Ella Woodward is one of the foremost food bloggers in the UK. Hundreds of thousands of people follow her passionate views, recipes and usage tips on a plant-based diet, which can’t be a bad thing for the fresh produce industry. She was one of the star turns at the inaugural Write on Kew literary festival, which was sponsored by Love Sweet Potatoes, a campaign funded by Scott Farms International, the UK’s largest importer of sweet potatoes. Produce Business UK was there to see Ella interviewed on stage in front of 350 of her blog fans by TV producer and novelist Olivia Lichtenstein
Having written Deliciously Ella, the fastest-selling debut cookbook in British publishing history, Definitely Ella Every Day is due to launch in January 2016 and Woodward can confidently expect her new offering to vie for the title of fastest-selling second cookbook.
For a woman who recently owned up to living off breakfast cereal and pick ‘n’ mix sweets for two years while she was a student and who also readily admits that just a few years ago, “I wasn’t really interested in food”, “I was a horrific cook” and “healthy eating was the worst thing ever”, that’s pretty impressive stuff. But what lies behind Deliciously Ella and what has drawn literally millions of people to follow her and her views on food?
Ella, who is the daughter of Camilla Sainsbury, the supermarket heiress, was studying at St Andrews University when in 2011 she was diagnosed with a rare and chronic health condition, Postural Tachycardia Syndrome. Attempts to cure the debilitating condition with conventional medicine made no headway, and research led the self-confessed sugar monster Ella to pursue an extreme plant-based diet. She began blogging about her actions and experiences and her following has grown so rapidly that a hugely successful business has grown off the back of it.
“When I started blogging, I couldn’t cook,” she says. “I was naturally a bit lazy, so I could boil an egg, cook some pasta, that type of thing. I didn’t like fruit and vegetables. I didn’t know what to do with them. But starting the blog was a commitment – it meant I had to do it.
“The more I read about it, the more I believed,” she recalls. “There were definitely times when I lost my inspiration, but reading always brought it back.”
When she built up followers quickly, Ella was still putting the numbers down to her reasonably wide network of friends and contacts, but when she began to see random people in far-off places such as the Philippines log in to her WordPress site, she cottoned on to a trend. “I realised I didn’t know anyone in the Philippines,” she laughs. “That was in the summer of 2013 and I knew then something was happening.”
Way of life
Since then, what had by now become a passion and a way of life has sprouted wings. But it retains its founding philosophy.
“I didn’t grow by mistake, of course, but I never imagined [my life] to be like it is now,” Ella says. “It doesn’t fit with my personality that I’ve become some kind of public figure at all.”
Intelligent use of social media, she says, has been the key driver. Ella counts followers now in the hundreds of thousands and monthly hits in their millions. But it is not without its challenges. “Social media is mind-blowing in so many ways. It has been incredible for me, but it’s also difficult. You can compare yourselves and comment on so many people you know absolutely nothing about. Nobody really goes on Twitter to say how sad they are or what made them cry – it’s an edited snapshot of reality.”
The audience at Kew was heavily populated by women of around the same age as Ella and it was easy to see why her easy, self-deprecating manner, at least on stage, is inspiring so many. “I was always quite awkward, so the idea of running my own company, creating a cookbook, doing events like this, doing yoga or signing up to a half marathon. I’m so much happier now than I was and probably happier than if I hadn’t gone through everything I went through.”
A plant-based diet is not suited to everyone, Ella says, and despite the fairly extreme lengths she has gone to, in order to turn her own life around, her tone throughout the interview at Write on Kew was certainly more the friendly advisor than radical food preacher.
A balanced life and exercise are as important as food, she says. “You can eat as much kale as you want. But if you don’t sleep, you’re stressed and you don’t move, then kale can only do so much.
“Healthy eating can get faddy, so it is often associated with being expensive. For me, it is just about eating something natural that makes me feel good. But there has to be a balance, it has to work for you and your life. I want healthy eating to be something that people enjoy doing; not something that’s a burden, or stressful.
“Saying healthy eating is expensive is inaccurate. It might seem it, but I eat black beans and sweet potato on a daily basis and it just isn’t expensive. Some of the more weird or exotic ingredients may seem a bit more out of your reach, but for me it’s more about the carrots and oats than the spirulina and superfoods. It’s about the easy weekly suppers and the lunches for work and not using too much equipment. Simplifying everything completely is [the way to go].
“Even if you start by adding one portion of fruit or vegetable to every meal – that’s a tiny thing but over the course of a week, that could be 21 more portions,” Ella adds. “You don’t have to chuck everything out overnight, just introduce more healthy food into your diet and hopefully over time you will feel better and be uplifted – it’s a nice cycle.
“I think once people realise it’s not hippy and weird [to eat healthily], but it actually tastes good, then suddenly it becomes more appealing. If you give people food with which they are familiar, you’ll find they eat with their eyes. You don’t have to tell them what’s in it; just let them enjoy it first.”
Ella was a gradual convert herself. “At first I saw it a little like I was taking my medicine and when I got better, I’d get right back to the burgers. But my craving for burgers soon disappeared and processed foods began to taste totally different. Now I snack, but I snack on energy bites and almond butter and I’m a houmous addict.”
And for anyone who complains they are ‘too busy’ to eat healthily, she had the following advice. “You have to make a mental commitment to make the time. Maybe just set an hour aside on a Sunday to stock up for the week. It becomes really easy; no-one is too busy for that. There are ways to make sure you’re doing it.”
Before the new book comes out, Ella is opening a healthy eating café with her fiancé later this year, which she expects to expand into a chain, but says she does not feel the need to work towards something else too specific. “I’m enjoying myself too much,” she says.
Sweet potatoes are right on Kew
The Love Sweet Potatoes campaign was a sponsor of the four-day Write on Kew literary festival, held at Kew Gardens in London on September 24-27.
As well as the session with Ella Woodward, the campaign was also showcased to visitors through a series of entertaining and educational children’s workshops.
Ella mentioned sweet potatoes more than once at Kew and lists them as one of her favourite vegetables. She also uses them in creative ways on her smash-hit blog, demonstrating the vegetable’s versatility and how they can be a healthy yet indulgent treat. The latest example, still on the homepage of deliciouslyella.com when this was written, was a Sweet Potato and Chickpea Stew, posted on September 26.
Each of the four days also saw Love Sweet Potatoes host fun workshops for children, designed to tell kids about the ‘super powers’ of sweet potatoes. Children had the opportunity to create their very own sweet potato hero and to enter a nationwide competition to find a Love Sweet Potatoes mascot, which will be used in future campaigns to showcase sweet potatoes.
Scott Farms International’s CEO Stan Smith and founder of Love Sweet Potatoes, says: “Taking part in Write on Kew was fantastic. We were excited at the chance to sponsor the talk from Ella, as she takes her health seriously and we admire her approach to cooking. Her blog shares a similar message to our own of how easy, versatile and – most importantly – delicious healthy food can be, so the sponsorship felt natural for us.
“The workshops also allowed us to bring sweet potatoes to families and to show children how fun ‘knowing your veggies’ can be, which we believe are positive steps to getting sweet potatoes on the dinner table of every UK household and viewed as a staple vegetable, and not just a fad.”
Research carried out by the campaign has revealed that the vegetable’s popularity is rapidly growing. UK consumers are now eating 90% more sweet potatoes than five years ago.