We spent a day in Melissa Hemsley's kitchen and garden learning how to make an easy summer lunch packed with flavour and fresh ingredients. Between chopping and stirring she told us about her feel good food philosophy, which inspired her latest book, Eat Happy, plus how she made her East London home with boyfriend, art curator Henry Relph, and why she loves a 'granny dinner'.
'You know, I’ve had a TV show, I’ve got cookbooks, I go on cooking programmes and I always say it: I’m not a trained cook. We’ve almost fetishized food so much and it’s not a competition. Sometimes we make it look so unattainable and so hard and we worry about people judging it. People make me a meal and ask ‘do you like it?’ I’m not worried about how it tastes, I’m enjoying that you’ve cooked for me. I wouldn’t remember what I ate, I’d remember feeling relaxed and enjoying myself. It’s actually not about the food, it’s about how you feel. That’s why I call my food ‘feel good food’ because I always think do I feel good afterwards? I’m really passionate about that.'
'I love that the kitchen can be a space for people to come and work in. I think we’ve done really well at creating this light filled space and it’s fun. [Because of his work as a curator] Henry has a lot of expensive art but I didn’t want people to feel awkward around precious objects, that’s why I like durable things – like Soho Home. I want to be able to throw that cushion on the floor or chuck things in the dishwasher. Although I actually love washing up! I’ve trained myself to see it as a meditation – I’d rather wash up than stack a dishwasher.
'I wasn’t taught how to cook, I taught myself. My mum always said why would you go out to eat when you could do better at home? My mum’s food made me feel really good; loads of soups and stews, Filipino style but also Jewish chicken soups. In winter I would make lots of soups and stews with lovely gremolatas and herb smashes to go on top. I wrote Eat Happy living at my mum’s in Kingston, while we were renovating this house, not familiar with any of her stuff. She also had 12 terrible pans and one good pan, I was like ‘mum does this work on this hob?’ so I know that it’s all about one pot and simple cooking and then little tips to make a flourish – drizzle some olive oil, toast some seeds, grab a chive flower, grow some chives – a little packet of chives is £1.50 in the shops. Little cheats, Delia was really good at giving people cheats and shortcuts.'
On Dressing the Table
'When I started buying things for my home I invested in a cooking pot and a really nice wooden board to display cheese, fruit or meat on. Get a jug that can double up for water and wine and can hold flowers. If you can afford really nice glass it’s great but things break and I like the hard wearing stuff – I’ll use the same glass for wine, cocktails, anything! I often tell myself if I get another book deal I’ll buy some lovely crystal glasses or some lovely champagne glasses. I grew up in a household where we drank out of jam jars! It was cool before it was cool!
I love a bit of linen, but I don’t even have an iron! I love going to friends’ houses with linen, I love a well dressed table but at the same time, you’ll see from my table I put one nice thing down and then the rest can be all interchangeable. I’d rather spend money on flowers or a plant and put that in the middle of the table, or herbs – they’re a lovely way to dress a table, or lemons, fruit. I’d pick napkins over a tablecloth because the napkins will always look amazing, whereas you might forget to wash the tablecloth.'
How to be the Best Guest
'My foodie friends tend to turn up with a lovely bottle of olive oil or a jar of harissa that they might have picked up on holiday. Or I say bring a bottle if you want something in particular. I really enjoy having a nicely stocked bar; I’ve got Seedlip – everyone seems to be pregnant or not drinking these days, which is great – if you don’t need to drink don’t drink. I set up a tray and put out Seedlip or a mixer and people can add sparkling water or booze. Who doesn’t love a candle?! But I’d rather say to people don’t bring anything and just help me chop a bit!
I had a barbeque on Sunday and I got people chopping herbs, and someone else was like ‘what are you doing?’ and said I’m making a sesame lime coleslaw and they said they’d love to know how to make it so I just talked them through it. That’s why we spent so much energy designing the kitchen, why we made the island so hard wearing because I want people to stand around it and enjoy. If people don’t know each other and I give you something to chop you’ll do that without feeling awkward.'
A space for every season
My favourite rooms are the kitchen (obviously), the garden and in winter the front room with the fireplace, cuddling with my dog Nellie. I’ve got a lot of cushions and blankets that we saw in Soho House Istanbul – I had my 30th birthday there – so we obviously went and got the same ones! It’s about taking an element and not making it look like a House.
I love the bathroom and treat it like a spa; I'll close the door so it steams up, then do lots of lovely oils. I use it as part of a bedtime ritual otherwise I can’t switch off. I invest in food to feel good and I invest in bathtime because I sleep better if I wind down properly. I go to a lot of evening events and I’m buzzing when I get home between 10 and 12 and can’t sleep for ages, so instead of watching TV I have a bath. I often text Henry telling him I’m 30 minutes from home, I’m getting on the tube, and he runs my bath for me.'
Putting two people’s styles together has been really interesting. Henry’s got such incredible style that I could easily not get involved, but maybe I’ve helped soften the edges. Henry definitely leads it but he okays everything with me. I find too much choice overwhelming so he'll spend three days researching taps, then show me the top three and I choose!
I always thought with houses when they’re done they’re done, but he’s shown me that they can and should evolve. It looks like this now, but the way we’ve set up for lunch, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start using that corner of the garden more. We like this bit because you can see it as you come through the house, but it’s quite nice to have a secret bit that you can discover as you come out. They say that when you move into a new house, don’t do too much because you need to live with it, see where the light goes.'
'I loved Little Beach House, Malibu and I wanted to have tons of light – I wouldn’t say there’s anything Californian-style in our house, but just that idea of being barefoot, the lights, the doors open, everyone’s welcome, breakfast becomes brunch becomes dinner, laying all the food out, ‘just pop over!’ - that Californian style.
'People don’t do dinner parties because they get stressed and they feel like they can’t host and prepare at the same time. I say take all that fuss away and let people get involved – they feel more invested in the meal. I make my godkids pour water for everyone and they love it – they’re proud of their job, and I let them arrange the crudités board. We wash our hands together and I chop everything and then I tell them to make it look pretty. It helps me out. And if someone says to me ‘can I load the dishwasher’ I never say no! I’d do it at someone else’s house.
If you help the host a bit, then they hang out with you – what’s the point of going to someone’s house and then letting them do everything? I feel because everyone’s got kids now, people prefer an early dinner – I call it a granny dinner! Why do we think that we have to save a dinner party 'til Friday? We should be able to pick up a few bits on the way home, tell our friends to turn up at 7 and cook together. Everyone’s gone by 10 and you can run a bath and watch a box set! It doesn’t have to be this massive thing.'