Food at Heart and The Joy of Eating with Meredith Whitely
On self-nourishment, being an Australian living in the UK, and how she connects people to and through food with her business Food at Heart.
Today’s guest is Meredith Whitely. Meredith is a food and flavour lover who connects people to and through food. Her aim is to help people eat in a more mindful, conscious and delicious way. Meredith created Food at Heart and The Joy of Eating for anyone who enjoys exploring taste, discovering new flavours and getting creative in the kitchen but also wants to develop a more conscious way of eating and living.
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Hi, Meredith. Welcome to the show.
Hi, I’m so pleased to be here. Thanks very much for having me.
You are somebody who is from one part of the world, living in a different part of the world. Tell us about where you grew up and how it has influenced the work that you’re doing today.
Maybe as you can tell from my slightly wandering accent, I am Australian but I’ve lived in the UK for quite some time. Sometimes people can’t quite work out where I’m from. I grew up in Perth in Western Australia, which is a relatively sizeable city. It is probably maybe not as urban as some other cities but it has that balance of outdoors and city life. That’s very much influenced the food that I eat now, especially having grown up in a house where food was important. I had a mum who was a very fantastic cook. I also had access to all the really wonderful seasonal ingredients you can get a hold of in Australia. Even from a really early age, I had a sense of when things were in and out of season. When we used to have cyclones that would suddenly bump the price of food up. It was just a really different way of eating and certainly very different to what the impression of the UK was like in the 1970s, because I was born in the 1970s. I suspect the cuisine was a little bit different in Perth.
Where are you living today?
I live just outside London. I lived in London for a large number of years. I love London and I love cities. I actually get really excited and inspired by cities. It was interesting because actually for quite a lot of my childhood, I lived outside of the city. I lived in country towns. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like it that much because I always found a lot more inspiration with the people around me in the city. As a natural thing, as you get a little bit older, I need to have the balance of the city and the not so city life.
Tell us a little bit about the work that you do and how London inspires it.
I work with food. I have a few different ways of helping people connect to and through food. One of those is an online program called The Joy of Eating, which basically takes people through the senses and being more connected and more mindful and how you can start using them in cooking in really interesting ways. I also run cooking workshops and one-to-one sessions. Actually, a lot of my sessions are in London because there are more people there, people looking for interesting and different things but also because London has a really exciting food scene. You do get that in other cities as well but I just love even going to markets in London because you get to see all these people doing incredible things with food and flavours and all the people enjoying eating the food. That’s one of the other things I really love. I love seeing people enjoying food because I enjoy food so much as well. That was really what gave me the drive to start my business because I just want to help as many people as possible really enjoy food.
That leads on really beautifully to your burnout story and how that has lead you to running this business and having that passion that you’ve just described for helping people.
I’ve always cooked from a really, really early age. My mum is an amazing cook. We were in the kitchen with her from the time we were very little, mostly with baking. Baking was definitely my gateway to more cooking. It was something that always filled my spare time. My working career was not at all related to food. I studied Law in university. I didn’t actually end up becoming a lawyer. I ended up working, of course natural transition to music industry, not connected at all, but that was my job when I moved to London. I then worked in a big market research company for a while. I worked in public sector doing strategic marketing and then luckily worked in an e-commerce firm. All sorts of different environments and all quite high pressure in their different ways as well. For me, cooking filled pretty much all my spare time. I would go to cooking classes. I was going to food events. I was cooking in my kitchen at home and just exploring and playing around. I would really notice the times that I was particularly stressed and working long hours, I really felt the need to cook. It’s amazing. You can keep yourself going even when your body is telling you to stop. I always knew I wanted to run my own business but I never felt quite brave enough. I was always quite enjoying the jobs I was in as well because they were interesting and they were good jobs. There was something that was quite missing.
Eventually after almost 20 years of working for other people, I actually thought I was okay, and then my digestion, which has always been a little bit dodgy, it just knocked me sideways. I’m looking back, I can now see that actually there were loads of small things in my personal and my work life that all just added up to my digestion falling apart essentially. I went through a really, really difficult six to 12 months, which a lot of food I was finding it very difficult to eat. I was having very severe reactions to it. That’s really hard for someone who enjoys eating and who has always eaten very well. I’ve always cooked a lot from scratch. I eat organic. I eat with the season. I’ll be honest, it felt a little hard done by.
