Star Interview: The Sheffield friends with an online audience of millions for meat-free recipes that don't moralise
'Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.'
The American author and professor Michael Pollan offered up this brisk dietary guide more than 10 years ago, defining it as the short answer to the question of how to stay ‘maximally healthy’.
And it appears his advice has been taken to heart. There were three-and-a-half times as many vegans in 2016 as there were a decade earlier, and the NHS says well over a million people in the UK are vegetarian.
At the vanguard of this lifestyle movement are Sheffield friends Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, who share videos of themselves cooking recipes free from animal products on YouTube and Facebook. Their channel – called BOSH! – has reached a billion people, they say, notching up in excess of 25 million views a month.
Henry and Ian dial down the ethics of veganism. There is no gory slaughterhouse footage designed to shock and influence; in fact, they barely use the word ‘vegan’ at all. Their clips are simply colourful, concise lessons in how to prepare ‘plant-based’ meals.
Now the pair are extending their brand, having just published their first recipe book following what was apparently a competitive bidding war between publishers, won by HarperCollins.
They live and work together at a studio in Mile End, London, but were back in Sheffield last week for a talk at Waterstones in Orchard Square, where they gave demonstrations and met around 100 of their fans. Beforehand they sat down to chat upstairs, the pair looking exactly as they do online – bright-eyed, trim and carefully groomed, sporting an identical uniform of black T-shirts and jeans.
Success, they say, can seem unreal. The bookshop has a huge poster of their faces in the window, a reminder of their new status.
“It is surreal,” says Henry, who’s the more softly-spoken of the two but does more of the talking. “But I don’t think we let that hype get into our heads. We’ve written a book, but it’s just that, and it’s important we bear that in mind.”
Visits to their home city are few and far between these days.
“Last year was insanely busy for us both,” Ian says. “I think I managed to get back to Sheffield for all of about a week in total, which isn’t good.”
“All our mates are still here, starting families and having babies,” observes Henry. “We come back every Christmas Eve to get drunk in The Lescar, usually – the pub where I had my first pint aged 13.”
Henry, 34, and Ian, 33, met at High Storrs School aged 11. They were in different ‘houses’ at the secondary but became good pals. Both of Henry’s parents worked in education, while Ian’s mother was a practice nurse and his dad was a teacher. They each have a dish named after them in the book, including a favourite recipe from Ian’s mother: Shirley’s Sheffield Scones.
“I remember going round to one of Henry’s birthday parties once,” says Ian, who lived at Banner Cross. “I got him Firestarter by The Prodigy on cassette, but he was like ‘I’ve already got it on vinyl.’”
“Was I grateful?” asks Henry, who grew up in Nether Edge.
“Oh, yes, you were grateful,” replies Ian. “I gave it to you anyway. But there were obviously lots of synergies, music being one of them.”
Ian was first to become vegan. He decided to give up alcohol for three months at the start of 2015, and found it easy, so cut out meat as well, which turned out to be less straightforward.
“I did loads of reading about vegetarianism. The more I read, the more I learned, and I decided I was going to try being vegan. And I haven’t looked back. In fact, it’s basically been the best thing I’ve ever done.”
He claims his hair became thicker, he became slimmer and slept better. Henry, however, thought his friend’s health kick was ‘completely ridiculous’.
“I was eating all the meat; both of us were. But he’d gone on some cleanse, and I was on nice, organic meat in my freezer, thank you very much.”
But his mind was changed when together they watched Kip Andersen’s documentary Cowspiracy, which argues that animal agriculture is destroying the environment.
“It was an overnight decision to cut out animal products,” Henry admits. But at the same time he began thinking about how to package the message in a ‘more palatable way’.
“We found it really hard to know what to eat. We made it our mission to make it easier for everyone to cook.”
They don’t moralise, he explains, because most of their friends still eat meat. “We appreciate everyone has a different perspective.”
Ian and Henry consider themselves ‘food remixers’, recreating traditional dishes such as chilli con carne and spaghetti bolognese in vegan form. They’re all in the book, even fish and chips, with battered tofu taking the place of cod.
At first Ian planned to open a café in Sheffield, but was persuaded instead to spread the word on the web by Henry, who was already living in London. Their backgrounds are in social media, digital and graphic design, and they knew an opportunity was there for the taking.
“I’d seen there was this new era of mobile video, and combining that with food was a really good way to get a massive amount of people to engage with you and watch your videos,” says Henry.
“We dreamed of massive numbers,” Ian agrees. “Both of us are super proud of what we’ve managed to achieve in such a small period of time.”
Are they making money?
“The book helped,” Henry says. “Food is a great place to be because brands want you to use their ingredients. It was a labour of love. But yes, it’s our full-time job and it does support us.”
Further books are on the cards, and they have been approached about fronting a television programme, but ‘haven’t found the right idea yet’.
“The TV show is the next logical step for vegan food in general,” reasons Ian.
Trends such as ‘clean eating’, and the fashion for cutting out gluten among people without coeliac disease or an intolerance, have been controversial, and people’s relationship with food can be easily affected. Where does BOSH! sit in this climate?
“Our book definitely has a fair bit of gluten in it,” says Henry quickly. “We are certainly not clean eating. We do like a pint of beer, and a lasagne, and a burger. The recipes we’ve got are pretty damn sustainable. You could eat from that book every single meal. It is a bible you could follow.”
The duo have been to Bakewell, where they were quizzing locals about the town’s famous tarts so they can ‘nail a recipe’, minus eggs, at home. They’re equally determined to achieve a vegan Yorkshire pudding, perhaps with dosa batter. The pair have worked wonders in the past with aquafaba, the protein-rich liquid found in a tin of chickpeas that behaves like egg whites when whipped.
“We’ve made some phenomenal meringues,” says Ian excitedly. “It’s magic, that stuff. Whoever came up with that idea is either crazy or a genius.”
‘Overnight successes don’t exist’
There are no ‘overnight successes’ in the world of social media broadcasting, say Henry Firth and Ian Theasby.
“Often, it’s a nice story, but it’s not the truth,” says Henry. “We worked for at least a year before even putting a video anywhere. When we did go live we spent four days, pretty much 20 hours a day, filming 20 videos which we then put up every day over four weeks. That’s a lot of work and planning. Don’t believe the hype that you can start making things and it will just kick off. Don’t spend any money, do it for free, for cheap. Do it because you love it.”
Ian chips in: “Fortune does usually favour the brave. We could have had this idea and not done anything about it.”
They must be the most successful digital personalities to emerge from Sheffield, but Ian disagrees, citing Arctic Monkeys, whose music was initially shared on MySpace and forums. But the High Green band has since followed a traditional path, releasing records conventionally, steering clear of Twitter and only doing the odd print interview.
“We stay humble and grounded. But we are making waves now,” Ian says. “People will recognise us in London, occasionally, and say ‘Are you the guys from BOSH?’ The people who do follow us are quite feverish about it.”
Henry stresses: “That is when you go to vegan restaurants, though.”