Lauren Lovatt joins us for the latest instalment of The Chef’s Table.
Vegan chef and Founder of the Plant Academy, Lauren Lovatt is a plant-based entrepreneur from London. Here, Lovatt shares her culinary inspirations, mealtime essentials, and more…
How did you first get into cooking?
I have always loved cooking. Since I was super young, I was in the kitchen and my mum, who was always very relaxed and let me be rather experimental. As I got older, I adored rummaging through recipe books and making three-course dinners for my friends and family; perfecting soufflés, filleting fish, and understanding how ingredients worked.
What are some of your childhood food memories?
My earliest childhood food memories are things like going to those ‘pick your own’ farms and eating way too many summer berries and stewed apples with that funny bright yellow custard. My most formative food memories come from trips with my family, especially to Mallorca where we found the most amazing foodie spots. The hotel where we stayed was a great family run business where they served an olive oil tasting menu and I remember even at about ten being fascinated by the creative dishes and their use of olive oil in the dessert. This little hotel used to serve cold, silky smooth white chocolate truffles by the pool in the afternoon and I still dream of those today and now make a vegan version with a dose of CBD.
Who most influenced your cooking/ cooking philosophy?
The first person that springs to mind is Richard Buckley, owner of ‘Acorn’ and now ‘Oak’ restaurant in Bath and author of Plants Taste Better. [His] was the first vegetarian food I had ever had. The dishes were so innovative and delicious, using only plants, and my mind was opened up to what was possible with whole ingredients before I was even aware of it. Years later, I met Richard at a trade show where I had meticulously made all of these tempered chocolates to sell and he was there with his new chocolate brand, wisely making their famous water ganache truffles. He now teaches on my Plant Academy classes. [He] never cease to teach me something new and remind me of the power of using natural ingredients, elevated.
The food that makes you happiest and why?
This is a tough one! I’m slightly torn between bee pollen and cacao, both foods with a very obvious lift! Cacao, I think, is the one that I naturally reach for, in any form! A comforting hot chocolate spiked with Mucuna for the ultimate lift: the silky smooth chocolate pot, a fluffy chocolate cake, or satiating chocolate tart with sea salt. Chocolate holds so many fond memories and gives you that natural feeling of bliss. It’s something the can be shared or savoured and always feels celebratory.
Favourite cooking gadget?
It has to be a smoking gun. As anyone who attends a course at my Plant Academy will know, I love adding smoked flavours especially to raw foods; it’s such a surprise and so satisfying! My favourite things to smoke are kale salads, chocolate, and, of course, confit carrots.
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
Olive oil – every dish is brought to life with a good olive oil! Whether it’s a chocolate tart, crisp salad, or mashed potato. Without it, nothing would be the same. My ultimate favourite oils are by Odysea.
Where are the best places to shop for produce in London?
I love to go to farmers’ markets in London, especially Growing Communities in Stoke Newington which is the only fully organic market. Victoria Park Market is also great for getting a good selection of things. If it isn’t the weekend and I need something, I am very lucky that in Hackney Wick we finally have some great little delis, including my favourite Tuck Shop which has great artisan products and fresh veg from Shrub, who supply the best produce all around London.
How does travel influence your cooking?
Travel influences my cooking on every level. I love to draw inspiration from trips and also research new places when designing concepts for people from different places. Bali has been somewhere that has hugely influenced my cooking, sparking me to think deeper about rituals around food and how to celebrate the magic of all ingredients in a more interesting way. I also take lots of inspiration from South American food, especially after an insightful trip to Peru early 2020; these cultures really celebrate ingredients and use them in such different ways. I am always inspired by particular chefs I connect with when I am there, or restaurants that I go to and the people that I meet.
Must-visit food cities include…
Ultimate favourite: Amsterdam.
Most frequented: London.
Dying to go back to: LA.
Currently lusting for: Tulum.
Great memories: Barcelona.
Wish I could eat every day in: Ubud.
And of course Paris. I have a restaurant there, MESA de HOY.
How do your surrounds influence the dining experience?
Ambience and aesthetics are everything. I’m a very visual person and I really geek out on interiors, lighting, and the little details. At HOY, care has been given to ever single element from the Palo Santo wafting through the air, to the handmade ceramics, and, well, everything in between… When done right, they take everything to the next level.
Where are your favourite places to dine in London?
Ultimate treat: Silo.
All-time favourite: Plates.
For lunch: Palm Greens.
Next on the list: Alter and Apricity.
What do you always avoid ordering on a menu?
I’m vegan and gluten free, so anything that doesn’t cater to that. I find nothing more frustrating that when a chef doesn’t consider the vegan and gluten-free options.
By contrast, must-order items on a menu include…
I will always opt for the most seasonal things as I love to see how a chef embraces what is on offer and makes it shine. I’ll also always order a dessert – with chocolate!
Why do you think it’s important to gather round the table to eat?
Food is as much about connecting with others as it is anything else. Food is a common ground between people, it is something we can all connect to and have options on – it’s a great way to start a conversation. Eating together unites us, whether it’s gathering with friends to share a dining experience, snuggling up to enjoy a comforting down, or celebrating around a table with family. Food is the thing people often remember most about an occasion; it is so important to nurture and make an effort to make your own traditions with.
What is your go-to meal at home when you’re low on time?
I tend to always have a few batch cooked things to hand, like a grain or a sauce, so if I’m in a rush I’ll reach for some precooked brown rice, kimchi, and greens and make a quick stir fry served with cool or heated-through rice, a quick miso dressing. and a few sheets of nori. Yum.
Do you find cooking therapeutic?
Cooking, for me, is the ultimate therapy and over the years is the one thing that always brings me back to myself. I can get totally lost in a recipe or in my own zone creating something for the first time; it’s a headspace where nothing else matters and you get so much out of it. I talk about this in my book, Mind Food where there are some quick recipes and some longer recipes intended to be there to get lost in, to take your mind away from worries, and give you something delicious at the end. As Richard Birtinet once said ‘baking bread is better than therapy’ – I would add: cooking for your mind is even better.
Advice for women thinking about starting up a business in the food or restaurant industry?
If you are thinking about starting your own thing, get experience in your dream places and learn the highs and lows of those businesses first. I opened a cookery school for another brand and worked for them for years after taking their courses, before finally decided to open my own. That experience gave me a lot of much needed insights.
I also believe you need a little naivety and deep faith in yourself to get going. If you overthink it to the point of not getting started then you aren’t ready. Work on your self: make sure you feel energised, prepared, and supported before you open the door.
Find the right team. You can’t be expected to do everything, although as small business owners we end up doing a lot. Don’t think small, and know that if social media or marketing or bookkeeping isn’t your thing, get help.
Stay true to your vision. It can be so easy when you have the idea to start something to get swayed in so many different directions, but if the end result isn’t what you initially wanted it may turn into something that you don’t have the passion for. Be clear about what you want and keep coming back to your why.