If your food shopping consists of chia seeds, quinoa, and an inordinate number of avocados, chances are you’re current eating habits have been inspired by the new wave of wellness gurus in London right now. They’re at the forefront of the ‘clean eating’ movement; they champion food that actually tastes good rather promoting deprivation and calorie counting, and the most interest thing of all is that they’re nearly exclusively female. Madeleine Shaw, Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley, former Vogue editor Calgary Avansino and Natasha Corrett of Honestly Healthy are all part of growing crew of women who have managed to turn a personal love of healthy eating into huge international empires. It’s a group Detox Kitchen founder Lily Simpson is firmly a part of.
Once upon a time eating out necessitated leaving all good intentions at the door but thanks to Lily and a handful of others, that’s quickly changed. From 26 Grains and The Good Life Eatery to Nama and Tanya’s, never have we been quite so spoilt for choice on the healthy restaurant front and Lily is firmly leading the way. Her Detox Kitchen delis have completely transformed the eating habits of time poor Londoners, making clean eating when you’re eating out, easier than ever.
Today we’re catching up in the latest Detox Kitchen outpost, the brand’s new lifestyle emporium on Mortimer Street. The philosophy is the same: Lily and head chef Lucy Cheyney have devised a menu with all of the usual tasty seasonal, organic wheat and dairy free dishes that regulars know and love. Think aubergines dressed in sticky apricot and tamari sauce, butternut squash stacked with honeyed pecans and lemon soya yoghurt, and avocado and coriander served on lightly toasted rye bread, all available, of course, with a long list of healthy juices and matcha lattes. What’s different about this space is that it’s also home to a state of the art fitness studio downstairs with classes run by some of the city’s best teachers in a bid to provide a more rounded lifestyle offering.
Changing my diet not only changed by skin but my energy and stress levels too. When I’m eating well, I see a noticeably difference in how productive and happy I am, and that’s enough to convince me to have a delicious quinoa salad rather than a stodgy bowl of pasta any day!
“I just had a gut feeling for the place the moment I walked in,” Lily tells me about choosing the location. “We have a salad and juice bar, a grab and go range and we also offer an all-day brunch menu. I’m really excited about the fitness studio downstairs too,” she continues. “We’re going to be holding yoga, Pilates, barre, ballet and HIT classes down there. I’m really excited to see people come with friends, enjoy a fitness class and then come upstairs for a big plate of salad for lunch and leave feeling amazing.”
It’s only a few days after the official opening when we meet and the place is heaving. Nestled into a corner at the far end of the dining area, she periodically pauses our conversation to keep an eye on things. She can’t help but peer over my shoulder to watch how customers are responding to the food and every so often, I notice her keeping tabs on how well the service is running. She’s a perfectionist and it shows. Far from fresh faced and bushy tailed, she seems tired, as if the weeks leading up to the opening have taken their toll on her. If you had any qualms about whether she’s hands on with each and every part of the machine, all you need to do it is sit with her for a moment and it quickly becomes clear.
The most obvious thing about Lily is what a persuasive advertisement she is for healthy eating – and the growth of her food empire reflects that. The recipes she created to combat the affects of her own hectic lifestyle, and then began to share and create for others first through her food delivery business, have made her as big of a deal on the healthy food scene as Tanya Maher of Tanya’s and The Good Life Eatery founders Yasmine Larizadeh and Shirin Kouros. “I’ve always had fairly bad skin and always suffered breakouts linked to my hormones and stress levels,” she tells me. “Changing my diet not only changed by skin but my energy and stress levels too. When I’m eating well, I see a noticeably difference in how productive and happy I am, and that’s enough to convince me to have a delicious quinoa salad rather than a stodgy bowl of pasta any day!”
A foodie at heart, healthy dishes with great flavours are at the heart of everything she does. Although she’s not a formally trained chef, she’s always cooked for others and cut her teeth taking cookery classes run by big names like Jason Atherton and Michel Roux. “I’ve always loved cooking. I used to run home from school to cook roasted vegetables and pasta for my brothers. So after four years of working in a business development company, I decided to start my own catering business,” she explains.
