Plant based food at The Garden in Hale
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 January 2020
Pioneers of Cheshire’s plant-based eating scene, the duo behind Hale favourite, The Garden, are on a mission to make vegan food appealing to everyone
ow that Amy Shepherdson has polished off her cashew nut rarebit, the kind of vegan take on a classic dish The Garden in Hale specialises in, we're discussing how far the vegan food movement has come. I glance at the blackboard of drinks on offer above the gleaming beast of a coffee machine - it's not just your usual roster of frothy caffeine hits here. Nor was it five years ago when the café first opened. I wonder how that went down? Surely, people can't have walked through the door back then and demanded a green matcha latte? Amy, 33, who opened The Garden with friend-turned-business-partner Kate Mosley, laughs, 'Yeah we didn't sell too much of those in the beginning,' she agrees. 'Now every other one [we sell] is either a matcha latte or a golden milk [made with turmeric].'
It is symbolic of our changing attitudes to food. Last year more than 250,000 people signed up for 'Veganuary' - the global challenge to eat only vegan food for the entirety of January. For The Garden it's been an evolution - to begin with their customers were primarily female but it's much more of a mix nowadays. 'People are much more accepting of vegan food nowadays,' says Kate. 'We always see a big influx of customers after there's been a Netflix documentary on veganism or the impact of meat consumption on the environment.'
Let's be clear, The Garden is not a vegan café - as much as Kate would have liked it to be. 'She dreams big. She's a yoga teacher and got into veganism that way. She's 99% vegan apart from the odd bit of cheese on very special occasions,' explains Amy. 'But I had to ground her and be realistic and make sure it could be accessible to everyone.' Amy estimates that she eats vegan around 70-80% of the time; she and her fiancé, Paul, eat meat only when they go out for dinner and will be having chicken liver parfait followed by sirloin steak when they're married at the end of the year. And so The Garden calls its menu 'earth-friendly food'. It is, in the modern lexicon, mainly plant-based. Largely, dairy elements like milk and cheese are swapped for vegan alternatives. So Amy's rarebit is made by soaking cashews and blitzing them in a high-speed blender with, amongst other things, garlic, lemon and mustard. There are vegan takes on classic dishes like lasagne and curry alongside breakfast dishes - tofu scramble for the purists, healthy twists on baked eggs for the less devout - and a plethora of salads and sandwiches; a vegan base that you can add meat or dairy to if you so choose. Their mission, Amy insists, is not to convert Cheshire to a life of vegetables and downward dogs. 'We just want to provide healthy food that tastes amazing,' adds Kate. So what are their rules?
'Just simplify food. Don't eat from a packet. If you cook from scratch with fresh, seasonal, organic, where possible, ingredients then you're on to a winner,' says Amy.
It was Kate's idea to open The Garden - a dream that had simmered beneath her then full-time career as a primary school teacher. Logistically Amy, who'd always worked in hospitality and had a passion for cooking, was a smart choice of business partner. But her passion for nutrition - born from the cruellest of circumstances - equalled her friend's. Not long before Kate voiced her dream, Amy's father had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and in a desperate effort to help heal him she'd looked to food for a cure.
'There'd been a lady who used to come into a restaurant that I worked in all the time and she'd order really bizarre foods like a plate of raw broccoli and olive oil. I found out it was because she'd had cancer,' explains Amy.
'After I found out about my dad, I went to see her and she explained that cancers can't thrive in an alkaline state.'
This is, we should point out, a much debated and often maligned health paradigm. While celebrities may have embraced the acidic/alkaline theory - the idea that certain foods including meats and sugars can put the body in an acidic state and lead to illnesses - the scientific community haven't been quite so accepting.
But when you're desperate, you cling to anything and so Amy started knocking up raw broccoli juice for her father and turning up at his door with spiralised courgettes long before spiralised courgettes were a thing. 'I think he ate it just to humour me,' she smiles. But then another tragedy - her brother Ben was killed in a car crash. It happened a month after her father's diagnosis. 'After that I think my dad lost interest in fighting for himself, he was just too heartbroken,' says Amy. He died eight months later. She acknowledges that his cancer was far too advanced for 'vegetables to make a difference' and says 'I don't live by the acid-alkaline theory. There's not enough evidence to back it up'. But whatever way she arrived here, it is now inarguable that her way of eating - primarily plant-based - is the healthiest both for humans and the planet. And so everything on the menu is something Amy has created. 'My kitchen at home is my test kitchen' she says. 'My fiancé is a very lucky boy.'
But of course, making a business out of it is a different matter. The duo 'begged, borrowed and stole' from family members to get the capital together to transform the once bridal shop into a café. 'We've been well received from the beginning, which has been amazing,' says Kate. They used to press their own juices on site but such was the demand they had to move to a unit across in Broad Heath; an arm of the business Kate's husband now runs for them. As well as selling in their own cafes and others they provide a juice delivery surface dropping off the green (and other coloured) concoctions on your doorstep a couple of days a week. There are plans to take it online and nationwide next year. Such is in the interest in Amy's food she's planning to offer vegan cookery classes next year.
Not that it's all been easy. 'There are more months than we care to remember where we haven't paid ourselves a wage,' says Kate, who since having twins two years ago has reduced her hours in the business. She takes care of the events side of things - they run everything from yoga classes to motivational speaking and crafts workshops - while Amy covers much of the day-to-day logistics of the café. They both live around the corner from the café 'literally about two minutes' from one another. What has the business done to their friendship? 'It's definitely thrown some curveballs,' admits Kate. 'But it's made us grow so much closer. Our friendship is like no other relationship I have and it's because of everything we've been through… We do look forward to a day where we can just go out to lunch as friends and not talk about work though.' Over a green matcha latte, obviously.