Again, now looking back, I can see it was this real blessing in disguise because while I’ve been doing bits and pieces of doing things like Tai Chi and meditation from time to time, I hadn’t really been stepping back and being honest with myself about some creative needs and personal needs around slowing down. I’m quite a high-energy person. It can lead me to being quite over stimulated. My body really forced me to just stop. I had to look at all things with the way I was eating, the food I was eating, and my work because that fills up so much of your day. In taking that step back, I realized that now was the right time to take my next step. Actually, all those issues that I’d had around food and eating were what built my business. While it was a really, really horrendous almost eighteen months, without that, I wouldn’t have developed what I’ve done with Food at Heart.
That’s such a familiar story for many of us, that we push our bodies pass the point of no return in one sense. We don’t listen to what it’s trying to tell us. When we’re forced to stop and when we then recalibrate, all these fantastic insights emerge. It’s really important. Much the same as you, it’s only in retrospect that you can acknowledge what a powerful, significant moment or period in your life that time of burnout was. It certainly is the case for me. Meredith, these days, as someone who’s running her own business and who is living outside of London but working in London a lot, how do you make sure you avoid burnout these days?
What you don’t quite realise is that it’s very idealistic when you first step out of your job and you think, “This is amazing, I’m working for myself.” Of course, working for yourself is also really difficult but there’s something very different when you can shape the rhythm of your own days. I still don’t always get it right. Quite often, I don’t. Again, it has been a real testing and learning experience for me. There are a few things that I know that I need to do on a regular basis. I am someone that needs to meditate regularly, not for long periods of time, but I do try to meditate a good few times a week. I do a lot of my personal writing. I walk, which is really important. Also, more recently, I’d been spending a lot of time in London because I find London really exciting. As I said, I find it very inspiring.
Actually, I wasn’t really giving myself enough downtime to just be with myself. Again, while working for yourself can sometimes be very lonely and isolating, so it’s important to have a balance of being with people and being on your own. I was just over stimulating myself. I’m now deliberately working from home more often, giving myself time to if I need to have a quiet day, have a quiet day because. My business is all about listening to your body and being in tune with your senses. I need to really live that myself as well. Knowing that sometimes it’s much easier than others. I’ve got a lot better recognising the warning signs. Again, not always but you get a little better at reading some of the signals and trying to be a little kinder to yourself. Again, that could be really difficult at times as well because you just want to do everything.
In a world where there’s always so many things going on, that’s the blessing and the curse of being around big cities, because you’ve got all these opportunities and all this wonderful stuff you could be doing. Actually, if you do it all, you will burnout again. That’s been a pretty hard lesson for me to learn. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now. In the beginning, especially as you’re trying to formulate your business, you just say yes to so many things because it’s the right thing to do as you’re exploring as well. You also need to work out the things that do and don’t work for you. The things that do actually genuinely inspire you and the things that are a bit more ho-hum. Again, you’re going through that next stage of working out what is right for you at this stage in your life. It is just a matter of trying a few things but just making sure that there’s some level of quiet reflection time, whatever that means for you.
You mentioned there: meditation, writing, and walking. Would you tell us a little bit more about your meditation practice and any tips or recommendations you might be able to share for our listeners?
I actually use just really simple things on YouTube. For example, I’ve searched morning mindfulness meditation. There are a couple I found that I really like. I haven’t actually done a lot of meditation into previous life and all sorts of guides, particularly when I did Tai Chi. Finding those things that do and don’t work for you. I actually quite like guided meditations. For me, I find that quite helpful just to keep me focused because I am someone with a wandering brain, as with so many people. I am definitely a wandering mind person. Very occasionally, I’ll feel the need to do it longer. For me, probably a longer meditation is more of a walking outside meditation because I’ve got the benefit of living outside of London. Again, you can do it in green spaces in London. I find somewhere there’s a green space and I walk very deliberately without thinking about work and just let my mind a little bit loose. Those are the two things.
