In the Kitchen with Tsouni Cooper
As soon as we arrive at Tsouni's house, tucked down a sidestreet in North London, we're immediately struck by her thriving vegetable garden. She ushers us in, keen to point out the rows of chard, kale and other produce, unfurling in the rows of soil. “I’m avoiding things that grow with roots because I don’t know when they’re ready and I can’t seem to figure that out - how do you know if a carrot is ready?” she ponders. “Eventually I hope I’ll get the confidence to go sub-soil.” A blooming interest in vegetables and home-growing has turned Tsouni into a self-confessed vegetable person.
“Over time, veganism leads you down different paths,” she explains as she leads us past multiple pots of herbs on the stairs up to her flat. “I’ve recently become interested in food sovereignty and permaculture and how important it is – even in cities – to have access to food that’s grown locally.”
As we sit in the living room with tea, pampering her cat Tobi, we delve into how her journey towards embracing a sustainable lifestyle began with the transition to a vegan diet ten years previously, while out in Fort Worth, Texas. Hanging out at a local diner (where copies of John Robbins’ Diet for a New America were strewn across tables), she began to educate herself on the meat and dairy industry. Inspired by the community of vegan friends she had built in Texas, she decided to make the transition to become vegan herself. Needless to say, she hasn’t looked back.
Returning to the UK after the delights and indulgences of vegan junk food in America came as a shock: “I came back the UK and I was faced with Holland & Barrett and hummus.” At the time, Tsouni had no vegan friends and there were no vegan supermarket sandwiches or convenience foods available.
“I learned to cook through a vegan lens; it’s given me an appreciation of textures and flavours and the importance of good, raw materials. I try and buy or grow the best organic produce I can – or shop at a farmers’ market – because it does make a difference when vegetables are at the core of what you’re eating.”
Fast forward half a decade from then and the vegan scene in London is now thriving. Tsouni set up her Instagram account @yesitsallvegan five years ago and has built up a platform of over 25K followers which she uses to promote vegan finds, review new products and share her experiences at new vegan restaurants.
A three-part pie chart
“I feel like my life is split into a three-part pie chart” she explains. One part Instagram, one part working at ASOS in the sustainability team, and one part working with the food-growing cooperative, Organicly.”
Growing her own food is a journey that Tsouni has recently embarked on and Organicly, based in Waltham Forest, has been a large inspiration and resource. Tsouni works on Organicly’s farm two days a week, on a scheme focused not only on growing food, but developing people too.
“Organicly trains others to grow their own food and gives them the confidence to go on and start their own community growing projects,” Tsouni explains. “It’s sent me into a spiral where I’m becoming a really boring middle-aged vegetable person!”
Putting her new-found green fingers to use, Tsouni has started experimenting in her own garden.
“I am focusing on growing brassicas: so things like kale, chard and leaves. I find them the most useful as they’re ready to cut whenever you want them. It’s also the thing that’s usually in a plastic bag in the supermarket. Growing them in my garden gives me access to something green to add to anything I make at home while boosting the nutrition of what I’m eating.”
It’s the same story for herbs such as coriander: “Herbs and salad leaves are the easiest things to grow and more of us should be growing those things if we can. It really does make a difference to your life. If you have some tinned goods in your cupboard and a bunch of herbs on your windowsill, you can make some beautiful meals.”
Growing her own food has made her realise just how easy it can be – although she has to add root vegetables as a caveat: “I can’t seem to figure them out. How do you know if a carrot is ready? I don’t like things that you can’t see, so I try and keep it above the soil. Eventually I hope I’ll get the confidence to go sub-soil.”
Tsouni’s exploration into food growing is in part a response to how much vegan junk food and processed food she promotes on her Instagram account @yesitsallvegan.
“I am trying to make up for the fact that I do talk so much about packaged and processed foods. I’m going to continue to promote those because I think they are so important for people becoming and staying vegan, as they are fun and taste delicious. I just have to ensure that the other 50% of food I eat is as healthy and locally sourced as possible.”
A societal shift
Since starting @yesitsallvegan, Tsouni has witnessed a huge shift in attitude towards food, eating and lifestyle. Mainstream restaurant chains are actively embracing veganism and are looking further afield into responsible sourcing and reducing plastic waste: “I love the brands that listen and want to have open and engaged conversations.”
She also stresses that the adoption of veganism into mainstream culture is incredibly important for young teens looking to take up a vegan diet: “It’s not just about people in London getting to eat really fun, crazy junk food. It’s about a teenager in Leicester having options that are viable for them and having the opportunity to show their family that their choice isn’t radical. It’s so much easier for more kinds of people to be vegan as a result.”
With the conversation around single-use plastic having exploded on social media in 2018, consumers are now demanding more from businesses to combat sustainability issues. “Within the space of 12 months, it’s gone from people being so grateful that there’s vegan food at a restaurant to expecting more.”
“I think compassion for animals goes hand-in-hand with compassion for the environment, even if it’s not a primary reason why you’ve gone vegan. I think we have a duty to remind businesses that the 360° picture is important. It’s not just about presenting something without any animal products in it, it’s being mindful of everything around that. I think vegans are good at calling businesses out for that.”
Read the full interview in Issue Three