Guardian Cook editor Nell Card asks chef, stylist and food writer Anna Jones for the lowdown on motherhood so far, whether her son Dylan will be a veggie (like her) and where she finds inspiration for her brilliant recipes…
Anna Jones is the best-selling author of two cookbooks, A Modern Way to Eat, and A Modern Way to Cook. Her unique approach to layering textures and flavours has captured the appetites of thousands. She is a columnist for the Guardian, and is writing her third recipe book. Here, she talks about failed bedtime routines and sniffing herbs with her seven-month-old…
An interview with Anna Jones
How old are you, where do you live and with whom?
I’m 37, I live in Hackney with my soon-to-be husband (I can’t handle the word fiancé – it sounds like you’re waiting for someone to congratulate you!) and our son Dylan, who is seven months old.
What’s your home like?
It’s increasingly chaotic. I used to be quite particular about our house, but since this little guy has arrived, there seems to be a lot more stuff and a lot less time. It’s a Victorian semi-detached house with white, simple interiors. We have a mixture of mid-century furniture and simple antiques that I’ve picked up on my prop-sourcing trips to Ardingly. The kitchen centres around a huge wooden dining table – I think it’s an old door – that I’ve managed to sit 14 people around.
What wakes you up in the morning?
A little nudge from an arm or foot…
I always thought I’d grow up and become good at mornings but that hasn’t happened yet
How do you feel?
I’m not really a morning person, I never have been. I always thought I’d grow up and become good at mornings but that hasn’t happened yet. It takes me a while to get going.
What do you do first thing?
I feed Dylan, then have a cup of hot water and lemon, quickly followed by a cup of Lady Grey with milk. Before Dylan, my first reaction on waking was to immediately want to fall back asleep. Mornings seem a lot brighter and more positive now he’s around. There’s no going back to sleep, so we end up sitting and playing in bed for the first hour of the day.
Describe mornings in your home in three words …
Cosy, slow, manic – depending on whether I’ve got to go to work.
How might the rest of your day pan out?
We always have breakfast together. John will make us a bowl of fruit or overnight oats which we sit and eat together. Dylan will have his favourite breakfast of porridge and strawberries. Usually there’s a cookbook or two on the table, or the weekend papers. We’ll read about three sentences in between spooning porridge into Dylan’s mouth…
If I’m testing recipes, I’ll gather my ingredients, and read through the recipes. My mum or John will take Dylan out for walks or play with him in the front room. He’ll be in and out of the kitchen. I live close to the Chatsworth Road, so he’ll come out with me on shopping trips to the local greengrocer. He helps me pick out bunches of mint or dill. He seems to really love the smell.
I know little people thrive on routine so we’ve tried to install that now with nap and meal times
If I’m writing, I go to my rented desk space five minutes down the road. It makes coming back for feeds possible, whilst being far enough away to actually get some work done. If I’m shooting for the day, I have to leave the house early. Usually, my mum will have Dylan for the day, bringing him by the studio for feeds if possible.
Often, no two days are the same for me, and I know little people thrive on routine so we’ve tried to instil that now with nap and meal times. If I’m writing, I’ll try and come back at lunchtime to see Dylan for an hour or so. I feel really lucky that my job is flexible enough to allow me to do that.
I try and finish work by 5pm so I can see Dylan before bedtime, which used to be about 7pm, but is currently about 10pm. At the moment, we go through his bedtime pattern of bath, books, singing. And then he comes down and hangs out ’til about 10.30pm. We hope in the near future he might go to bed at a time that is more appropriate for a seven-month-old!
When are you most productive?
I’ve worked out that it’s between 11am and 4pm. I’m not a morning person and I also need downtime in the evenings. I do sometimes work in the evenings, especially when I have a book deadline – then I work 20 hours a day! I sometimes work at weekends, but I try and keep my evenings free. I’m not a workaholic, but I’ve always been ambitious and when you work for yourself you have to set some boundaries, otherwise you end up working 24 hours a day.
Anna Jones on food writing…
Where does your love of food come from?
I think probably just from being quite a greedy, inquisitive little kid. As a child, I loved cooking and feeding people. Not just cakes, but simple family dinners such as DIY tacos and pasta bakes … My mum was really brilliant at encouraging that in me. She bought me a Jane Asher cook book for kids, a book by Nanette Newman called We Can Cook, all the Ladybird cook books…
What experience and/or training got you where you are today?
I did some really casual catering for my parents’ friends before I turned to cooking properly. When I was 24, I got a place on the Fifteen apprentice programme with Jamie Oliver and I spent a year and a half training in the kitchens at Fifteen.
To begin with, I enrolled on a three-month training course at a college in Hammersmith where I learnt to make posh stocks and how to ballotine a chicken – none of which I have ever used since, but having that knowledge of classic French cooking is always useful. After that, I worked in the kitchens at Fifteen for eight months with a chef mentor. Then I was sent to Majorca and Tuscany to work in professional restaurants there, which was paid for by Fifteen.