I should’ve mentioned actually, probably it is really important for me, funny enough, it is cooking. Cooking is the other thing for me to do. I also have to make sure that I find time to do fun cooking, which is for me and not for my business. Because it is a little bit different when I’m doing things which is business-related. I’m doing it with a slightly different purpose. I try and make sure, particularly baking actually, I do some stuff which is purely just for me and for fun, for enjoyment and for creative release.
I love cooking for people. I love making stuff to give to people. This is the thing with food. It has been this creative conduit for me. I just love that whole connecting thing with people, being able to give food to people. Even my next-door neighbour, she works in a local health food store. I was down there the other week buying some ingredients for my workshops and I happened to mention what I was doing. I had some stuff leftover from one of the testing recipes that I’d done for my workshop. She and one lady she worked with ended up popping pass my house later that evening to take some of the samples I had, which was lovely. It’s really nice. I’ve got to meet a new person. I’ve got to have another chat with my neighbour who I don’t always see. Food is just such a powerful thing in our lives in so many different ways.
It’s finding the way to channel that in a constructive way and one that is nourishing for both our body and soul. That’s really important. One of the things about your work that I really, really love is your flavour experimentation and how you help people on your workshops to really get daring and have fun and to not have any attachment to whether these two odd items that you wouldn’t naturally pair with each other have no attachment to what the outcome might be. Will you tell us a little bit more about that and how you encourage your participants to have fun?
This is the thing. I love food. Sometimes, we can be a bit serious about food. People watch television programs and they almost feel like they need to create these picture-perfect menus all the time. That’s great to do sometimes. I love Instagram as much as the next person. The kitchen is just a space to have a load of fun. One of the things that makes of food really delicious but also makes cooking really fun is just really playing around with ingredients and seeing how they go together. Some of that comes through understanding the senses and even things like the basic tastes and understanding flavours and things that will naturally go together. But you need to start trying things to work stuff out. The fact that most people get really surprised that dried fruit and some dried herbs and a little bit of salt will go together in something sweet. That’s something I would put on chocolate. Basically, what I would do in my workshops is, depending on the theme, I do a lot of chocolate workshops, not just chocolate but that’s my most popular one, funny enough. That’s a great ingredient to match. It’s one of my favourite ingredients too. I turn up, I will have my chocolate and then I’ll bring along my box of tricks, which has got herbs and dried fruits and nuts and seeds and seaweed and sumac and all sorts of amazing herbs and spices.
I give people a little bit of guidance just as a starting point on how to taste and to try a few things, make a few suggestions of what they could put together, but then pretty much just letting people go wild. It’s like when you see children in the kitchen and they don’t have inhibitions and they’ll give things a go. As adults, we can really benefit from tapping into that because you might not like everything, but you might discover that something that you really love as well. Again, you don’t have to love everything but it’s really important to give things a go and see what you can do. If you’re not really stuck with the food that you’re cooking, it starts to open your mind to some different things that you could use. Even if it’s the same dish you’ve cooked a million times, just adding a squeeze of lemon or putting a different herb and it can really, really change the taste of it. It’s about fun and play. Ultimately, it’s just making some food that tastes really good as well.
What I really think is great about the work that you do is that it’s of benefit to people who are cooks and who are not cooks. It’s of benefit to urbanites who may live in a place where there’s a tiny kitchen that’s ill-equipped or in fact they live in a shared house. You can do these flavour experimentations on a really micro level and have such great fun with it. I love it. In more detail, please, tell us about the chocolate workshops that you run.
I just adore chocolate. I use a beautiful British brand called Pump Street, something called a bean to bar brand. They buy the cocoa beans direct from the estates actually. They make the chocolate from scratch. We use that chocolate to taste because helpfully, the way that you taste chocolate as a professional is pretty much the same way that you learn about mindful eating. It’s a very happy coincidence. I’m quite pleased it worked out that way. It uses all the senses. When you’re tasting chocolate as a professional and someone who’s comparing lots of chocolates, you would taste it in the same way as you would do with mindful eating practice. People always have a bit of tasting. I would teach people how to taste. We’ll then try it with a few different combinations of some flavours that I’ve set, like a tiny little bit of Himalayan Pink Salt with dark chocolate, which is delicious, and then something sweet with it. You can taste the difference of putting saltiness with the chocolate and sweetness with the chocolate. Explore my crazy box of tricks and how they can go with chocolates. Then we will always make something in the class.
