Ella Woodward’s dewy glow does little to betray her Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough-coated past. Neither does the online sensation that is Deliciously Ella, a food blog frequented by 5 to 6 million health-conscious clickers each month, nor the subsequent fastest-selling cookbook of all time, which graces the chia seed-strewn kitchen benches of hundreds of thousands of worldwide devotees.
But if it wasn’t for her shock diagnosis of postural tachycardia syndrome in September of 2011, this 24-year-old Londoner might still be (somewhat) surviving on a blend of fizzy pick-n-mix, Cadbury’s caramel chocolate and spoonfulls of peanut butter and strawberry jam.
“It was really hard, both mentally and physically,” she says of the chronic illness that saw her heart rate soar and blood pressure plummet every time she stood up. “I really struggled to get to grips with it and was really depressed. I realised at a certain point that I had cut myself off from the world and wasn’t facing the reality of the situation, which was that I was pretty much bed bound and had no life. I realised I had to change something if I wanted to do the things in life that I always wanted to.”
The medical solution of 28 pills a day and steroids rendered Ella exhausted, barely leaving her room at the University of St Andrews, where she studied art history. So, following a severe attack in early 2012, she turned to the vegan, sugar-free and unprocessed diet of stage four cancer survivor, Kris Carr, despite a little obstacle.
“I couldn’t cook!” she laughs. “[But] I had read about people who had managed illness through lifestyle and diet and was so inspired… so I decided to start writing the blog to learn to cook and explore this new world of healthy eating.”
A lot of “trial and error and time spent playing around getting creative in the kitchen” later and Ella was knocking together ‘seedy’ porridge, quinoa nori rolls and a sumptuous array of raw cacao powder-dusted treats. The hours spent over the stove paid off when, 18 months in to her culinary awakening, she was able to come off her medication.
Meanwhile her blog, Deliciously Ella, had grown a cult-like following – a welcome side-effect the steely-eyed Ella still can’t explain.
“Who knows?” she muses. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure that out! I think the focus on simple, accessible ingredients really helps and lots of photos… with food you need to show people the food and entice them that way, words can’t do justice in the way that a good photo can. This is especially important when the food is a little different and unfamiliar, which things like quinoa can be for people… I also really try to engage with my audience every day, listening to what readers say and responding to comments.”
In January of last year she appeased said readers with the launch of her debut cookbook, Deliciously Ella, which would become the fastest-selling debut cookbook on record. How did she know it was time to plunge into print?
“I didn’t really, we just went for it and luckily it was a success,” she says, again pleasantly phlegmatic, particularly considering it’s sold more than 300,000 copies across the globe, with foreign rights bought in 14 countries. “It’s been incredible for me, it’s opened so many doors from allowing me to create a deli to writing my second book.”
Ella’s follow-up food tome, Deliciously Ella Every Day, hit UK shelves early this year, around the same time her deli-slash-café, The Mae Deli, opened its doors to hungry queues in Marylebone – boasting a partially meaty offering that didn’t go unnoticed by her purist supporters, who took to Instagram, wailing “Why would she do that? I thought she was into healthy eating!” and “That’s not what the brand Deliciously Ella is about.” (To which Ella responded in an interview with the Daily Mail, “You can’t please everyone all the time. I’m promoting healthy – healthier – eating, not suggesting everyone should emulate me”), but the backlash didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for social media.
“It’s the best way to communicate with your audience and get instant feedback and thoughts on things,” she says, and, along with her refreshing rejection of the holier-than-thou air oft attached to healthy eating, there’s a reason behind the more mainstream menu at Mae. A man, in fact – fiancé Matthew Mills – who co-owns the deli and won’t be ignoring his carnal instincts any time soon.
When this story hits the stands, Ella will have walked down the aisle with Matt and seen Deliciously Ella Every Day launch in the US. Currently midway through a three-year course in naturopathic nutrition, these days she turns to her own cravings for inspiration.
“I’m always thinking about food, so I just focus on what I want to eat and then think of new, interesting ways to do something exciting with it,” she says. And the world can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.
Deliciously Ella Every Day by Ella Woodward, out now published by Yellow Kite, £20. © Ella Woodward 2016.