My first big project was writing a kid’s cookbook for the brand Innocent
It felt like a family at Fifteen so I went back to work some shifts there. Whilst there, someone asked if anyone wanted to write some recipes for BBC Good Food as part of the Fifteen team. I wrote three recipes about cooking with herbs (which are integral to how I cook) and they printed all three of them.
I went along to the photoshoot, and I thought: “I like the feeling of this” – cooking, writing, the creative side of making food look amazing. It was a different pace too. It was still frenetic, but a bit gentler than the kitchen.
I went on to work for Jamie for seven years as part of his creative team, helping him write, develop and style recipes. I loved every second, but I always knew that I wanted to have my own voice within food. So after seven years, I packed up my knives and microplanes and headed out on my own.
My first big project was writing a kid’s cookbook for the brand Innocent. (I’m going back to those recipes quite a lot now I have Dylan.) After 18 months as a freelancer, I got my first book deal, which was incredible. My editor at 4th Estate loved the recipes I wrote for Innocent and thought I should write my own book. And so, A Modern Way to Eat was written.
There is humble inspiration to be found in the simple, life-friendly recipes that only require ingredients from your local shop
What inspires you to continually come up with new recipes? What are the challenges?
The challenge over the last few months has been having way less time to cook. That in itself can be a source of inspiration. I know it sounds quite boringly positive, but there is humble inspiration to be found in the simple, life-friendly recipes that only require ingredients from your local shop.
Equally I’m continually inspired by travel. I still go back to flavours I discovered on trips I made ten years ago: flavours from south India, Mexico, Morocco and north Africa. I haven’t got a very good memory for words or dates: my memory is very much a tapestry of colour, smell and taste, and I lean on that in my cooking.
I feel quite passionately that I should be happy to serve every plate of food I create to my most discerning, “cheffy” friends: Emily Ezekiel who I work with, who is an amazing stylist and chef, Tim Siadatan from Trullo, Georgina Hayden, my old boss… But also, I always ask myself would my “non-cheffy” friends be able to make this.
Your writing your third recipe book this year. How will it differ from your previous two?
My first book, A Modern Way to Eat, was really my back catalogue of recipes I created after becoming vegetarian. The second, A Modern Way to Cook, is about finding that humble inspiration in life-friendly recipes. Another huge part of my cooking is pegged to seasonal changes throughout the year: I don’t mean eating asparagus in May, squash in October … It’s more about identifying moods that punctuate the year and taking those as a starting point for talking about seasonality.
Has becoming a mother changed your approach to food at all?
Yes it definitely has. Firstly, my experience of pregnancy was really quite unexpected. Previously, my diet consisted of loads of healthy veg, with lots of big flavours and variety, but I found myself craving white carbs. I’d expected to be drinking green smoothies, and eating lots of nourishing food, but for the first five months, I just wanted mashed potatoes. It was a real lesson to me in listening to my body, but it also enabled me to understand what a child’s palate must be like.
I know that being vegetarian works for me, but I understand that for some people, that’s not how they want to live
I’ve started to wean Dylan, and he’s really not into sweet potato or butternut squash, which is funny because they were precisely the things that made my stomach turn during pregnancy. I’ve realised how pure a child’s palate must be. Even a parsnip becomes this really big experience for them! So, having always cooked with strong flavours, becoming a mother has given me a bit more empathy for people who like a softer approach to flavour. Similarly, I can now understand the need to make shortcuts with my cooking: I’m constantly trying to work out how I can integrate a really busy life with giving Dylan a celebratory start to eating.
You are a vegetarian. Will Dylan be too?
I’m going to feed Dylan vegetables for now and I hope that vegetables will become the major part of his diet, but I’m really up for him making up his own mind in every aspect of his life. I know that being vegetarian works for me, but I understand that for some people, that’s not how they want to live. Older relatives do ask pointed questions about Dylan’s diet: where his protein is coming from, whether he’s getting the right nutrition.
Ultimately, there is still a big part of the population who think that it’s difficult to have a balanced diet without meat and fish. Addressing that misconception is a big part of the work that I do. Right now, I make sure Dylan gets his protein in other ways: he loves edamame beans, which are full of protein, I stir quinoa flakes and seed butters (pumpkin and sunflower) through his purees, and I make him lots of lentils.
Describe your ideal family weekend…
We had a really amazing weekend in north Wales recently, which is where John is from. We spent the day out and about – walking, picnicking on the beaches and swimming in the sea. Both John and I love the sea, and even though Dylan is only little, he is mesmerised by the waves. For me, jumping in the sea is like pressing a reset button, so any weekend that involves that – with some grannies and grandads on hand – is perfect!
If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
As we speak, I’m driving to Anglesey to get married to John in three days’ time. I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather be going. I know that sounds next-level cheesy, but it’s the truth.
Follow Anna Jones on Twitter: @we_are_food