It’s actually summer here at the moment; I have a slightly different menu because chocolate will melt so I’m doing things like a dark sea salt caramel sauce and we’re doing a lovely no-bake slice. Actually, cacao nib pestos, using cacao nibs and chocolate in savoury dishes. During the winter, we will make truffles and little fins. They’re really beautiful as a way to use different colours and flavours. Because chocolate has got such a dark colour, once you start adding things like freeze-dried raspberries for example, they really pop. There are a whole lot of beautiful things that you can do with it.
Chocolate is a really good base to be starting with because it’s beautiful to eat on its own but it’s also a really, really beautiful ingredient to match with other flavours. It has hundreds of flavour compounds so it’s more complex than red wine in that respect. There’s just a lot that you can do with it. It’s a very creative ingredient. With one little proviso, that is using good quality predominantly dark chocolate. One of the other things that I really care about introducing too is the difference in quality of what happens when you’re eating either it’s something that’s organic or sustainable or a really good quality artisan product and why those things cost a bit more and why the taste is so much better. There’s always an element of eating in silence. We’ll always make something in the class that we will sit and eat for a few minutes in total silence just to be together and to really, really focus on the taste and that extra layer of pleasure that you get when you’re actually tasting food properly.
I found on the workshop that I did with you, that eating in silence part, I find the idea of it excruciating but the reality of it was just thrilling and liberating. I really, really got to enjoy all of the sensations, the crunch, the flavours and being together in this communal setting. The eating in silence was actually really, really mindful practice. I found it really helped me enjoy the food better but it also meant that my brain signalled when I was full and all of those positive things. A simple tip that I’ve taken away from the workshop is to set my cutlery back down in the table in between bites. That has made a huge, huge difference to the quantities that I want to eat. There’s almost something reverential about that. “I’m placing these back down because in this moment I’m concentrating on the mouthful that I’m chewing at present. I don’t need to hold this cutlery in my hand.” I found that was a really helpful tip that you taught me.
Part of that’s also a real respect for the production of food, especially something like chocolate but not even just chocolate. I do salad workshops and other things like that. There’s a lot of care and effort that goes in producing our food. Sometimes, because a lot of our shopping is now really done in the supermarkets, we don’t always have that connection with the food and the producers and where it’s coming from. Even just giving it that little bit more time and taste, it’s just giving that little bit more respect to our food and where it comes from and remembering that. It’s interesting because I now do that very naturally because I’ve been doing classes for a while. I naturally now put my knife and fork down when I’m eating between mouthfuls. I eat much more slowly, which is probably not great for the people around me. I find that my husband is eating and he’ll have more food than me and he’s finished and I’m only halfway through my dinner. I genuinely taste so much more. I’ve always had a pretty decent palate. With the chocolate and the way that I’ve been eating, I’ve really improved my palate and I can taste a lot more and I notice a lot more in food in ways that I just didn’t before.
Speaking about food that’s seasonal and that’s local, what’s your attitude around food miles, especially somebody who is from Australia, on the other side of the world, and is here in London in the UK? Tell us a little bit more about your thoughts on that.
It’s a really complex area. Without going into the full complexities of it, ideally the best thing that I try to do is eat as locally, as seasonally as possible. However, sometimes things actually can come from a long way and be more sustainable, particularly if they come by boat. Food miles is not actually always the best measure of whether something is sustainable. A pretty safe tip is to eat with the seasons and eat stuff that’s grown locally wherever you are, then you’ve got to be doing a pretty good thing. That’s a good starting point. If you’re starting to eat things out of season or if you’re eating things, which are tropical like bananas, which you can’t just grow in the UK for example, it’s looking for better ways for them to have been shipped. That’s where you can start using things like veggie box deliveries. You know that they will have been responsible instead of finding places where you know they’ll have been sustainably collected and delivered.
