What does healthy eating look like?
Sophie Harris discovers the true meaning of ‘wellness’, with help from Little Beach House Malibu
What does ‘wellness’ mean to you? Does it mean a gaggle of toned young things in Lululemon yoga pants cooing over a smoothie? Is it yet another newspaper profile of an attractive heiress who’s opened a macrobiotic farm-to-table vegan restaurant? Or perhaps you think of wellness as something more personal: a way of life that you’ve found gives you more pep, more joy and better sleeping habits?
In a way, all of these interpretations are true. It’s just that not all of them are helpful. Healthy living is fashionable, which means it’s more easily available; nutrition books are on sale in the supermarkets and raw juice stands are popping up on high streets. But, when big businesses and self-proclaimed gurus jump on the trend, it can become comprised. Not all ‘wellness’ makes us well. So, which ideas should we follow? And which – just like our fancy new spiralizers – should we swiftly forget about?
The notion of wellness as a modern lifestyle concept arrived last decade via Hollywood celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow with her Goop site (typical quote: “I’ve been stung by bees. It’s a thousands-of-years old treatment”). In the UK we had the rather more fusty Gillian McKeith, who scrutinised her subjects’ stool samples on TV and moved in with families who weren’t adhering to her strict regimes. Wellness, back then, was decidedly the realm of cranks.
In 2016, however, wellness is seen as chic, relatively accessible and here to stay. Andrea Cavaliere is executive chef for Soho House & Co North America. “It’s a direction that will be here for good,” he says, on the phone from Cecconi’s, in London. “More and more people are aware of how what you eat has an impact on your health – physically but also mentally. So, I think restaurants are matching a demand.”
He remembers the days when vegetarianism was thought of as being extreme. “And now that’s just the way it is. In LA especially, vegetarianism is completely normal, and you almost become weird if you’re not!” But, as Cavaliere explains, the Soho House approach to food is not about responding to the pressure of fads. Rather, it’s all about well-sourced, super-fresh, imaginative dishes. For example, at Little Beach House Malibu the produce comes from local farms in the rugged mountains nearby, and the ocean that the house overlooks. Highlights of the summer menu include crispy artichokes with a squeeze of lemon and ‘green goddess’ herbs, squash served with blossom, black olives, pine nuts and tomato confit, and Avila Beach salmon with avocado, poppy seeds, citrus and nasturtium flowers. “It ticks all the boxes!” says Cavaliere. “It’s delicious and it’s fresh and it’s colourful – and also you know it’s good for you.”
Fresh Malibu produce might seem like a daydream when you’re in drizzly London, but wellness is very much a feature of the dining scene in Soho House’s original city. Hip new health restaurants are opening faster than you can say “wheatgrass” – the latest of which is Farmacy, a vegan joint run by Camilla Al-Fayed (daughter of Mohamed Al-Fayed). Other smiley and photogenic UK wellness superstars include Ella Woodward, 24, the daughter of supermarket heiress Camilla Sainsbury and the owner of the ‘Deliciously Ella’ blog-turned-cookbook series, and the self-styled ‘clean-eating’ siblings the Hemsley sisters (one of whom is a former model), who now have their own restaurant and TV series.
Strip back the gloss, however, and there is one expert who stands out as being, well, an actual expert. Amelia Freer has a stack of academic qualifications after her name. She’s respected for her knowledge and training, not her list of celebrity followers (although she does work with Sam Smith and James Corden). Freer’s book on everyday nutrition, Cook Nourish Glow, offers sensible advice and easy recipes, as well as insight into her own path to living healthily. Freer used to have a daily routine (working as PA to the Prince of Wales, no less) that left her frazzled, spotty and struggling to get to sleep at night. Fed up, she started studying nutrition and making changes to her routine.
She tells me that wellness means feeling symptom-free, at peace and able to live in the moment. “I have never seen anyone not feel happier when they have embraced a healthier lifestyle,” she says. There are some ideas that we associate with mindfulness that she also weaves into her approach: “Eating with grace involves making time to sit down, chew properly and relax while digesting – being present to really appreciate the textures, smells and taste of the food and observe how it makes us feel. This helps our digestive system and hence the absorption of nutrients.”
“I really don’t like the shame that so many people have around food,” she continues. “Enjoying food is nothing to be embarrassed about. When we have an awareness of what we’re eating and spend the majority of time eating well, we must choose to enjoy the times when we have a lovely slice of cake!”
Back in Malibu, the menus that Cavaliere and his team are designing are exciting not just because they use organic and locally sourced ingredients, but also because they’re absolutely delicious. Visitors to Little Beach House Malibu can tuck into snackier options, such as fish tacos, a burger or a pizza. “There’s nothing wrong with having pizza if it’s good quality and made with good ingredients,” Andrea says. “Of course it can be healthy, and also it’s good for your soul.” Accordingly, Eton mess in Malibu is vegan, and made with whipped coconut cream. So it’s official: you can have your cake and eat it.
So, what’s the takeaway from all this? (A wheat-free, naturopathic takeaway, of course.) True wellness is actually very simple. It’s about thoroughly looking after yourself, inside and out. For any wellness ‘plan’ to be effective, you’ll need to take a holistic approach; this means exercising regularly in a way that works for your body (not in binges or on hysterical plans like Insanity). While we all need to get enough sleep and drink enough water for our bodies to function well, there is no one-size-fits-all wellness plan, as all of our bodies have different needs. This means that there has to be some listening involved in figuring out a sustainable way of living.
For those who dine at Soho House every week – sometimes every day – Cavaliere makes sure his menus offer a healthy variety of dishes, in every sense. Consistency is your best buddy when it comes to living well. “Nothing changes in your body if you eat well for just one day, or go to the gym for one day,” he says. “And also nothing changes in your body if you eat a burger one day, or you get drunk one day – it’s what you do every day, and over the years that means you become healthy and clear in your mind. It’s a lifestyle.”
Sophie Harris is a writer and yoga teacher.