Anna Jones clearly has good friends. When the British food writer and former chef suggested she might cook at her own wedding, they set her straight. “They asked me, ‘Have you lost your mind?!’ ” she says with a smile over a cup of ginger and lemon tea at a cafe near her home in East London. “Maybe I had!”
If anyone could pull it off, it is Jones. The 37-year-old is the author of two best-selling books (2014’s “A Modern Way To Eat” and last year’s “A Modern Way To Cook,” the latter just out this fall in the United States) and a food column in that bible of upwardly mobile liberal Britons, the Guardian. She is a food stylist, too, making the dishes look as beautiful as they taste without seeming too fussy.
What really sets Jones apart, though, is her approach: Her food is vegetarian without a hint of prissiness, and its global bent calls to mind blockbuster author Yotam Ottolenghi’s cuisine, but more streamlined. She’s got that laid-back enthusiasm of fellow Brits Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, too.
Her message is designed not to frighten those who can’t imagine a meal without animal flesh. “I want joy and sharing at the center of what I cook,” says Jones, who lives with her husband, John, and 9-month-old son, Dylan. “I’m not about diets. I’m about celebrating food and celebrating life, and putting vegetables at the center of that.”
Comparisons to Oliver are inevitable: Jones began her career at age 24 at Oliver’s London restaurant, Fifteen, with a place on the apprenticeship scheme, which is aimed at unemployed young people. Although Jones had a job, she had grown tired of it and had decided to quit when she got an interview at Oliver’s new venture. The gamble paid off. She graduated in 2004 after 18 months and went to work at restaurants in Majorca and Tuscany before returning to Fifteen. She worked for Oliver for the next seven years.
“He’s had a huge influence on me,” she says. “There are echoes of how he cooks in how I cook and write, [I’ve got] his approachability and enthusiasm for cooking and life, and I’m really proud of that. He’s not to everyone’s taste, but he is an inspirational figure. He is courageous, and what he does is very positive.”
She describes Oliver, in fact, as “a real sounding board”; she will email him things, such as a book cover in progress, and “he’s always got time to dart a quick email back.”
Oliver is not her only influence. Jones lived in Palo Alto, in Northern California (“a very different place back then,” she says), until she was 7, and it inspires her work. Her passion is informed not only by California ingredients but also by the approach chefs there take to food.
“I think Californians are more open to mixed influences,” she says. “Here in Europe, it’s British, Italian, Spanish; fusion food is looked down upon by some chefs. It’s regarded as being a bit early ’90s. In California there’s an ability to seamlessly mix influences. I love that freedom. There are fewer hang-ups about what is the correct way to do things.”
Jones’s own food is a riot of influences. Take, for example, what was served at her wedding in July: arancini with roasted fennel and pecorino, topped with candied fennel seeds; zucchini fritters with aioli; tomato tarte tatin with orange and yellow heirloom tomatoes and crispy nasturtium seeds; crispy olives, roasted feta, deep-fried capers. “Lots of different textures,” says Jones.
Texture is vital to her. Presentation, too: “It’s so important. It’s like getting up and getting dressed in the morning. If you don’t brush your hair and you put on clothes that have yesterday’s soup down them, you’re not going to feel your best, you’re not going to be on your game.”
In London, the land of meat-and-two-veg, Jones’s vegetarian approach still feels fresh. Not too long ago, the nose-to-tail trend of carnivory exemplified by Fergus Henderson and the London restaurant St. John was all the rage. And Jones says her message would have struggled to find an audience before the past few years.
“When I became vegetarian, about eight years ago, I had to let people in on it quite slowly; I didn’t know anyone else in food who was vegetarian,” she says. “People were incredulous: ‘How are you going to manage that?’ ”
But opinions are shifting somewhat, in part due to the efforts of chefs such as Ottolenghi, whose Middle Eastern cuisine is vegetable-heavy and whose books “Plenty” and “Plenty More” (not to mention his own Guardian column) brought vegetarian cooking to a huge audience. Londoners, like Americans, have more access to fresh ingredients than ever, “and our engagement in cooking has definitely changed,” Jones says. “Whether that has filtered down [to everyone in society], I don’t know. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Nowhere is that clearer than in Homerton, where she lives. It’s immediately obvious as you exit the train station, where a coffee cart — beloved of the middle-class incomers who have transformed this part of London — stares across the road at a deep-fried-chicken takeout shop.
Jones is well aware that her message is reaching an already engaged audience, interested in eating nutritious, vegetable-focused recipes. What she wants is to figure out how to get the word out to those who don’t read the Guardian or “buy beautifully photographed £12 recipe books.”
For those willing to try, her food can be wonderfully simple. Since the birth of her son this year, she has been focusing on some of her easier favorites, including a sweet potato daal with cumin seeds and chutney, and a Buddha bowl (“a bit of an annoying name,” she says) that combines a tofu massaman curry with brown rice, crispy seeds and a quick carrot pickle.
“I was completely unaware of the reality of how much time you have when you have a small baby,” she says. “I thought I was just going to be sitting around typing emails while he was quietly playing in the corner, but it’s not quite like that! But I’m really glad it’s not like that.”
Life is full. Motherhood has delayed the start of work on a third book, and there’s a holiday to California coming up. She’s planning a road trip from Portland, Ore., to Los Angeles, where her sister lives. The route reflects not just Jones’s love for California cuisine but also her husband’s passion for surfing. (At their wedding, they served two IPAs brewed in Wales, one called Surfing and the other called California.)
“It’s a bit of a honeymoon but also a work trip, as I find my inspiration in California,” she says. That will mean “eating a lot of good stuff” on the West Coast. “I eat out a lot less now, with [looking after] my little boy, and when I’m writing a book I try to go away, to break out of my patterns of cooking.”
A working honeymoon? That’s the way Jones likes it. And at least it beats a working wedding.
Hawkes is a London-based freelance writer who focuses on food, drink and travel.