Since developing an academic interest in nutrition, one chef has made it his quest to cook and serve healthy food. Janet Harmer speaks to Peter Vaughan
Peter Vaughan understands only too well the miseries of being overweight. As a 15-year-old teenager he weighed 18-and-a-half stones and felt segregated from his friends and had little confidence with girls. Today, aged 35, at a height of 6ft 1in, his weight is a more acceptable 15 stones - and he feels great.
"I was teased as a teenager and got into the habit of comfort eating all the wrong foods," Vaughan explains. "A soon as I found my niche - cooking - I stopped comfort eating and my weight started to go down."
Knowing all too well the downsides of eating unhealthily, he has made it his vocation to combine his culinary training as a chef with his interest in nutrition to prepare food as close to its natural state as possible at his bistro, the Healthy Life, in Devizes, Wiltshire.
Vaughan's aim is to provide customers with the foods they need to eat a naturally balanced diet. He has been encouraged throughout his career to believe that a healthy approach to cooking is not only beneficial for our wellbeing, but is also what many people want.
As a trainee chef working at the Hotel InterContinental in London, Vaughan was fascinated by executive chef Peter Kromberg's lighter style of food and how it complemented his outlook on living a healthy lifestyle, combined with exercise and living a balanced life between his work and family.
When he was later working at the country house hotel and spa, Chewton Glen in Hampshire, he sensed a dichotomy between the richness of the food being served in the restaurant and the healthy lifestyle promoted by the spa. "It was also the first time I noticed that there were a lot of special requests coming into the kitchen for wheat-free or low-fat dishes," he says.
After spending six months working in Barbados, where he lived with a Bajan family - gaining an insight into simple, natural home cooking, with the use of lots of herbs and spices - Vaughan was keen on formally learning more about nutrition. On returning to the UK he enrolled on a correspondence course in nutrition, and he would urge any chef who is interested in understanding the health benefits of food to do the same.
"Studying nutrition gave me the confidence to cook in a healthier way, as well as pass on healthy-eating tips to people when I was doing demonstrations," he explains. "For example, while I'd previously known that spinach was rich in essential iron, I learnt that iron absorption is helped by vitamin C, so serving a citrus dressing on a spinach salad is a great tip."
When Vaughan eventually opened his own business, the 35-seat Healthy Life, he was clear that he wanted to offer customers food that would benefit their health. As a result, he uses ingredients as close to their natural state as possible, such as unrefined sugar, organic produce when feasible, and Freedom Food meat and salmon.
Cooking methods are a key element of Vaughan's naturally balanced cuisine, so while there is no flash-frying, plenty of pressure cooking and pot-roasting goes on in the bistro kitchen.
While traditionalists are likely to favour frying a steak, Vaughan believes that he can produce an equally tasty steak by grilling. "I marinate an 8oz rump steak in rapeseed oil, lemon and wild garlic flowers to help tenderise it, and then chargrill it gently," he says, believing any form of frying when the oil is so hot that it smokes can be potentially damaging. "Oil smokes when it oxidises, leading to the emergence of free radicals, which have been shown to encourage the development of some cancers. I certainly don't want to cook in a way that might harm my customers."
However, Vaughan admits that he has been unable to avoid frying when it comes to chips. "I did try and get away with not serving chips for a long time, but it was difficult to operate a bistro without chips on the menu, and I do believe there has to be a balance in what we eat. So I now do really chunky pont-neuf chips, which I cook very gently in a locally produced rapeseed oil."
The pressure cooker is used for making stocks, cooking chickpeas for hummus, butter beans for a Spanish stew and potatoes for mash. "Not only is it a healthy way to cook, but it is also enormously economical on fuel, as you can cook a ham hock in about 30 minutes - six times quicker than the conventional method," says Vaughan.
Pot-roasting is a particularly favourite method of cooking at the Healthy Life. "It is a lovely way of containing all the flavours and nutrients in the one dish. I might pot-roast a pheasant with some big, chunky root vegetables, a local wine and some fresh herbs which have been crushed to release their oils. I bring the dish - containing about one inch of liquid - to the boil and put it into a hot oven for 40-45 minutes. We then cut the pheasant nicely and serve it with some mash and the sauce, which has been made by blending the vegetables into the cooking liquor."
Vaughan keeps the bistro menu short - a choice of six dishes at each course - as all dishes are prepared freshly in house using as many local ingredients as possible. He always has plenty of choice for vegetarians, believing that most of us eat too much meat, and encourages customers to eat less meat, but of a superior quality. There are also dishes suitable for non-wheat and non-diary eaters, and Vaughan will readily make something special if requested.
Always popular with meat- and non-meat-eaters alike are Vaughan's home-made falafels, which some customers buy as a take-away dish served in pitta bread. Served in the bistro, the falafels are accompanied by home-made hummus, guacamole and garlic toast. "They tick all the right boxes, as we use rye instead of wheat flour - making them suitable for coeliacs - to combine the chickpeas, tomatoes, cumin, coriander and chilli, and we bake them, instead of frying them, ensuring they are ultra-healthy," says Vaughan.
With more customers taking a closer interest in what they are eating - particularly parents - Vaughan believes that what he is doing is catering for a growing niche market that is, so far, largely untapped. "Our customers like the fact that we are flexible to their requirements, and that what they eat here is doing them good as well as being tasty and reasonably priced." Three courses and coffee at the Healthy Life is £25, with the house wine costing £12.
• The Healthy Life, 4-7 Little Brittox, Devizes, Wiltshire SN10 2AT. Tel: 01380 725558 www.thehealthylife.co.uk
Peter Vaughan and the Healthy Life bistro
Brought up in Wiltshire, Peter Vaughan enrolled on the specialised chefs course, run at Bournemouth & Poole College in conjunction with the Academy of Culinary Arts, in 1989. As part of the four-year course, he spent nearly three years training under Peter Kromberg at the Hotel InterContinental in London. He then went to France in order to become proficient in French and completed a six-month stage at Michel Lorain's restaurant, La Côte Saint Jacques in Joigny, Burgundy.
On his return to England, Vaughan joined Chewton Glen in New Milton, Hampshire, and stayed for nearly three years until 1996, when he went to Barbados for a six-month stint at the Sandy Lane hotel.
On returning to the UK in 1997, his career took a new direction. With the launch of a plethora of satellite and cable TV channels, the opportunity came his way to make television programmes, including the A-Z of Food & Beauty, Only Organic and The Dinner Doctors. In between, he gave demonstrations and made promotional videos for a number of companies, including Wusthof Knives, and completed a one-year correspondence course on nutrition with the Australasian College of Herbal Studies.
By 1999, Vaughan was fed-up with what he describes as "the unreal world" of television and keen to set up a tangible business.
Fuelled by his knowledge gained on the nutrition course, he went into partnership with his mother, Judy Dane, to open a natural food store, the Healthy Life, in Devizes, Wiltshire. As a teacher at St Edward's in Romsey, Hampshire, a school for boys with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, Dane had experienced at first hand how a healthy diet with plenty of water to drink encouraged pupils to be calmer and more receptive to learning.
Two years later, Vaughan and Dane opened the Healthy Life bistro and cookery school. With Dane now retired, the food store has been sold. Today, Vaughan runs the bistro and cookery school in conjunction with working three days a week for the Academy of Culinary Arts as the Adopt A School chef for the South-west. He runs courses on a Sunday, once a month, for eight students at a rate of £89.95 per head.
Vaughan is the author of two cookbooks: Naturally Balanced Cooking and Simply Better Food for your Baby and Children.