“We cook on so many levels, not just to feed ourselves,” says Georgie Hayden, taking a sip of tea.
As part of Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Team’, the bubbly brown-eyed Londoner cooks for a living, dreaming up and styling recipes for Oliver’s books, magazine and TV shows. But she also cooked her way through a traumatic maternity leave, after her son Archie died just before birth two years ago.
“I can’t remember what happened for the first few months. I think we must have lived off food from nice people. I don’t think I cooked for a while. I really scared myself. I thought, ‘I just don’t care, I actually don’t care about food or anything’,” she recalls. “You feel really vulnerable and I didn’t want to go out… Then it sort of went full circle.”
Fearing she’d lost her love of food, Hayden gathered all her cookbooks together – including Honey & Co’s book, the Middle Eastern cafe where we meet today – and started thinking about food for her and husband Pete.
“After a few months of calming down, I thought, ‘Let’s start again… You’re going to sit down and start making a weekly meal plan’. Then I would drive myself to the supermarket and do the shop, and that’s actually what got me out again – having a purpose got me back into doing something and being a bit more confident.”
The familiarity and routine of cooking was like therapy and slowly eased Hayden, 34, through her bereavement, while the meal plans gave her a sense of control.
“In those early days, I was convinced Pete was going to die [too]. I was absolutely terrified. I thought, ‘If I can feed us really nice food, at least I know we’re OK’.”
What started out as a simple project has been gently nurtured into Hayden’s first cookbook, Stirring Slowly: Recipes To Restore + Revive. With chapter titles such as ‘A Sunny Start To The Day’, ‘Bowl Food’, and ‘Bake Yourself Better’, it’s a book to turn to when you’ve had a long, tough day – full of warming, comforting and revitalising recipes.
In his foreword, Jamie Oliver says he loves Hayden ‘like a sister’, and she is equally full of praise for her mentor, with whom she’s travelled the world for work.
“After my maternity leave, I went back part-time, because I needed to sort my life out a bit. He said, ‘Whatever you need to do, we’ll make it work’. He’s phenomenal and he really cares. It sounds cheesy, but the Food Team is family and it’s the most inspiring place to be.”
Hayden’s real family has had a huge impact on her love of food, too. Born to Greek Cypriot parents, her childhood memories are of Saturday pilgrimages from their home above her grandparents’ Greek restaurant to the ‘smelly shop’ – an Italian deli packed with hanging salami – around the corner.
Her dad worked in the family restaurant while her mum stayed home, teaching Hayden and her sister to bake. It sparked a lifelong passion – and she remembers shadowing both her grannies, determined to learn all the traditional Cypriot family recipes before they were lost.
“I still cook with my granny,” she says. “She’s amazing. She’s had such an influence on me.”
While Hayden tries to eat well, she thinks we’ve all become a bit too obsessed with health food.
“What’s healthy for me is taking the time to cook something and sit down and actually eat it properly.”
And, she says, there’s nothing wrong with making life easy for yourself.
“There are certain books and people out there that make you think, ‘I should be doing this, I should be doing that…’
“Something can be quick, it can be delicious and it can still be OK for you; an omelette is great. We definitely have a lot of breakfast for dinner!”
Hayden’s already planning her next cookbook – full of Cypriot food – but for now, she’s pleased to have created a legacy for Archie with her first one.
“It felt wrong to go through something so enormous and painful and to carry on life as normal. I thought, ‘He needs to have some impact on my life, in a good way’. You want to honour your child and make sure people know about these things.
“As time goes by, it’s more gentle. It’s still incredibly difficult, but we can also find joy in things now. I can look at his picture and not cry, and look at his things and find comfort in them.”
