Nick Knowles is aware he’s not what many would picture when the word ‘vegan’ comes to mind.
“You tend to think that most vegans are petite, small, slim people, and I’m not,” states the 54-year-old TV presenter, best known for his 18 years fronting BBC One home-improvement stalwart DIY SOS. “I’m a 46-inch chest, 6ft 2in, 17-stone rugby player!”
But if Knowles doesn’t look like a typical vegan – that is, someone who doesn’t consume any animal-produce, including dairy, eggs and honey, as well as meat – some members of the vegan community, ones at the more extreme end of the wedge, who he terms “funda-lentilists” – are at pains to point out he isn’t really one anyway.
But that isn’t to say that Knowles hasn’t tried. His lifestyle has been turned upside down since filming BBC Two’s The Retreat last year, which saw him and a diverse group of participants head to a health centre in Thailand, ditching cigarettes, caffeine, alcohol and meat and replacing them with yoga, lots of vegetables and hikes through the mountains.
He lost nine kilos in three weeks, his cholesterol levels fell by a third, and his blood pressure dropped to a healthy level.
Since then, Knowles has maintained a ‘flexitarian’ diet, meaning he largely eats vegetarian or vegan meals but will occasionally have meat or fish. It’s a big change for a man who used to eat a sausage, bacon and egg roll on his way to work, snack on scotch eggs, and regularly go out for steak lunches.
And while his first cookbook, Proper Healthy Food: Hearty Vegan And Vegetarian Recipes For Meat Lovers, focuses on this huge shift, he’s still upset the apple cart.
“If you could do one day a week as being veggie, congratulations, you should get a pat on the back,” he reasons. “You’ve reduced your meat intake, that’s fantastic. If you can do it two or three days a week, even better.
“If you could get to a point where you’re meat-free during the week and only treat yourself to meat during the weekends… when I say something like that, the Vegan Society goes, ‘What? Treat yourself to dead animals?’
“You’re never going to encourage people if every time they fail, you batter them over the head. I’ve been saying more carrot less stick. Or you could say, more carrot less steak!”
And the father-of-four feels the message is too important to be deterred.
“The vegan community is watching this book very carefully and I’m slightly worried about what I’m saying, which is that it’s OK not to be fully vegan, but I don’t really care,” he says, between sips of peppermint tea. “I know the health benefits that come from eating a more plant-based diet are so important that we have to get past all of that rubbish, and encourage people to start eating meat-free once a week.
“A lot of guys are thinking, ‘I don’t want to go like my dad did and suddenly have a heart attack at the age of 46’. The dedication in the book says, ‘To my family who stand by me, who ground me through my flights of fantasy and who want me to stay around a bit longer – the feeling is mutual’, and that is what it’s about.”
Overhauling his approach to eating hasn’t just benefited his physical health, either.
“I work with a lot of people who suffer very serious depression, so I’m not going to glibly suggest what I felt was medically diagnosed depression in any way, but undoubtedly the pressures of doing what I do and only getting home eight or nine nights a month because I’m on the road with work so much, brings all kinds of stresses and strains and worries. I might finish at 10pm in Newcastle, and the next day I’m filming at 8am in Brighton.
“I’m travelling through the night and getting two hours’ sleep. I’m away from my young son. I don’t see enough of my older children and it’s been on public record that I’ve been having difficulties with my marriage,” says Knowles, who separated from his second-wife Jessica early last year, though they’ve since reportedly revealed they’re ‘working on their relationship’.
“All of those things add layers of pressure on, and if you then add to it a life in the public eye, where everything’s picked apart, there is a tendency to want to hide away. It brings certain anxieties, but I am very lucky I have a really good supportive family, and since I changed my diet, I’m undoubtedly happier and healthier.”
Inspired? Here are three recipes from Knowles’ new book to try at home (cheese-free versions optional!).
