Ian Theasby and Henry Firth on veganism, sustainability and ‘Peaky Blinders’.
It’s 5pm on a particularly rainy Cheltenham day. The weather, however, doesn’t threaten the busy warmth of Montpellier Gardens, dotted with white tents and brimming with literary energy. I meet Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, better known as ‘BOSH!’, in The Ivy. I’m greeted with a hug by both and a drink, a special concoction of amaretto and bourbon amongst other things; it’s delicious (and strong) and I feel bad for taking out my laptop to begin the interview. It doesn’t quite fit in with the flower arrangements and martini glasses; it’s a little conspicuous, not traditional.
Luckily, though, my embarrassed laptop exposing conundrum isn’t something that worries Henry and Ian. Themselves conspicuous in the food world as we know it, and definitely not traditional in the way they think about lifestyle and cusine, I feel at ease. ‘BOSH!’ are pair of self-confessed ‘food remixers’ passionate about easy, accessible, delicious vegan dishes. The BOSH! partnership began to sprout at the end of 2014, when Ian decided to try out veganism for health reasons. Originally giving up alcohol, then meat, veganism seemed a logical progression: ‘By the end of February 2015, I was like, veganism is the way, so I’m gonna give it a whirl, and it’s turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done.’ Henry however, who ‘spent a long time mocking Ian’, found his views changed after watching the documentary ‘Cowspiracy’. Its striking statistics about climate change proved the deciding factor in his switch to the plant-based lifestyle. I wondered whether Ian’s reasons for go- ing vegan had changed in the four years since his decision: ‘Initially, the health was fantastic and the animals I really care about, but finding out about how bad animal agriculture is for the environment was a trigger for me… it’s like three pillars, all as important as each other’.
I ask whether they found existing vegan communities after their transition or whether they had to forge their own. ‘There were communities online but they were fairly new’, Ian says, and in the meet- up groups that did exist at the time, ‘the general trend was quite strict, a closed circle with high standards and quite a lot of judgement’. It’s for this reason that BOSH! prides itself on new, innovative ways of being vegan; that kind of attitude’s ‘not their bag’. Henry and Ian laud ‘a new approach to what vegan means’, pushing for acceptance as ‘one of the key tools’ to bring people on the journey to becoming vegan. The ‘BOSH!’ channel, vegan nights in London and ‘Vevolution’, the UK’s ‘leading plant-powered positive change festival’, Henry suggests, are just a small sample of ‘friendly’ vegan community spaces becoming more and more prevalent.
Vegan influencers in the calibre of those like Ellen Fisher and other ‘well- ness’ vegans we see in huge number today were few, if around at all, four years ago at the beginning of their journey: ‘there weren’t that many knocking around… more famous people like Woody Harrelson and Natalie Portman.’ It’s hard to believe that such a radical change in approach to this lifestyle in the public psyche has taken less than five years. The growth is exponential, and with guys like ‘BOSH!’ on the vegan scene, there is little evidence of it slowing down any time soon. Ian makes sure to give a shout-out to Kip Andersen, the director of ‘Cowspiracy’ and the creator of a catalyst for many vegans deciding to make their first foray. ‘He wasn’t necessarily a famous vegan, but what he created is special… a really important movie.’
‘BOSH!’’s cooking influences are not, however, restricted to vegans. An enthu- siastic Ian mentions that the two of them have always been inspired by Jamie Oliver:
‘Not because he’s vegan, but because he is a cultural icon and a legend of our times. You can walk into basically anywhere in the UK and say to anyone: ‘have you heard of Jamie Oliver?’ and the answer will be ‘yes’. We think about it like it’s nothing, but it’s incredible what he’s done to normalise home-cooking, and the amount of energy and effort he put into regulating how school dinners are served in the United Kingdom.’
Henry and Ian’s partial brand-modelling on Jamie Oliver is pleasingly evident. They have the same relaxed air of relatability and friendliness; smiley demeanours and obvious passion go a long way in creating the sense that veganism doesn’t have to banish you to the other end of the table pushing around a dry salad with your fork. Vegans like Henry and Ian are just ‘normal guys’, as suited to a pint at the pub with mates as to a vegan cocktail at the Ivy. They are passionate about normalising vegan cooking, and want it to be accessible for the day-to-day home-cook with a 9-5 job.
‘Nowadays everybody is time poor, we live in a really metropolitan society. We’ve got this crazy world of work, and technology that means you’re never less than 30 seconds away from a notification. We commute further, we have to go to the gym now… people have less and less time. A large proportion of people don’t know what they’re having for dinner tonight. So, both food and recipes now need to be quick and easy, and they need to be able to be made with a handful of ingredients… no weird quirky ingredients, no purple sprouting broccoli or blue spirulina. Generally, keep it simple, no nonsense, and not too technical either’.
