Following a brain tumour in 2015, Chef John Lawson discusses with writer Susan Davies how it changed his life, his attitude towards food and how his current trip in Bali is helping to refocus his mind.
If I think about a positive mindset, being optimistic and living a life embodied in self-discovery, I think of John. John Lawson has been a chef for over twenty years, working at the highest level. I can't begin to imagine the number of hours he has worked, yet his enthusiasm for cooking and life shines through.
However, in recent years cooking has meant more than delivering exquisite plates of food. It has meant learning how food can be medicine for us. John suffered a brain tumour in 2015 and since this time has learnt all he can learn about food: its benefits and the damage it can cause to our health.
It is the ethos of his restaurant Food by John Lawson, in Leigh-on-Sea, and he continues to learn more about the importance and effects of good nutrition, which he loves to share with others.
When I had the idea to write a series of articles exploring how those in hospitality have chosen to spend their time during months of lockdown, John instantly sprung to mind because I could guarantee he would be doing something! Combining his love for food and a healthy lifestyle, John was about to embark on a trip of a lifetime.
John has been practising Ashtanga yoga for two years, and in December (whilst the UK was once again heading towards another lengthy lockdown) John travelled to Bali. He is currently travelling across the island and agreed to talk about his trip and what he has learned.
Covid has brought uncertainty to the entire world. Had you already planned to travel before the second lockdown struck?
'It was always on my mind to go somewhere over Christmas and January, possibly for a month or two. The restaurant is a priority, but after having spoken to Liam, our head chef, together with the second lockdown being announced and talk of furlough running to at least March, it was an excellent time to go.
I had looked at travelling to India to practice yoga, but Bali caught my attention. I felt a pull towards travelling there for a personal journey of self-discovery and healing. I didn't intend to stay for a specific time and saw this time as a great opportunity for me.
You have been there for over three months; how has your time in Bali affected you?
It has been profound what's happened to me personally. The country has a different energy and climate. When practising Ashtanga here, physically, you open up more, but also emotionally: opening a space within you.
The teachers there are not just about the physical yoga practice; this is only a small part.
Tell me about your teachers.
They are Radha and Prim. Radha has shared her knowledge of food and Ayurvedic practices with me. Her knowledge of yoga and health is surreal. She is so passionate and passes on this knowledge to you.
I have been a chef for 20 years at top Michelin restaurants. Now I'm on a different journey as food is about health, learning about real food and how it affects us individually. Understanding that a person's constitution is unique to them, no two people are the same.
How has this helped you?
It's led me to experiment more, but also, I have gained the confidence to share my knowledge.
We know eating a balanced diet, plenty of vegetables, healthy fats, and a little regenerative meat is standard. Yet when talking about chronic illnesses, it's about understanding what an individual's body can do. Can they digest a specific protein in gluten, for example?
He explains in more detail, 'It's understanding and feeling what's right for your body. Your digestion. If you are coeliac, you must not have gluten, but for many people, their bodies can digest gluten perfectly well. This approach to food derives from an ayurvedic perspective.'
His teachers have over 70 years of experience between them and studied with Dr Vasant Lad, a world-renowned ayurvedic practitioner. Over the past three months, John has developed a good friendship with them both, learning that physically practising yoga (Asana) is only a part of their teachings. Asana is just one of the 8 limbs of yoga and to fully appreciate your practice it is vital to learn about all aspects of yoga.
Their way of teaching has meant John has had to approach his yoga practice differently. 'You know me; I am intense in my approach to what I do, I will give 100%.' Here in Bali, I'm being taught to accept where I am at. As soon as I get on the mat, it's an inner struggle for me, I ask myself 'what am I doing it for?' The answer for me is simple: to stay healthy, as I get older to keep mobile and have good flexibility, to maintain good health long into the future'.
John speaks with passion and care, 'It's about losing the ego and to stop comparing. The teachers in the room create energy and constantly talk about staying conscious and focusing on your breath. They are concerned about our safety, making many adjustments and preventing us from pushing ourselves too much.
They are particularly firm about this, about giving 50% of your energy but being consistent. When I'm on the mat it plays on mind that it is better for me to give only 50%. It is a skill that we have to learn to have balance, it is the Ayurveda way. Every day you find consistency in your practice. This is what is essential so that, over time, progress is inevitable—learning to breathe into a posture that's what I needed.
I ask if this is more of a Western ideal to give a 100% all of the time. After consideration, he responds, 'I think it's the same with everyone.'
Yet, for me, it makes total sense. When we give 100% all of the time, the danger is we become exhausted. I think many of us can associate with this, it has happened to me. Rather than taking time for reflection, we can rush to the next thing. It is a positive from Covid that we have had time to evaluate where we are in our lives.
What will you be taking away from Bali?
I'm getting so much from my time here; it is aiding my personal life and what we're doing in the restaurant. I feel very happy here, yet still excited to come home.
Are you aware of the people and experiences that surround you?
Surrounding myself with the right vibe, and energy is always key; what we have created and the success we have, is felt when people walk into the restaurant.
It is important to be adaptable, and the people on this trip bring out the best of me. When you travel, you dictate who you meet. I have lived in the U.S and Australia and whilst I would take holidays, I have never travelled; this is what I am doing now, I've enjoyed it, and it's been great for my own self-development.
Also choosing to be on my own, I am happy in my own company. Whilst in Bali I am thinking of going to a silent retreat, it would be for ten days, no talking, no looking at anyone, just eat and meditate. To have the time to look at ourselves, our inner joy, where there is no reliance on the impermanence of the outside world. A time to access a deeper dimension.
I ask John if having time off has helped with his creativity; his answer has got me thinking!
'Good question' then laughs.' Too much creativity can be my problem. I'm my own worst enemy in terms of ideas because I'm very capable of bringing up more and more ideas, but actually, I need to do less. Meditation and practising are slowing down the mind, calming down the mind so that my thoughts are more profound and meaningful.
Questioning whether the idea will work in the scope of what we're trying to achieve and is it purposeful, whether to personal life or the business. Meaningful and deep thought align with our true purpose.
Whenever I meet up with John, he speaks with refreshing honesty, his conversations educate me, cause me to consider my decisions and make me incredibly enthusiastic about real food and life in general. I worked for John for two years, I have the happiest of memories, learning to cook and building my knowledge regarding the importance of what we eat. I cannot wait for the restaurant to reopen and see what new ideas he will bring back from Bali!
Chatting Food Contributor: Susan Davies
I re-trained as a chef in my forties, it was tough, but I love cooking. I studied at Westminster College and worked at Food by John Lawson; both were amazing experiences. Now I run a monthly supper club local to where I live in Leigh on Sea and more recently set up Eat Well Together, to post recipes that anyone can cook. I love growing my own vegetables and if I’m not in the kitchen, I’m in the garden.
During the lockdown, I wanted to share stories of those thriving at this challenging time.