The move was prompted by a friend who came to Lily asking her to create healthy meals to help her lose weight after she tried a diet delivery company and didn’t like the food. Lily started by cooking three sugar, wheat and dairy free meals for clients – either protein (1,500 calories) or vegan (1,300 calories) – hand-delivering them to their doors before 7am. On the detox plan would be 70g of muesli with rice milk, followed by a smoothie and six cashew nuts for a snack; a hearty lentil salad for lunch with aother snack like a pot of edamame beans and chilli; and dinner would go along the lines of king prawns with chickpeas or butternut squash and butterbeans with salad.
Food and flavour is always at the centre of everything I do both at home and at work. I wake up thinking about dinner and I go to bed thinking about breakfast. There would be far less excitement in my day if there wasn’t any good food involved…It’s really important that it’s celebrated and enjoyed, not feared. I’m always trying to promote a really healthy and happy relationship with food rather than one that’s based on deprivation.
At a corporate function in 2010, where the canapés were ‘grey and boring’, she asked her boss if she could do the food next time. She made filo cups filled with edamame beans and edible flowers, and rice wraps filled with vegetables. Within six months she had left her job and was catering for 200-300 people at six to seven events per week, with clients such as Jo Malone and Red Bull. The experience provided her with everything she needed to know about managing a business and also proved that her food was good enough to produce and sell commercially. When she launched The Detox Kitchen two years later, she did the exact thing she did with the catering business: she wrote down a list of celebrities, called their agents and gave them a week free. All of them signed up for more, Elle Macpherson and Gwyneth Paltrow included. A salad bar concession in Harvey Nichols opened within a year, followed shortly by their first standalone deli on Kingly Street in Soho.
If the idea of giving up your creature comforts sounds daunting, fear not. Lily’s ethos is all about introducing people to things in a way they’re going to enjoy. She doesn’t want people to see eating at The Detox Kitchen as part of a diet. Instead, each dish is devised to be healthy and satisfying but more importantly, the kind of food you’ll take pleasure in eating. “Food and flavour is always at the centre of everything I do both at home and at work. I wake up thinking about dinner and I go to bed thinking about breakfast,” she jokes. “There would be far less excitement in my day if there wasn’t any good food involved. When I create dishes at The Detox Kitchen, I always start with the flavour, and then we look at seasonal ingredients and the nutritional breakdown. It always goes in that order,” she continues. “It’s really important that food is celebrated and enjoyed, not feared. I’m always trying to promote a really healthy and happy relationship with food rather than one that’s based on deprivation.” It disappoints her that esoteric superfoods – many of which she uses – have made the idea of healthy eating seem difficult.
What does she put her relationship with food down to, I ask. “It’s just the way I’ve been brought up,” she says, matter of fact. “We’ve always had our meals cooked from scratch; we’ve always had variety, and we’ve always seen sweets as treats. I think it’s important to have a balance. I love having chocolate and I love a glass of wine with dinner, but 80 per cent of the time, I eat well and I really enjoy what I’m eating and that’s how it should be. Food should be enjoyable, balanced, varied and above all else, delicious.”
The thing about Lily’s approach to food is that it works. She encourages you to be mindful about food and think about what you eat in an active way. I think because she herself has gone through the whole experience working the corporate rat race, suffering chronic fatigue and bad skin that she appreciates where most of us has been. She understands that balance is everything and actively encourages treat days. But these are things to look forward to, and not a go-to pick-me-up when we’re feeling, low, miserable or just plain greedy. Above all, she’s adamant that her business would not be as successful as it is if the product wasn’t up to scratch. “All I have ever cared about is the food,” she says. “The market is so competitive, you can’t let the focus slip. Our kitchen is at the heart of our company…ultimately it doesn’t matter who you partner it or what marketing plans you write. You have to have integrity in your product and hopefully that is what has led to our success.” We’d have to agree.