The food writer and chef Ella Woodward is just 24, but she is probably the most influential person cooking in Britain today.
It didn’t do too badly in the States either, where Woodward’s brand of laidback, Kilner jar veganism (a word, incidentally, so unsexy and old-fashioned that Ella never uses it once in our 30-minute conversation, preferring to reference a “plant-based diet”) made the New York Times bestseller list.
Her second book, Deliciously Ella Every Day, which is devoted to easier, everyday recipe ideas and lunchbox ideas, is to be published in America this week, and is expected to do even better, given a boost by her rocketing social-media profile.
Woodward’s blog has 60,000 subscribers, she has 650,000 Instagram followers, and 80,000 followers on Twitter who log on daily for tips and recipes for making those planty delights, such as Buddha Bowls, Energy Balls, and Goji Berry flapjacks.
Ella is the daughter of a controversial British MP named Shaun Woodward. Her father was sacked from the Tory party—and later defected to Tony Blair’s Labour party in 1999—in outrage at Tory opposition to Labour’s repeal of Section 28, a particularly mean-spirited and bigoted piece of anti-gay legislation.
He has been in the headlines again recently, having split with Ella’s mother, a Sainsbury heiress, and moved in with cameraman Luke Redgrave, 48, grandson of the late theatre legend Sir Michael Redgrave.
Although her father was essentially outed by the U.K. media without his consent, and has made no public statement, Woodward has said she is “cool” with her father’s new relationship, telling ES magazine, “Obviously it’s sad that [my parents] have split up, and not one of the easiest things to deal with, but my siblings and I feel that even if the transition is difficult, everyone will end up happier. Dad is happy. And to be honest that’s fundamentally what matters.”
Speaking from a hotel room in New York, where her U.S. marketing campaign is starting, I ask Woodward if she thinks that having grown up in an environment where being scrutinized by the media at every turn has helped her to cope with the extraordinary exposure she is now receiving.
“Yes, I do, actually. Growing up, it wasn’t really the easiest thing, but for what I am doing now I am actually incredibly grateful for what I learned through it. For me, I’ve got no interest in being a celebrity, and I have no interest in doing photographs going to this party or that. I did it because I want to communicate a message about food and the way that we eat. And I think I learned that approach from my dad.”
Five years ago, at university, Woodward was a long way from where she is today, dietarily speaking. She was living on Haribo candies and breakfast cereal, and rarely gave a thought to healthy eating.
But then she was diagnosed with a rare illness called Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS.
“It was back in 2011 that everything changed,” she says, “I was not a healthy eater at all. Up until that point, I was a student and a complete sugar addict.
“I would have eaten a lot of breakfast cereals, pesto, pasta, and a lot of candy and ice cream. I couldn’t really get through a day without it. But in 2011 I got really ill.
“I was in hospital for about four months and then, when I got the diagnosis for the condition, I was put on all kinds of medication and steroids and things which I started taking, but they didn’t have really much effect on me.
“After about six months of taking that, I was really, really struggling; both physically, of course, and mentally.
“I realized that this [the medication] wasn’t working and I needed to find a better way of dealing with the condition, so I started looking at different ways of managing it, alternative methods that other people had used. I was really inspired by lots of people I came across, who were managing various illnesses through diet and lifestyle.
“I kind of figured, you know, if it worked for them, then I might as well try it and see if it works. So I did.
“I changed my whole diet. It took a while for me to get into it and enjoy because I had been a cereal and pick ’n’ mix kind of girl up to then, so I didn’t really know what to cook or how to make things actually taste good.
“But as I started really experimenting and enjoying cooking, I started to realize that a more natural approach to food was much more delicious than I had ever given it credit for.”
After 18 months of her new diet, Woodward was able to come off all her medication.
“Since September 2013, I have been in a really good place with my health,” she says. “But I still have to be conscious about keeping it in that good place and taking care of myself.”
To keep herself focused and committed, Woodward began blogging about her new culinary adventures. On a whim, she entitled the blog, “Deliciously Ella.”
“The blog was my way of committing to actually sticking to it. I said I was going to put up three recipes a week, which meant I had to go and try all these new things rather than saying, ‘I will do it,’ and then never doing it.
“It is also good to have a hobby when you are sick and depressed, because really all I did before that was lie in bed and watch terrible TV, and you know there is something quite unsatisfying about doing that day after day after day.
“To start with, I made a lot of porridge. That was kind of my ‘go to.’ I would put banana and berries and things into it. The first sweet I cooked was brownies—almonds, pecans, dates, pecan powder, and maple syrup, and those I was so excited about because I tried them and I was like, ‘Oh my God, these actually taste good!’”
Woodward clearly thinks that as a society we are profoundly disconnected from what we eat.
“Everyone is so busy and so caught up in a hundred million different things,” she says, “And processed food is just everywhere, it has become so normal, that I don’t know if we think about it in the same way. There is so much added sugar in everything, and I don’t mean chocolate bars, I mean tins of tomatoes and pasta sauce and soup.”
Success such as Woodward has enjoyed inevitably comes with its own pressures. “I don’t have as much time to cook now as I did a year ago but I feel like I now have a better platform to communicate the message from.”
In December, Ella opened a “deli café” in London called Mae Deli, and a second one is due to open this summer.
Is there anywhere she is particularly interested in eating at in New York?
“The most exciting thing is the number of easy, healthy options you guys have here, lunch options, all the juice bars and everything— it makes it so much more accessible, so much easier. I hope London gets that someday too.”