Jack Monroe on lockdown cooking, mental health and why Essex will always be her home

PUBLISHED: 07:00 12 August 2020 | UPDATED: 09:46 12 August 2020

Chef Jack Monroe was born and bred in Southend-on-Sea (photo: Patricia Niven)

Chef Jack Monroe was born and bred in Southend-on-Sea (photo: Patricia Niven)

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As an active campaigner on food and social issues, Jack Monroe was a leading light of lockdown. Holly Louise Eells caught up with the bootstrap cook about her brand-new book, mental health and why Essex will always be her home

Jack Monroe's Spicy Salmon Noodles (photo: Patricia Niven)Jack Monroe's Spicy Salmon Noodles (photo: Patricia Niven)

I for one believe Jack Monroe is a national food hero. A food writer and anti-poverty campaigner who specialises in budget recipes, she has been praised by thousands of Twitter followers for her Lockdown Larder Twitter campaign. It came at a time when the UK was adjusting to life in lockdown. Things were very unpredictable and many people were still panic-buying, resulting in big shortages on many essentials. Like many bakers, chefs and food experts who were inspiring us all to get creative in the kitchen, Jack helped her followers to cook with what ingredients they had.

‘It’s such a strange time for everyone,’ says Jack, who lives in Southend with her 10-year-old son Jonathon, partner, TV producer Louisa Compton, and Cooper, her large ginger and white cat.

‘It has sort of been a two-fold experience for me,’ she explains. ‘When lockdown was first announced I lost an entire year’s salary in 48 hours. Emails just came flooding in apologetically for cancelling tours, book signings, talks, festivals; everything just came crashing down. I was in an absolute state of shock. Asking myself, what is going to happen to me now? I went into a complete panic.’

But things changed quite rapidly for the best-selling cookbook author, who eight years ago had ten pounds a week to feed herself and her son, and now writes recipes for people who are living on extremely tight budgets, including people relying on food banks.

‘The BBC got in touch with me about co-hosting Daily Kitchen Live,’ she says. ‘As well as Lockdown Larder and my Instagram live, I then convinced myself it was going to be OK, and I am ticking away.’

Born and bred in Southend, the bootstrap cook really does live up to the name of Jack of All Trades. She has described herself as coming from a working-class background and attended Westcliff High School for Girls. When she left home, she worked in a chip shop before taking a job as a call handler for Essex County Fire and Rescue.

Jack Monroe at home (photo: Patricia Niven)Jack Monroe at home (photo: Patricia Niven)

Shooting to fame with her frugal recipes, she worked as a reporter and later food columnist for the Southend Echo. She has written six cookbooks, writes for national publications, appears on television and speaks at various events.

‘When you work freelance you have to treat every job like it is the last one you will ever have. It is a whole new world we are sensitively trying to navigate and we just have to get through it each day at a time.’

Daily Kitchen Live, which comes from the makers of Saturday Kitchen, screened each weekday on BBC One for two weeks. Chef Matt Tebbutt entertained and informed audiences, while Jack provided inspiration for people struggling at home with limited food resources.

‘The way some of us cook has changed dramatically and rustling up nutritious, no-nonsense dinners in the current climate can be a challenge, but it’s incredibly important.’

Over the years Jack has openly documented her struggle with depression and alcohol, and her diagnosis with autism and ADHD, but one thing she has learned is that getting into the kitchen has helped put her back on the path to recovery, something she explains further in her latest book release, Good Days for Bad Days.

Jack Monroe's Chocolate Cherry Oaty Bites (photo: Patricia Niven)Jack Monroe's Chocolate Cherry Oaty Bites (photo: Patricia Niven)

The budget cooking hero explains: ‘A couple of years ago I was in quite a depressive funk and I was tidying up my fridge, pulling bits out of it. I was thinking all sorts of thoughts like: I can’t be bothered, I don’t like myself, why should I cook, it is just for me. All those lies our brains tell us when we are not in a brilliant place.’

Despite cooking for a living, Jack knows how it feels to be unable to put a meal together.

‘I started throwing things in a pot and shared it on Instagram, calling it Love Stew. I didn’t write it as a recipe, I wrote it more as a sort of essay of rage, depression and sadness. I was just throwing ingredients into a pot and showing how you can make something out of nothing.

‘I woke up the next morning thinking I need to delete this post before my publisher and agent sees it. I had done quite well in hiding how mental I was with good masking. However, the response was huge, so I had to leave it up as so many people had connected to this post.’

For Jack, it was a particularly bad episode that inspired the book. ‘I waited for my publisher’s reaction and she asked if I had a book in me and at this point. I was not very well and to be honest I was thinking of how I was going to make it to the end of the week, let alone write a book. So I said no, this is a one-off.

‘However, I went away to think and I felt this is a space that no one else really touches. Everyone does clean-eating dishes, cook with five ingredients or food markets, and I try to write cookbooks that fall in between those gaps. Cooking is the last thing you want to do when you are feeling so low.’

Eating properly is one of the biggest hurdles when you’re feeling low, so the recipes in the book (dubbed ‘depressipes’ by Jack) give you everything you need in a dish. They are inexpensive, simple and filling so that cooking and eating a nutritious meal doesn’t seem like an impossible task. This collection includes comforting dishes such as Quick and Spicy Noodles, Recalibration Supper, Jaffa Cake Mug Pudding and Hot Apple Pies.

‘I use cooking as partly meditation, partly therapy, partly self-care and partly an adventure. It is being able to acknowledge that you have the right to have that time to take care of yourself.’

With one-in-four people suffering from mental health problems each year, it’s more important than ever to set aside some time to focus on number one, you! Self-care is simply identifying needs or desires and then taking steps, including being out in the outdoors.

‘I live in Southend, near to where I grew up. There is a beach really near to my house and sometimes I get up really early in the morning, and I take a walk along the sea. I then take a moment or two to sit, looking out across the sea. I absolutely love Essex and it will always be my home.’

Good Food for Bad Days is available to buy now, published by Bluebird, priced £7.99

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