DIY SOS’s Nick Knowles talks us about not being a “typical” vegan and his venture in opening up a vegan bistro
There is no such thing as the ‘typical’ vegan and proving this better than anyone is TV star Nick Knowles. With his 6’2” frame, and 46 inch chest, the DIY SOS presenter is as far away as you can get from the unfair stereotype of the weak and frail herbivore.
“I’m not what people expect for a vegan,” he tells Vegan Life. “Nor do plant-based restaurants cater often for my type of appetite-I’m a big unit and need a good wholesome feed so decided to get into the industry with a restaurant and a book later this year for meat eaters who want to change over and give it a try. People do have doubts and do tend to think it’s all grated salad and cabbage and people who dress like they’re at a festival, but good health is for anybody so we have to encourage people to try, rather than barrack them for their current eating habits.”
The restaurant he talks about is O’Joy in Shrewsbury. “It’s great. It has a relaxed cafe restaurant vibe with alternative therapies available upstairs-I see people peering through the window wanting to give it a try but I think they’re worried we’ll get them wearing tie-dye and skipping if they come in.
“The vibe is come and eat healthy and tasty food once a week and you’ll be healthier, three times week better still, maybe get some reflexology or just a coffee and a raw chocolate slice that tastes good to get you started. It’s about tasty food with no pressure so give it a try. I love the Thai curry but it’s all lovely and we’ll keep introducing new ideas all the time. Becky Porter who started the restaurant and who I’m now in partnership with has a really good instinct for the menu and therapies.”
Nick became vegan earlier this year when he took a group of people to Thailand to a retreat to make a show about fasting, alternative therapies and the benefits of a plant-based diet. “The results were astounding,” he says. “And so I have continued with it since. I am now predominantly vegan which means currently 100 per cent of the time.”
His transition to a plant-based lifestyle-and involvement in the restaurant business-is no surprise. Nick says: “I am very much a foodie. I’m a decent chef, I’ve tried most Michelin-star restaurants, have some chef buddies, cooked for my pescatarian wife, and always did a lot of vegan and veggie dishes even when I was eating meat.
“Shrewsbury where the restaurant is based is a real foodie place too. Apart from us at O Joy there’s Chris Burt chef at the Peach Tree is a real food artist, truly wonderful, Drapers Hall does some great food, Swift bakers are making us artisan breads especially for us – there’s great food talent in Shrewsbury and a fantastic food fair in the summer.”
The star does not pull any punches when talking about the issues he currently sees within veganism. He says: “One of the things that worried me about the vegan community when I joined it is the militant nature of some of those who are in it. A plant-based diet has massive benefits but I know a lot of people are put off by the militant nature of the vegan tribe so won’t even try it – good health should be for everyone not just members of a particular sect.
“The health benefits are huge and food in general is heading that way for most people so business will only go up. The restaurant is a sound investment for me and I’m there to help with menu, marketing and to change how people see veganism away from this slightly cult feeling, I hope.”
The busy presenter is no stranger to travelling to a number of locations to film his shows, so has found his own tricks for dealing with a lack of plant-based catering, saying: “I think most places, if you ask, will now try to provide vegan alternatives but the trick is to think in advance and take a bag of shopping with you. It’s easy to nip into a veg shop and get enough raw fruit a veg to satisfy any appetite if your hotel or local restaurant can’t help.”
Nick’s schedule is currently packed with creative projects. “I have lots more DIY SOS coming up, Saturday night quizzes and my first movie-written and produced by me-Golden Years, will be in Odeon cinemas end of April. It’s about a bunch of pensioners who are buddies at a bowls club that find their pensions aren’t enough to live on so combine a caravan tour of National Trust properties with robbing banks and building societies to help their friends. There’s a fantastic British cast with Bernard Hill, Sue Johnston and Virginia McKenna-vegetarian and campaigner for wildlife and animals in general with Born Free Foundation-in the lead.”
Nick supports the Born Free Foundation (as well as a number of other animal charities) and previously said of the charity: “They do great work and I like the people in it. The fact that we can have long discussions around the camp fire and talk for hours passionately about Born Free’s work and different beliefs and philosophies and they don’t get irritated, is really encouraging and it’s this holistic and open minded approach to their conservation work with animals is the reason I’m wild about Born Free.”
And Nick wants to take this open-minded and inclusive approach and use it to encourage people into veganism. He says: “Let’s encourage people to try being vegan not shout at them for eating other things-I think we’ll have more success and frighten people less.”