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Melissa Hemsley on food as love

Melissa Hemsley is passionate about cooking from scratch, creating connections and making sustainable living accessible. Here, she talks to Ellen Tout about her home, sustainability and wellbeing. Photos: Leanne Bracey

by Ellen Tout

Melissa Hemsley

8 minute read

Melissa Hemsley’s love of food was inherited from her family. ‘My mum is Filipino and was brought up in Manila without much money,’ Melissa says. ‘The earliest memory I have is of her. As a child, I would ask her to feed me by hand; in the Philippines you would often eat this way, and I still love doing so. I remember her handing me sweet prawns with salt, pepper and rice.’

Melissa and her sister, Jasmine, were raised on army bases in the UK and share memories of the women all teaming together. ‘The men weren’t around, so it was the women who worked, looked after each other’s children and helped everyone,’ she describes. Food was an important part of this. ‘My mum would make one chicken or even a cabbage last a week, and every bit was used. Where it came from mattered and nothing was wasted. I always asked for chicken nuggets and chips to be like other children; but we were given amazing broths and dishes that made the house smell incredible. My love of food came from my mum – the idea that food is love and food is sharing. When you cook, you never cook for a single portion; you cook for leftovers, for sharing and giving.’

But a career in cooking was never really on the cards. Melissa had planned to train as a doctor, and her first job was at an ethical shoe company, during which time she sofa-surfed between different friends’ apartments. ‘In order to pay my way, I would cook for them. I’d always come back to Mum’s soups. I love soup because it is delicious, nourishing, cheap and you can make a huge batch from leftovers. My tom yum soup was a particular favourite and I started making it for different people each week,’ she says. ‘My friends couldn’t cook, and we didn’t have much money, so I’d make food for everyone.’

Spreading the food love

Word soon got around and Melissa partnered with Jasmine to create an ‘underground, private catering company’. ‘At first, we were pretty unknown, but we loved it. It was an amazing way to start a career. And, somehow, that led to us cooking for Take That – Gary Barlow brought out a memoir and said that we were mentioned. I flicked through and we were in it everywhere!’ she says. The sisters have since written a number of books and starred in a TV series, as well as opening their Hemsley + Hemsley cafe in Selfridges, London.

‘We wanted to show that food can be delicious, healthy, life-enhancing, energy-giving, comforting and considered. I’m glad we started as a team. It could have been frightening otherwise. We always had each other,’ says Melissa. She is now focusing on her solo work. ‘I fell into my career, but I’ve loved evolving. The first time I cooked for someone and they really liked it, I thought, “Maybe this is what I’m meant to do.” I try to listen to my gut and stick to my guns.

Planning and purpose

‘It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I feel comfortable saying that I’m an author, despite writing four books. I always felt like an impostor for not having gone to university or being a trained chef,’ she says. ‘But I find the word “foodie” funny – who doesn’t like to eat nice food? People often don’t invite me round for dinner because they think I would have lofty expectations – but the idea of being cooked for, by anyone, is the best to me.’

For Melissa, food is connection. ‘Growing up, I wanted to help people, but I’ve realised that by giving people recipes, it actually affords them the tools to empower and care for themselves and their loved ones. I love what I do.’ Melissa’s kitchen is brimming with colourful jars, fresh produce and cookbooks – and guests rarely leave without taking home a portion of food. ‘I love feeding people and seeing them enjoy it. My freezer is rammed with leftovers and portions. It means that you know you always have your favourite meal ready if you’re busy.’

She recently launched The Sustainability Sessions, a series of events with honest conversations around food, mental health and eco living, taking place this autumn. ‘I wanted to create a community where we all learn together. As a consumer, you really do hold the power and can send a message to create change,’ she says. ‘For example, I try not to buy more than I need – although I do love a good deal – and I also try to buy locally, seasonally and direct from farms. Meal planning is important to me, and trying to shop mindfully.’

Melissa describes herself as a ‘recovering perfectionist’. ‘I tend to overthink things,’ she says. ‘There’s a pressure that if you don’t do something perfectly, then you fail, but that shouldn’t be the point. With living sustainably or eating healthily, for example, it’s much better to make one change that lasts than to try and become a whole new person.’

Let the food do the talking

At a recent event, where Melissa was asked to talk about aspects of herself that make her unique, she experienced an anxiety attack. ‘I’ve realised that I am used to speaking about food in front of audiences, and I’m very relaxed – but the second I have to stand up and talk about myself, it’s a different story. It feels very me, me, me and I’m so nervous.’ Melissa practises yoga and tries to meditate daily. ‘I thought I had done so much work on myself and built up my toolkit over the years that I would not reach the point of getting an anxiety attack. I realised that you can’t prepare for anxiety – not matter how much work you do, stuff will still hit you. You shouldn’t beat yourself up.’

Talking about her dad was a big hurdle for Melissa. ‘My dad died five years ago this November and I spoke about it recently on a podcast,’ she shares. ‘I realised I had not worked on my grief and it was catching up with me. I had bottled it up and didn’t want to deal with it. I got amazing feedback and comments about that. My mum winds me up by saying that I’m just like my dad, which I like because I think that we would have been such good friends. I’m glad he was proud of us and got to see us publish our first book.’

Melissa currently volunteers with seven charitable organisations, including the Cook For Syria initiative, Mental Health Mates and The Prince’s Trust. ‘I try to choose work that is meaningful,’ she says. ‘Growing up, serving others felt like a religious thing you had to do – but volunteering; doing something nice and giving back always makes you feel good. You can’t help but get a “helper’s high”. That’s the part of my job that I most love. If I’m struggling or behind with work, I know a day like that will really give me a nice lift. The less time I have, the more I want to do charity work because it gives me perspective, makes me more productive in my work and gives me a goal.’

Melissa’s book ‘Eat Happy: 30-Minute Feelgood Food’ (Ebury Press, £22) is out now. Pre-order ‘Eat Green: Everyday Flexitarian Recipes To Shop Smart, Waste Less And Make A Difference’ (Ebury Press, £14), is out January 2020. 

Words: Ellen Tout Photographs: Leanne Bracey. Follow Ellen @Ellen_Tout

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