Veggies and vegans can get a lot of flack for being self-righteous, judgy and pushy on the ‘eat-your-greens’ front – and Ella Mills (formerly Woodward) has experienced a shed-load of that flack since founding her popular blog-turned-brand, Deliciously Ella.
The 27-year-old started blogging under the moniker in 2012 after being diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, and her debut cookbook went on to be a massive success with readers, if not always with critics.
Now the Rugby-born entrepreneur and grand-daughter of Lord Sainsbury is back with The Plant-Based Cookbook, and it’s all about inclusivity. “[It’s not designed] with the intention of anyone needing to become a vegan, but for people who do want to try cooking more vegetarian food, it’s a very nice way to get involved,” she explains.
Recommended: Crispy fried jackfruit recipe.
In fact, she is at pains to point out that she eats plant-based for “very personal reasons. I was very, very unwell, changing my diet allowed me to get my life back, and for me, I still do it every day to manage my illness. I’d rather do that than take beta blockers and steroids.”
Her mantra appears to be “you’ve got to make it work for you” – whether you’re a carnivore looking to hit your five (or 10) a day, or a vegan in a recipe rut.
The cookbook features 100 recipes from Deliciously Ella’s delis and events but runs to almost 20,000 words – it’s part recipe collection, part diary, with mini-essays inserted between chapters. “It allows us some space to tell our story,” explains Mills, “about who we are and what happens behind the scenes – the good bits and the bad bits.”
Recommended: How to make Deliciously Ella’s almond Victoria cake.
Starting a plant-based business
At times, it reads like a blow-by-blow account of Deliciously Ella’s business targets and difficulties – from getting their energy ball products into supermarkets, to having to secure a loan against Mills’ flat to avoid going bust, with her also addressing the closure of two of the company’s delis earlier this year. At others, she talks about the mental and physical challenges of running the brand.
It’s a somewhat strange narrative to stumble upon if you’re just interested in whipping up a charred broccoli and kohlrabi salad, but Mills was determined to follow in the same vein as her debut cookbook, and her blog, allowing for “a human and personal element” in the gaps around the recipes.
You can see how she manages to work alongside her husband Matt, son of the late MP Tessa Jowell, day-in-day-out – they even have desks side-by-side. “I absolutely love it,” says Mills. “Fundamentally, the reason why it works is because we do completely separate things.”
Matt takes care of retail and products thanks to his finance background, while her focus is the creative side and “who we are as a company and a community”.
“We work together on the shared vision and strategy,” Mills adds, ever business-like. And at home? “I do all the cooking, Matt doesn’t cook, no – but I love that, he is a phenomenal washer-upper!”
Having a conversion about food
That merging of her private life and her health concerns with the Deliciously Ella trajectory may be at the core of her business, but it’s also been what’s caused Mills a lot of problems.
It “was a pretty long time ago now” she says, of the critical furore around Deliciously Ella’s perceived alignment with the ethically and nutritionally dubious ‘clean eating’ movement. “Honestly, it was a frustrating moment.”
“‘Clean’ isn’t a word that Deliciously Ella’s traditionally used,” she explains. “We’ve never been about restriction or taking the fun out of food – we’ve been about plant-based cooking. We’ve never been about before and afters, or weight loss or anything around that space. It was a complete misinterpretation of who we are.”
While intent on distancing herself from the world of ‘fad’ food, she accepts there is a “really important” conversation to be had around food as aspirational and as part of an Instagrammable lifestyle, rather than being achievable at home.
Recommended: Try our vegan picture quiz.
Making plant-based recipes accessible
She’s mindful that, when “healthy food exploded, it became a little too connected to the more exotic ingredients, the superfood powders and things – that is not accessible for people.” But she’s also unshakeable that something needs to be done if we’re to tackle the very serious increases in health issues that are the result of lifestyle related diseases and obesity.
And if posting pretty pictures of vegetables on the ‘gram encourages people to eat more greens, then where’s the harm? “When you’re at home, there’s no expectation that food needs to look that beautiful, but we know that people aren’t eating their vegetables, so how are we going to get them to do it? We’ve got to get them to seem more appealing,” says Mills, adamant. “And we do eat with our eyes.”
The Plant-Based Cookbook, she says, focuses on using ingredients that people are already comfortable with, and that are very much your supermarket staples. For instance, she reckons her sweet potato and courgette stew works out at an affordable £1.50 per portion, while the most exotic ingredient in it is maple syrup.
Making food a personal choice
She’s firm though in doing her absolute best to not sound preachy: It all comes back to making that personal choice. “I changed my diet for me because it allowed me to manage a chronic illness, and everyone’s got to do what works for them,” says Mills. “It’s about an overall picture about the way that you live and feeling good in yourself, and only you know exactly what that is for you, and how it can feasibly work in your lifestyle. There’s no right and wrong ways of doing it, but there are nice ways to get more vegetables into your diet.
“I’m a really big believer in the concept that, for anything to be sustainable, it has to be enjoyable. So you’ve got to make it interesting, you’ve got to make it colourful, you’ve got to make it abundant,” and, she adds, “you’ve got to make it delicious.”
Deliciously Ella The Plant-Based Cookbook by Ella Mills, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £25. Available now from Amazon.