We all love our food… But we don’t all live and breathe it like Melissa Hemsley does. A health-foodie to the core, she is half of the Hemsley + Hemsley Empire and a food consultant, helping businesses incorporate wellness and the twenty-first century’s latest dietary trends into their service. She is also on the brink of launching her first solo cookbook, Eat Happy, which will be out in January 2018.
This year at MATTER she featured as a LEARN speaker on the SUITCASE stage and the leader of a Wellness Workshop at the Kitchen Table. Beyond discussing the health benefits of fatty foods, Melissa took to the stage to delve deeper into the inner psyche of the health-conscious, mindful traveller; PUREists went away with the inspiration they needed to cater to this ever-growing target market. Katie Palmer and Annie Maddison caught up with her for a chat about food, travel and lifestyle choices.
You and your sister had quite the upbringing – you grew up with a Filipino mother and moved around all the time because your father was in the British Army. How has your childhood influenced your cooking and eating style?
Dad couldn’t cook; but his army days of discipline and rationing gave him an ‘everything-has-a place-and-a-purpose-and-you-don’t-waste-a-thing’ mentality that has been drip-fed into me. Then mum’s very poor Filipino family and Catholic background (with the Catholic guilt and discipline) has definitely had an influence on me, too. I think I’ve always had this thing about not wasting food. I think it’s a really good mentality to teach a kid; at home you did not leave the table until you ate, and you had to eat everything.
My mum said to me that as we got a bit older, we started to become funny about food – if our friends didn’t like it, we wouldn’t eat it, and that really annoyed her. Now, whenever I’m with someone who doesn’t like a particular food, I see it as a really exciting challenge – it means I’ve got a chance to make it really nicely for them.
You promote a different kind of ‘healthy’ eating to society’s preconceptions: you have said that “Fat is back”, and it is actually sugar that is bad for us. Could you explain this a little more?
Of course – I’m all about whole food, always the natural, full-fat version: food that makes you feel really good. I think, annoyingly, in the ’80s and ’90s we got very confused with the low-fat message. But now there are all these articles: “Fat is back”; “Butter is back”.
The thing about sugar is that there are obvious reasons why it’s not great for us. There are also the less obvious effects of sugar, like mood swings and crashes; I think a lot of people suffer from them, especially women. If you’ve had a sugar overdose, during the day you just feel like you don’t know yourself. You’re up and down, and all over the place. It is so important to take a good look at sugar, and where you’re getting it from. We’re used to having sugar in sweet treats, but now sugar is in absolutely everything – even an organic tomato sauce that is marketed to look really ‘healthy’ could contain 50 per cent sugar.
I’ve never been a sweet-tooth person; but if you are someone who craves sugar, don’t think that you’re a sugar-monster for life. You don’t need to be like, “I’m addicted to sugar”. You can easily change the way you feel about it. If you check out my website, you’ll find recipes for healthy dessert alternatives made with whole foods – these are great for your ‘cravings’, and much better for you, as the sugar in them is less processed.
You first connected with spirituality through meditation on a trip to Australia with your sister. When do you think most people rediscover their spirituality?
Often people get to rediscover their spirituality when they’ve hit rock bottom. That’s actually why, quite a lot of the time, it is like therapy. It’s the same way, sometimes, with healthy eating. People don’t make the change until they’re a little bit f*****d. It is a bit like when you might decide to cut out sugar: you wait until you get to a really dependent stage before you go cold turkey. But if you can just take it down in general, you should never have to feel as bad as when you first decide to make the change.
How do you incorporate your spirituality into your diet and your daily routine?
My spiritual journey is about finding little practices that you incorporate day-to-day that are just you. Sometimes, when I worked in an office, I would just go and hide in the bathroom for 20 minutes, because it was the only place you could go. It would mean I could find a moment to be by myself. I think being without a phone really helps, too – you’re not people pleasing, you’re not life comparing, and you’re not ‘FOMO-ing’.
In general, I just take the bits that work for me. I think that if you are into spirituality, you don’t have to give up everything to follow that path. You should take the bits you like. People who like to drink: you don’t have to give up to be healthy. People like me don’t go meat-free just because you think that everybody else is. If people are okay with gluten, don’t be completely gluten-free and obsess over it…just pick natural alternatives.
Today’s consumers are becoming increasingly aware of food and nutrition. How would you go about advising travel brands on how to respond to this shift?
So, for my first top takeaway tip: get to know your customers, and ask them what they want before they go. I often don’t know what I want, so then I don’t know what I want to ask. Maybe hotels could ask you what you want in your room: like when you have something where you tick which newspaper you want with your breakfast; or what coffee…Or they could ask if you want a yoga mat.
I’d also recommend rethinking mini-bars. In the one in my Marrakech hotel room, I’ve got one tiny bottle of water, and everything else is Coca-Cola and apple juice. If I don’t have those healthy alternatives, I go back home feeling a bit rubbish.
Another thing is the breakfast buffet. You have a captive audience, which means they’re not really going to go anywhere else for breakfast. I would introduce some small shots of green juice, or some really nice sourdough bread. I would also think to embrace the local cuisine in the menu.
I had another thought which came to recently me as I’m travelling solo at the moment: what about offering a midnight meditation class? It could be something in the evening after dinner for the people who don’t have anywhere to go. I thought that could be quite nice. These things are all very simple, and they aren’t costly, either.
Food aside, how do you approach visiting a new place when travelling?
I get torn being like, “Oh, there are so many places in the world to go…I might only ever get a chance to go once”, and between, “I’m going to be an easy-breezy, ‘see-where-the-night-takes-me’” sort of person. People get so overwhelmed now because they feel they’ve got to put up a photo on social media.
I always try to to listen to my body. Right now, I’m knackered. I’ve just sent my new book off to print, and I’m renovating a house in east London… I’ve had a bit of a year. So when I’m at a dinner and I want to stay and chat to everyone at the end, I make myself go home, even if I am having a good time. I know that I always feel horrible when I haven’t slept.
Tell us a little more about Eat Happy: 30-minute Feelgood Food, your new book coming out in 2018. What was your thinking behind its philosophy?
So one big thing behind my new book is about making my dream scenario a reality: I would love to eat dinner at seven o’clock, but it never happens. It would be amazing if people could get home from work, put the oven on, and 30 minutes later they would be sitting down to eat. It’s more important to spend over 30 minutes eating your meal than it is to be cooking it. People often shove a ready-made meal into the oven (no judgement), then eat it in five minutes – it is the worst thing you can do for your digestion.
Nothing replaces, for me, home cooked food – you will always know what’s in it. That’s why my book also encourages people to cook just a couple of times a week. You can make it in bulk and freeze it, so you can basically start using your freezer as a shop; I really want to people to do things like this to help minimise their stress through food.
What are the top two things you want people to take away from your talk tomorrow?
First, it would be great if people could think to invest a little bit of time and money into making sure their staff understand why: why are you going to tell your staff members to provide that green juice with vegetables in it instead of fruit? Because juice that is full of fruit is very high in sugar, whereas the vegetable version has almost no sugar, as well as great nutritional value. You can compare it to when you might get your waiter or waitress to say something really interesting about that cut of beef, and why you’re charging lots for that steak.
To finish off, I would say I would like them to come away and actually make the changes: both for themselves as people, and then for them as business owners. It’s really simple – there are so many things they could do, so they could just pick the things that are achievable for them. Those small, cost-effective things will make such a big difference.
Katie Palmer (left) is Editorial Manager, and Annie Maddison (right) is Junior Content Executive for Beyond Luxury Media Ltd.