In England, you would describe British cookbook authors Henry Firth and Ian Theasby as the kind of lads you'd take home to meet your mother. They're both polite, affable and laid-back – and, while they've built a successful business out of being vegan, they're not interested in preaching to the public. They simply want to cook some tasty comfort food for people. That much was clear when the pair, known collectively as Bosh!, hosted a vegan supper club at this month's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Firth and Theasby met years ago in Sheffield, the city in northern England where they're both from. Theasby, in a bid to be healthier, went vegan first, something Firth initially found a bit strange. But after watching Kip Andersen documentary Cowspiracy, Firth was all in.
It was a cause that captured their hearts from an environmental perspective and they set about creating a project that would allow them to spread the message. Now, the duo are often described as the Jamie Olivers of the vegan world, or the vegan popular British TV duo Ant and Dec, as their well-made videos have caught the attention of many on social media. When they posted their first in June 2016, it received 3.5 million views within a week. Today, they have about three million followers across Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Their first cookbook, Bosh!, published in 2018, became the fastest-selling title of its kind, outselling every other cookbook that year. They've released three more books since then and even have their own vegan cooking show, which launched this year on UK TV channel ITV 1, called Living on the Veg.
It's safe to say, they've done pretty well for themselves. But they're still as down to earth as ever. "The very fact we're sitting here in Dubai is crazy," says Theasby when asked about his reaction to the international interest.
"It's an absolute pleasure," says Firth. "We didn't plan for it and we're super grateful for it. We're just grateful on the whole, full stop, for getting to live this life and getting to do something that we wholeheartedly believe in and basically campaigning for change, which is what we're doing in a subtle, chilled-out way."
The upward trajectory of their career somewhat matches the exponential increase in interest in veganism, not only in their home country but across the world. While they knew there was an appetite for plant-based cuisine, Firth says they've still been pleasantly surprised by how much it's grown. "There was a statistic that 25 per cent of all food products launched in the UK last year were plant-based," he says. "When you weigh up the amount of people who eat vegan or plant-based food, it's a lot smaller than that.
"We're moving away from that world where vegans are marginalised and seen as grumpy, laborious people who you don't want to hang out with," he says, with a laugh. "Now it's a progressive way to eat from time to time, or all the time."
That being said, the perceived polarisation of vegans versus non-vegans portrayed in the media has not escaped them. "It doesn't make a good news story when people are hanging out and just being friends," says Firth. "It's great there's a fight and it makes for lots of clicks, but the reality is most people who are dabbling in veganism and dipping their toe into plant-based food are just, like, getting along."
The pair were dragged into the UK media's push for debate last year when they faced Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain to talk about whether plant-based foods could be given meat or dairy monikers, such as "sausage", "milk" or "cheese". When asked about this appearance, they both laugh. "Brands like Linda McCartney have been around for like 30 years and they've been selling vegetarian sausages for that long," says Theasby. "It's only recently, since the vegan movement has exploded, that farmers and meat producers have kicked up a fuss. I think it's ridiculous, really. A sausage is a sausage, it's not a part of an animal, it's a tube of meaty protein."
Firth, naturally, agrees. “Stephen Fry has spoken about this and he said peanut butter is not butter, quince cheese is not cheese, and try as dairy farmers might, history and the evolution of language will decide.”
While some people argue fake meat and dairy substitutes aren't healthy, the duo use them in their recipes, which focus on making vegan meals easy, quick and cheap to put together. They are big proponents of an 80:20 ratio – "80 per cent good, 20 per cent naughty". "It's good to eat a lot of vegetables and keep your diet – not necessarily raw – but colourful and veg-focused, but, you know, we humans do like comfort," says Firth. "We didn't give up meat because we didn't like the taste of it. So, every now and again, it's nice to have a Beyond or Impossible burger, or any of the new options that are now available, to remind yourself of that."
Theasby is certain the quality of other vegan products, such as faux cheeses, will soon catch up with the proliferation of meat substitutes. "It's a lot better than it was four years ago, but four years from now it's going to be really good and it'll melt beautifully, it'll have that same mouth feel, it'll smell good, it'll satisfy every urge a cheese lover has," he says. "Just as with the whole of the vegan movement, it's waiting for the next innovation – and there are innovations almost daily."
During the supper club, the pair showed a sold-out audience how to make their crispy Buffalo cauliflower bites, then sat down to enjoy a three-course meal of their recipes prepared by the chefs at InterContinental Dubai Festival City, alongside their UAE fans. Diners got to taste their Ultimate Chilli, a crowd-pleasing recipe from their first cookbook that Theasby says every non-vegan should try first. Also served were the mushroom Wellington, a version of their famous "mezze cake", which incorporates layers of classic Middle Eastern starters, and crunchy but fluffy churros with chocolate dipping sauce.
This might be their first professional visit to the UAE, but future trips certainly aren't off the table as their empire expands. "We're smart and … in the beginning we knew social media was international and we knew that if we made the right videos and the right vibe, it could do well," says Firth. "But it was a pleasure to see it pay off. And what a joy it is to go around cooking vegan food for people all over the world."
And what a joy it is to eat it, too.