What would McDonald’s in heaven look like?
That’s the concept Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent reflected on nine years ago before establishing their first Leon Restaurant in Carnaby Street. How can you make healthy, fast food?
“There is nothing in the words ‘fast’ and ‘food’ that means it needs to be disgusting or unhealthy,” Leon’s founders Henry and John told Chef Insight in an email interview. “We thought: what would happen if you took the fast food machine but put great ingredients and creativity in one end?”
With 13 restaurants across London, Leon is certainly in fast-food-chain-territory and Henry and John said they plan to continue expanding the Leon brand over the next five years. Year after year the restaurant wins plaudits for its healthy eating menus too.
Before trailblazing the healthy fast food market, Henry and John plied their trade for Bain management consultants. The story goes that one day Henry phoned John and said something to the effect of: “Let’s quit our jobs, work at Burger King for a month for research purposes and then set up a naturally fast food restaurant chain.” They did, and it seems to have all gone to plan. And so, having side-stepped the habitual quagmire of management consulting, and with the success of Leon palpable, earlier this year Henry and John went in search of their next challenge.
“It was a problem that needed to be solved,” they said of the need to differentiate the terms ‘fast food’ and ‘greasy food’ when Leon was just an idea. The same affirmation applied when they decided to tackle the issue of healthy cooking at home with the recently launched Cook 5 programme.
“A large proportion of young adults in this country are leaving home with no idea how to cook and we want to change that with Cook 5.
“The aim is to teach children under 16 how to cook simple, nutritious meals before they leave home.”
With research suggesting that around 60% of 18 to 25 year olds were leaving home without the ability to cook five simple dishes in 2011, Cook 5 aims to instil these basic skills in young children now in order to wipe out this statistic in a decade’s time. Like most of us, a love of food began at a young age for Henry. He notes that his mother, the cookery writer Josceline Dimbleby, has been his biggest culinary inspiration. The Leon founders are hoping to impart a similar passion for food and thirst for knowledge with Cook 5. (And if that wasn’t enough there are various prizes on offer for lucky winners! Take a look at www.cook5.co.uk)
“There is a lot of work to be done on changing the food culture in this county,” Henry told Chef Insight.
I suggest there’s an underlying lack of respect for food in the UK, emanating from the robust American influence on British culture in the mid-20th Century and the post-Thatcher consumer boom. Henry sees it differently, but confesses to there often being little appreciation for the lifecycle of food and ingredients.
“Perhaps it’s not a lack of respect so much as a lack of awareness of where the food we eat comes from and changing that starts at home and in the classroom.”
The Cook 5 programme will be a “big focus” for the Leon pair. Since its launch earlier this year Henry explained that over 1,000 children have already signed up to the scheme and 100 have uploaded their first dishes.
“Our target for this year is to get 100,000 children cooking five dishes but we won’t stop there. We want to get every child in the UK cooking so we’ll keep going until we achieve that.”
I don’t have children (yet). If I did I’d sign them up for Cook 5 in an instant. But in the long-term I suspect that’s not quite the point, is it? Children have to be motivated and enthusiastic about food for this programme to work; they should want to sign up for themselves. Just like Henry’s mother did for him, that interest in the food on our plates begins at home and it’s the responsibility of parents to nurture it. While Cook 5 is aimed at kids, the programme’s success will ultimately be judged against its ability to reach out to parents. It needs to spark a mini food revolution in every home in the UK; encouraging kids to understand the food they eat, encouraging families to sit down and eat together. If it can do that, Cook 5 has the potential to reverse generations of nutritional neglect in Britain.
“When everyone can cook five things this country will be a much better place,” John Vincent states.
It’s an admirable venture. The concept is straightforward and plainly has the capacity to expand and be rolled out nationally. But that essentially depends on people finding out about it. Every headmaster, pediatrician, sports coach and parent in the country needs to have a sign waved in front of their face to make sure they’re getting the message: LOOK, COOK 5!
Let’s all hope they take notice.
Before wrapping up, I just had one final question: Any regrets about leaving Bain all those years ago?
Thanks to Henry, John, and Laura at Leon Restaurants for their help. But a Chef Insight interview wouldn’t be complete without first asking for a recipe, that’s why we’ve created a dedicated tab where we’ll host a recipe from all of the chefs we interview. They all contain 5 ingredients and are explained in 5 easy steps……we call it a 5-in-5 recipe. Have a look at what Henry and John contributed: Perfect scrambled eggs.
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