Henry and Ian are obvious advocates for giving plant-based home cooking a go, whatever your level of talent and experience. I mention to them that my family and I make the mushroom wellington from one of their cookbooks for Christmas, and their reaction is gratifyingly enthusiastic. It’s a recipe that seems technical, but isn’t really. So many of BOSH!’s recipes can look daunting at first glance, but further investigation demonstrates how easy the ingredients are to find and how drama-free following the recipe is. I don’t doubt that a Christmas turkey can be an area of family contention, but the wellington proved a blissfully serene experience in my household, and went down extremely well(ington.)
Ian’s favourite ‘BOSH!’ recipe continues the mushroom-talk. Their ultimate chilli uses mushroom instead of mince: ‘you can have it as a chilli with rice, you can have it on nachos, and it’s absolutely delicious, really hearty flavours.’ Fish tacos made with tofu at Shoreditch’s Club Mexicana get a special mention. Club Mexicana’s website tag-line has a distinctly ‘BOSH!’ feel: ‘if you’re looking for chick peas and chia seeds, you’re in the wrong place.’
Henry has a slightly different answer: ‘I’m bored of hearing myself say lasagne.’ His choice of aquafaba meringue (meringues made from chickpea-can water) is particularly interesting. ‘It’s so bonkers, it looks like a magic trick. You see this brown and murky liquid that looks kind of disgusting, something you’d normally pour away, froth up into a beautiful white foam.’ Henry’s decision to veer away from the classic ‘BOSH!’ brand, choosing an ingredient unheard of by most, threatens to contradict their own philosophy of avoiding exotic, elusive ingredients. However, Henry stresses how easy this recipe is, and the satisfaction of the result. The aquafaba meringues are a paradigm of these recipes that appear complicated but really take minutes.
I ask them how they approach people more resistant to veganism. The night before the interview, I had watched Henry and Ian being interviewed by Piers Morgan on ‘Good Morning Britain’. Morgan ‘debates’ in inflammatory soundbites, often entering the territory of insolence, seemingly for the sake of it. The knee-jerk reaction against veganism by some, whose perception of the lifestyle is restricted to a limited sample size, is something that Henry and Ian are no strangers to.
‘Kill them with kindness is a good motto, but also having a thick skin, and knowing that no one can upset you without your permission… I think just getting used to where people might be coming from. Being kind and respectful of their difference of opinion while being confident in your view without necessarily ramming it down their throat; there’s no such thing as one reality in anything, everything’s shades of grey.’
Yes, Henry says, the people that argue the unsustainability of avocado farming for farmers in South America have a point. Henry and Ian are strong advocates for local, seasonal food, and are keen to bridge the gaps in these ideological divides with calm, informed conversation: you need to ‘be kind and stay calm.’
As resident vegan oracles, I ask Henry and Ian what they predict about the future of the vegan community. ‘In the last four years, it’s gone from no one thinking about it to so many people thinking about it’, Ian says, ‘and not just thinking about it, doing something about it.’ He’s right, that Google Trends shows the popularity of veganism going up and up with no signs of abating. He adds: ‘If that trend continues, I can see veganism becoming a societal norm.’ As Ian suggests, veganism is the norm for a lot of people already. ‘Think about smoking’, Henry adds. In the not too distant past, smoking was a cultural norm, whereas now, its popularity is minimal in comparison. We’re thinking ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’; it’s interesting to consider something that used to be so commonplace has become a rarity. This, Henry and Ian predict, is the future of meat-eating. ‘We go from nearly everyone smoking to hardly anyone smoking… maybe it’ll look more like that.’ People will definitely still eat eggs, Henry says, and probably meat, but ‘we will see it become normal to eat vegan food a lot of the time.’ This, Ian adds, is facilitated in part by pioneering efforts of companies such as ‘Beyond Meat’, and supermarkets making a concerted effort to produce more and more varied, imaginative plant-based food.
‘BOSH!’ are already making huge leaps on the vegan scene, and their own upward trajectory doesn’t seem to be abating, either. Among a number of other exciting projects, we can look forward to ‘BOSH!’’s food not only on screen and in their hugely successful cookbooks, but also on the shelves: ‘We’re working on getting food on shelves, for everybody. It’ll be affordably priced, delicious, sustainably packaged, all the good stuff.’
Putting a face to the disembodied hands of ‘BOSH!’’s tutorial videos was a delight; Henry and Ian are a shining example of fighting their cause with compassion and love. Their enthusiasm is palpable and inspiring.