For me, I try and go seasonal and local as much as possible. I grow a few of my own things. I’m a bit of a fair-weather gardener. I’ve been more successful with some things than others but that’s obviously like the absolute ideal. I have an apple tree in my front garden, which is amazing because that’s always zero food mile, obviously not always achievable in the city environment. You can grow pots on your windowsill and things like that. Going to farmer’s markets is a really good place to start as well. There are some really fantastic companies that are helping you navigate that stuff. Companies like Farmdrop, for example, places like The Food Assembly, which are online marketplaces that you can buy things from. They’re all from local producers, so within a mile range. It’s looking for those things and starting to get to know the people that are producing and selling things. That’s how you find out. You need to be a little bit curious because sustainability is a big, big issue. It’s a bit complicated issue. It can sometimes put people off because it’s so complicated. Even if it is complex overall, there are still small steps that you can do at a local level that really make a difference.
Starting with seasonal, starting with as local as possible when things are in season, but also finding places where you can talk to people and you can find out and just grow your knowledge so that you don’t have to feel like you’re guessing about things and just saying, “It’s too complicated. I’m not going to do anything.” That’s a bit of a copout. One of the parts that I talk to people about with conscious eating is it is really being curious about not just what you’re tasting and the flavours but where your food comes from, because that’s really, really important. I want to be able to keep eating in the future. I want our children’s children’s children to still be able to eat decent food in the future as well. We need to be responsible about it.
Meredith, if somebody was coming to London for the first time, where would you send them for something that they absolutely must do or see or taste?
I know this is a bit of a dodgy thing on a weekend because Borough Market is very, very busy. I would send them to south London. I would get them to do a big walk from Borough Market and maybe get a coffee in Borough Market or get there very, very early. Actually, Borough Market is better during the week. To do a big walk along the food markets going to Maltby Street Market and Druid Street Market and then Spa Terminus. That’s just a really interesting stretch of London that’s been re-developed. Certainly, I’ve lived in and around London for 19 years. Now there are these really thriving places that attract all sorts of different people as well, which is fascinating. You get to see the people as well as the food. That stretch from London Bridge over to Spa Terminus, is just really, really cool.
During the week, wandering in and around little areas like the chocolate Brick Lane and into Shoreditch and even the top of Fitzrovia, north of Oxford Street. There are these really cool pockets of places popping up with little cafés. I’m very pleased that there are now many, many good places to get coffee. That was not the case when I first came to London. That is a huge relief for me. Find little chocolate shops. Find little boutique places and some really interesting ingredients in foods that they really specialize in. Buy yourself a macaroon or a single chocolate or something like that, something that’s a real treat that you’re really going to savour as well. You don’t need to get yourself a family sized bar of Galaxy or Cadbury Dairy Milk, you can get that anywhere. You go to London and you can visit places like Rococo or there are places like Paul A Young right in the middle of Soho. They have amazing flavours, endlessly inspiring. A little secret tip for London, there’s a chocolate counter and pastry counter at the back of Yauatcha in the middle of Soho. You can actually go in and buy loose chocolates and pastries. The restaurant is also very nice. That’s just a little chocolate tip if you’re into chocolate and pastries.
I would love to know how somebody who’s listening today might be able to learn more about your work even though they may not be in the UK and they may not be able to attend one of your live workshops.
I have my website FoodAtHeart.co.uk. The main part of my business now is my online program, The Joy of Eating. That really brings together a lot of the things that I’ve talked about today working through the different senses, how they’re involved in taste, how you can start using them in the kitchen, how you can start thinking about conscious purchasing and eating and then eating things in a more conscious and mindful way. That’s all online. I even have a free course for people that want to get a little taste test of what I’m doing. It’s called 5 Days and 5 Senses. It’s just little tiny activities to go through.