Winter Veggie Stew with Wholesome Lumpy Dumplings
(Serves 6 )
For the dumplings:
50g butter, softened
125g self-raising flour
40g Cheddar, crumbled
1 tbsp thyme leaves
For the stew:
3tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, roughly diced
2 celery sticks, roughly diced
3tbsp plain flour
1/2tbsp tomato puree
2L hot vegetable stock
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into chunky pieces
4 parsnips, peeled and chopped into chunky pieces
1/2 head swede, peeled and chopped into chunky pieces
3 small sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into chunky pieces
2-3 rosemary sprigs, plus extra, chopped, to sprinkle
1 bouquet garni (available from good supermarkets)
150g orzo pasta (available from good supermarkets)
80g pack of cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Start by making the dumplings. Rub the butter into the flour and mix with the Cheddar and thyme. Add just enough cold water to bring the mixture together to a soft dough and divide into five to six small dumplings.
Preheat the oven to 190C/fan 170C/gas 6. Heat the oil in a large casserole dish and fry the onion and celery over a low heat for 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the flour into the pan, whisking constantly to make a roux. Add in the Marmite and tomato puree followed by the stock, a glug at a time, whisking all the while to make a smooth base to the stew.
Throw the carrots, parsnips, swede, sweet potatoes, rosemary and bouquet garni to the dish and bring to a boil. Cook the stew, with the lid off, for five to seven minutes. The vegetables should be cooking nicely but still have a bite to them.
Rinse the orzo pasta well, in a sieve, and then pour into the casserole along with the chestnuts. Season well and place the dumplings on top of the casserole. Sprinkle over a little chopped rosemary and bake in the oven, with the lid off, for 20-30 minutes until the dumplings are puffed up and nicely cooked, and the vegetables are tender.
Macaroni, Leek & Parsley Cheese
500g leeks, trimmed and cut into 1-2cm crescents
50g unsalted butter
50g plain flour
600ml semi-skimmed milk
100g British mature Cheddar, grated
3tbsp roughly chopped flat leaf parsley
2tbsp golden breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6.
Cook the pasta in a pan of boiling water for three to four minutes before adding the leeks to the pot and continuing to cook for a further five minutes. Drain the pasta and leeks and set aside.
Meanwhile, make the white sauce. Melt the butter in a medium pan and stir in the flour. Cook for one minute until thick, then, off the heat, gradually whisk in the milk, keeping the mixture smooth. Return the pan to the heat and stir constantly until thickened. Simmer for two minutes, remove from the heat, and add 75g of the Cheddar, the pasta and leeks. Stir through the parsley and season well before spooning into a 2L ovenproof dish.
Sprinkle the breadcrumbs and remaining cheese over the pasta and cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the top is crisp and golden, and the sauce is gently bubbling.
Rich Lentil Bolognese
2tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced into1/2cm pieces
2 celery sticks, diced into 1/2cm pieces
1/2tbsp fresh or dried oregano, finely chopped
3-4 rosemary sprigs
3-4 thyme sprigs
1 garlic clove, crushed
200ml full-bodied red wine
400g tin green lentils, rinsed and drained
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
1tbsp tomato puree
1 bay leaf
360g dried spaghetti (or other pasta of your choice)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Grated Parmesan, to serve (optional)
Basil leaves, to serve
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a low heat and add in the onion along with a pinch of salt and splash of water, then sweat for 10 minutes until really soft. Stir through the carrots, celery and oregano.
Tie the rosemary and thyme stems together with kitchen string and add to the pot. Continue to cook, over a low heat, for a further 15 minutes. Stir through the garlic and soften for a further minute before pouring in the red wine. Simmer until the liquid has reduced by half, one to two minutes.
Next, tip in the lentils, chopped tomatoes, tomato puree and sugar. Season well and bring the pot to a boil. Nestle in the bay leaf and reduce to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened slightly.
Meanwhile, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta for six to eight minutes until ‘al dente’, then drain.
Remove the herb bundle from the sauce and pour the Bolognese over the drained pasta and toss to coat it well. Serve with Parmesan (if using) and basil leaves scattered over.
Proper Healthy Food: Hearty Vegan And Vegetarian Recipes For Meat Lovers by Nick Knowles is available now.