delicious, but also does good to people’s bodies.

How did you became a vegetarian?

I grew up in San Francisco - it’s pretty hippy and health driven. As kids we weren’t given a lot of sugar or sweets. Also, seven years ago I decided to do an experiment and stop eating meat for a few weeks. I was working at Jamie Oliver, the team was really big and because I have been there for a really long time, other chefs would come to me bringing 20 or 30 dishes for me to try - it was my dream job, but I was a bit jaded with food. I needed something to help me feel healthier. I never went back to eating meat - it took away preconceptions of meat being the base of every dish and I had a lot more life in me.   

Chefs have awful diets, don't they?

A lot of chefs run on adrenaline, they eat food that give them quick energy. A lot of that is changing now, but I remember when I was still working at restaurants, there was a chef that for a few weeks made us scrambled eggs for breakfast. Nobody could work out why it was so delicious. About three weeks later he revealed to us that he is doing 50/50 ratio eggs to butter.

The food that I make is about celebrating individual ingredients and vegetables. Drowning it in fat or dairy doesn't do that for me. Just because you are a vegetarian doesn't mean you are happy to eat a baked camembert and nothing else nutritious.

When you get used to healthy food you don’t crave nasty stuff.

That’s true. Especially, the new generation is growing up in a ‘healthiness’ boom, they are more likely to check labels and read food blogs. Being better informed plays a huge role in changing our eating habits. When we were teenagers, we thought that diet coke is a healthy choice. Because of work done by amazing people like Jamie Oliver, that world is changing and we make better informed choices.

I am not saying we have to eat quinoa two times a day, but if you are making a lovely family dinner, you will want to make sure that the ingredients you use do more good than harm. For example, you wouldn’t want to add an insane amount of butter to your child's breakfast.

This kind of lifestyle is London centric, isn’t it?

It is, and it’s easy to close yourself in a bubble and think everyone eats like that. Saying so, Deliciously Ella’s book has been up in the charts for a record period of time, that means something. With Jamie we did a lot of healthy eating campaigns, especially at schools. I have seen first hand how people eat - even though the restaurant scene is booming and vegetables are available everywhere, there still are a lot of people feeding their kids with kebabs or chips four nights a week.

Saying so, it is important not to go too far with wellness, it’s easy to get obsessed, it’s very cultish. People should know it’s ok to have a Mars bar once in a while. Everyone now thinks we are not supposed to eat gluten. A lot of people have bad reactions to it, because they have been eating really bad bread produced in huge industrial plants and the yeast has not been activated yet, so the next bit of fermentation happens in your stomach. The grain has been stripped of all its goodness. Not everyone has access to a freshly baked sourdough, yet a nice wholemeal bread is available to everyone.

What about you - can you tell us about your day? Let’s start with breakfast.

Anna looks at her beautiful, round belly - I am waiting to become a morning person, she laughs. I start around 7.30am, I do a little bit of yoga or meditation, but it doesn't happen every day. John, my partner, is a freelancer, and if we are not rushing in the morning we have breakfast together. What we eat depends on the season. In winter we usually have porridge, in summer we have granola and yogurt, juice or a smoothie. If I am at home I will be writing or testing recipes. John and I take a lot of pictures for my blog. There are days when I spend 9 hours answering emails. I love getting nice props, going to a photographer’s house, doing a styling job or just cooking nice food.

For dinner we love to have black bean tacos with cinnamon and chilli. The recipe is in my book. If I have been organised I’ll cook a big pot of beans, but if I am in a rush, I’ll simply open a tin. John is a vegetarian, that helps.

Do you have a favourite recipe from your new cookbook?

It’s difficult to pick one. Seasons and mood really influences what I eat. There is a recipe called ‘Buddha bowl’, it’s a massaman curry with lots of cinnamon, lime leaves and earthy flavours. It’s an incredibly balanced curry, it has chilli and citrus, served with brown rice it’s almost medicinal.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

I cooked a big dinner for G20 at Downing street. I was cooking with Jamie and every time he’s doing something like this he’s in and out, doing Jamie Oliver's thing. The Obamas were there, and a lot of people were split between number 10 and number 11. Somehow I found myself alone in the kitchen - they are really strict there and the food has to come out at exactly the same time, so instead of panicking, I started cooking. I also ran a cookery class at Ted in America for people from Microsoft and Facebook - an unbelievably influential and powerful crowd. We made salad - that was reasonably daunting. It was amazing to have such opportunities though.

Do you have any advice for young women interested in pursuing their own business, but are too scared?

I always worked really hard. My work was reasonably successful and I was passionate about it, I worked in jobs I wasn't passionate about and that made me feel really bored. I am that kind of person that has to be fired up, even if you can’t directly change careers, but you can find elements that inspire you.

Also, people are very generous. A few times I have emailed people I really respected, even before I had a book or was seriously working on what I do now. Asking for advice is great and 9 out of 10 people will help you.

Nowadays, it’s all about how to switch off in this fast paced digital world. How do you disconnect?

I am really good at switching off! Maybe even too good... We always try to leave London, go to the coast with our little camper van. When I get back to London I get into trouble because I haven’t been checking emails, but it's so great to let your soul rest.

What would be your ideal way to eat a bowl of granola? And at what time of day?

It depends how much in a rush I am. Literally, If I have to leave right now, I will take a jar and layer berries with yogurt and granola. Sometimes it feels fun, as a child I was obsessed with ice cream sundaes, and my morning granola in a jar reminds me of that happiness.

Can you give us your top brunch spots in London or overseas?

There was a small family owned cafe right around the corner and they made incredible food. Hackney is really competitive at the moment, and so they went out of business.

Also, I really love a posh breakfast, walking past the Ritz and starting your breakfast in a different world feels great. At the same time, I really love London because it has so much variety - my other favourite place is the Pavilion cafe in Victoria Park. 

Spoon {meets}: about

At Spoon, we are interested and excited to explore creative lifestyles.  With freelance becoming the fastest growing profession in the world, working remotely has become commonplace. From our own experience this can feel a little lonely at times, which is why we hope to create a collaborative platform that helps creativity to flow.

‘Breakfast with creatives’ is a series of conversations over a bowl of granola with inspirational creatives about work and life balance, keeping up motivation, staying inspired and living a healthy and creatively fulfilled life.

We aim for this to become a destination for creative people to discover each other’s work and lifestyle choices over an honest breakfast chat.