One of the things that amazes me about food and even though I’m doing these most days, I’m still so much surprised how I find these little stop moments that you can give yourself in your day, whether it’s taking a couple of breaths before you pause and eat, sitting for a minute with a cup of tea just on your own or even at your desk somewhere quiet. One of the things I was talking about this week is my little biscuit recipe that I’ve made. Making some biscuits and sitting down with a little biscuit and just really eating it with thought and love and really enjoying it. You can find all of this stuff on my website. The Joy of Eating is very much because I wanted to spread the message beyond people that are just able to work with me one-to-one or in my workshops. This is applicable for anyone that lives anywhere in the world pretty much because our senses are our senses. It doesn’t really matter whether you live in a city or in the countryside. I’m really interested in what you can do with ingredients and flavours that you can get locally and trying those things out.
That’s a good point to ask you a quick question around travel and the importance of travel on your well-being but also how it influences your work.
I love travelling. I always have done that. I don’t know whether that’s the slight wanderlust that maybe comes with being Australian. We just naturally seem to want to travel possibly part because we have such a large country so you can actually travel quite a long distance and a long way and not get very far. It was interesting because I had a year where I actually didn’t really travel at all when I first set out my business. By the end of that year, I was just desperate to go and see other places because I find the cuisine and people’s culture and the way people use food and live just endlessly inspiring. It’s also good to put your own life in some perspective sometimes as well. I’ve had the privilege of travelling through most of the continents actually. Unfortunately, I haven’t made it to Antarctica yet or the South Pole is still on my list of places to visit at some point maybe in the future. Having travelled around places like India and parts of Southeast Asia and South America, I get really, really inspired by the flavours and seeing how people prepare food, but also seeing how food is part of people’s lives and the way that they use it, even the generosity of sharing it as well.
You’d learn a lot about a culture through the food and the way that they eat. It’s just the flavours. I love the flavours of travelling. I really like food in the UK. As I said, London has got a really amazing food scene. It’s great because you can actually access so many different cuisines now. You don’t have to travel halfway around the world to eat really good food. But there’s something really different about eating a food in a place that it’s from, in warm temperature. That’s always nice. As much as possible, I do try and go to cooking classes when I’m traveling as well. You get to see the way that things are made. I always bring back little tips. I was in Vietnam recently for a big birthday, I won’t mention which one it was. They had this amazing thing which was a morning glory cutter which morning glories are these very thin stalks in a lot of Vietnamese food. They have huge, huge amounts of flavour but they’re crispy and nice. This amazing little cutter that just sliced things, I was like, “Wow. You could use that with spring onions. That’s so exciting.” I guess I was the most excited person in their class about discovering this new cutter that I’ve never come across.
I like seeing the way that people use their hands in the preparation of food as well because it’s just a little bit different with different countries and the way they use foods and flavours. I always tend to bring back little packets of herbs or spices or something when I’ve been traveling around. It’s important but it’s also important for anyone who’s running a business to have that physical time away. It’s very all-encompassing. Particularly when you’re doing something that you really love. It can be difficult because you don’t want to step away from it but having that physical distance is really, really important. That’s even in the UK. I love travelling around the UK even within a very short geographical space. You go up North and you see different food and different names and things prepared in different ways. It’s not like you have to travel a long way to experience it either. But I think it’s really important to do that from a personal and a business perspective really.
Meredith, our last question is: What are you curious about right now?
The thing that I’m particularly curious about is, I have a very small back garden. I am redesigning it at the moment because it was looking not particularly fantastic. I’m looking at all sorts of different plants that I can put in there. I’m going to be doing a load of edibles. Previously I’ve grown fruits and vegetables and things like that. I’m actually wanting to explore some more unusual herbs and things with flowers that I can use so I can have some more edible flowers because I love the colours of those. I’m just in the point of researching all sorts of different plants. Some will be edible, some won’t be. I want to have a real sensory garden. I’m really, really excited about that. It will help me also maybe be a little bit more determined with my gardening and not give halfway through. I’m hoping. This is the thing; I just love learning so much. I love learning new things all the time. I’m really excited about the thought of being able to just step out my back door and grab some unusual flavours that I don’t usually use fresh in my cooking. Sometimes I’ll have dried versions. I want to play around with those. I’m really, really looking forward to doing that.
Meredith, it’s been so much fun to talk to you today. Thanks very much for being on the Urban Curiosity podcast.
You’re so welcome. Thank you very much for having me.