“We cook on so many levels, not just to feed ourselves,” says Georgie Hayden, taking a sip of tea.
As part of Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Team’, the bubbly brown-eyed Londoner cooks for a living, dreaming up and styling recipes for Oliver’s books, magazine and TV shows. But she also cooked her way through a traumatic maternity leave, after her son Archie died just before birth two years ago.
“I can’t remember what happened for the first few months. I think we must have lived off food from nice people. I don’t think I cooked for a while. I really scared myself. I thought, ‘I just don’t care, I actually don’t care about food or anything’,” she recalls. “You feel really vulnerable and I didn’t want to go out... Then it sort of went full circle.”
Fearing she’d lost her love of food, Hayden gathered all her cookbooks together - including Honey & Co’s book, the Middle Eastern cafe where we meet today - and started thinking about food for her and husband Pete.
“After a few months of calming down, I thought, ‘Let’s start again... You’re going to sit down and start making a weekly meal plan’. Then I would drive myself to the supermarket and do the shop, and that’s actually what got me out again - having a purpose got me back into doing something and being a bit more confident.”
The familiarity and routine of cooking was like therapy and slowly eased Hayden, 34, through her bereavement, while the meal plans gave her a sense of control. In those early days, I was convinced Pete was going to die [too]. I was absolutely terrified. I thought, ‘If I can feed us really nice food, at least I know we’re OK’.”
What started out as a simple project has been gently nurtured into Hayden’s first cookbook, Stirring Slowly: Recipes To Restore + Revive. With chapter titles such as ‘A Sunny Start To The Day’, ‘Bowl Food’, and ‘Bake Yourself Better’, it’s a book to turn to when you’ve had a long, tough day - full of warming, comforting and revitalising recipes. In his foreword, Jamie Oliver says he loves Hayden ‘like a sister’, and she is equally full of praise for her mentor, with whom she’s travelled the world for work.
“After my maternity leave, I went back part-time, because I needed to sort my life out a bit. He said, ‘Whatever you need to do, we’ll make it work’. He’s phenomenal and he really cares. It sounds cheesy, but the Food Team is family and it’s the most inspiring place to be.”
Hayden’s real family has had a huge impact on her love of food, too. Born to Greek Cypriot parents, her childhood memories are of Saturday pilgrimages from their home above her grandparents’ Greek restaurant to the ‘smelly shop’ - an Italian deli packed with hanging salami - around the corner. Her dad worked in the family restaurant while her mum stayed home, teaching Hayden and her sister to bake. It sparked a lifelong passion - and she remembers shadowing both her grannies, determined to learn all the traditional Cypriot family recipes.
Hayden’s already planning her next cookbook - full of Cypriot food - but for now, she’s pleased to have created a legacy for Archie with her first one.
“It felt wrong to go through something so enormous and painful and to carry on life as normal. I thought, ‘He needs to have some impact on my life, in a good way’. You want to honour your child and make sure people know about these things.”