Here are some of Hayden’s comforting recipes to try at home…
Roasted cauliflower and coconut soup
4 garlic cloves
1tsp (heaped) ground cinnamon
1tsp (heaped) ras el hanout (available in the spice section at most supermarkets)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A handful of unsweetened coconut flakes
1 x 400ml tin of reduced-fat coconut milk
600ml vegetable stock
2-3tbsp chilli oil
Preheat your oven to 180C/gas 4. Peel and cut the onions into 1cm wedges and trim then cut the cauliflower into even-sized florets. If it has the leaves on, don’t cut them off, roast those too. Place it all in a roasting tray with the unpeeled garlic cloves and sprinkle with the cinnamon and ras el hanout. Season well, and drizzle everything with a good glug of olive oil. Toss it all together and pop into the oven for 25-30 minutes, until cooked through and a little charred.
Scatter the coconut flakes onto a small tray and pop into the oven for the last few minutes to toast – they should only need three to four minutes. When the veg are ready, remove the garlic cloves and scrape all the veg into a large saucepan. Squeeze the garlic out of its skins and add them too. Pour in the coconut milk, add the stock and gently bring to the boil.
Reduce the heat a little and simmer for five minutes, then remove from the heat. Using a stick blender, blitz the soup until creamy and smooth, adding a splash more water if it is too thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve topped with the toasted coconut flakes and a drizzle of chilli oil.
1/2 a red onion
2 small vine tomatoes
1/2 a bunch of coriander
1 green chilli
4 large eggs
1/2tsp ground turmeric
1/2tsp garam masala
1/2tsp ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
50g baby spinach leaves
1/2 a lemon
2 knobs of butter
Peel and finely chop the onion. Halve the tomatoes, scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon and discard, then finely chop the flesh. Finely chop the coriander stalks and leaves. Halve the chilli, deseed and finely slice.
Whisk the eggs together until well combined, then season generously and whisk in the onion, tomatoes, coriander, chilli, turmeric, garam masala and cumin. Put the spinach leaves into a bowl, squeeze just enough lemon to coat, toss together, then leave to one side.
Melt half the butter in a medium non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and ladle in half the omelette mixture. Swirl the eggs around for two minutes, pushing them to the middle and tilting the pan so that all the mixture has a chance to set. Leave it for a minute, then slip the omelette on to your serving plate. Top with half the dressed spinach and fold the omelette in half. Serve straight away, and repeat with the remaining butter, omelette mix and spinach.
Whole roasted miso aubergine
3cm piece of ginger
4 garlic cloves
2 small green chillies
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g vine cherry tomatoes
4 spring onions
1/2 a bunch of coriander
1 lime, juiced
1tbsp tamarind paste
3tbsp white sweet miso (available from Waitrose and Holland & Barratt)
Preheat your oven to 180C/gas 4.
Peel the ginger and garlic, and finely slice the chillies. Pierce the aubergines all over with a paring knife, as if you were making incisions into a piece of meat. Grate the ginger into a large mortar and pestle, and bash together with the garlic, chillies and a good pinch of salt until you have a thick paste. Mix in just enough oil to make it spoonable, then spoon the mixture over the aubergines and massage it into the incisions, really getting the flavours inside.
Place the aubergines in a large roasting tray, dot the cherry tomatoes around, and pop into the oven for 40 minutes, turning a couple of times. While the aubergines are cooking, trim and finely slice the spring onions and roughly chop the coriander, stalks and all. Put into a bowl, squeeze over the lime juice to coat and mix all together. Leave to one side.
Mix together the tamarind, honey and miso and add enough water to make a thick glaze. Remove the roasting tray from the oven after 40 minutes, turn the oven up to 200C/gas 6, and drizzle the miso glaze over the aubergines. Pop back into the oven for a further 15 minutes, to caramelise, then remove and leave to cool a little.
Working carefully, remove the stalks from the aubergines and discard them, then roughly chop the flesh in the tray into coarse chunks. Stir in the dressed spring onions and coriander and serve right away.
Stirring Slowly: Recipes To Restore + Revive by Georgie Hayden is published in hardback by Square Peg. Available now