Liberty London Girl is the hit blog read in over 138 countries, so what next for Sasha Wilkins? Thanks to those very readers, it’s her first cookbook: Friends Food Family
A chat with Liberty London Girl Sasha Wilkins is anything but predictable. Even before we settle down at a table at Yumchaa in Camden, Sasha is reeling off anecdotes to do with London Fashion Week, travelling and over-writing, and it takes some time to actually get on to the reason for this interview: her cookbook Friends Food Family…
So life must be busy what with the book launch and London Fashion Week in full swing. Considering your blog and business, how do you juggle so much?
I am really lucky, although I will always quote my friend Jackie Dixon, who when she moved from Vogue to Brides at Condé Naste got a necklace saying ‘lucky’ because she was fed up with people telling her she’s lucky – you know it’s just really hard work. But I do think serendipity always plays a part, the right time, right place thing – I do think I am lucky person in that things generally work out. My apartment burnt down in 2010 and I got a tropical disease and ran out of money – but I got offered a press trip back to Europe from America, which meant I could get treated because I had no medical health insurance in the US. It’s unlucky getting sick and having my house burnt down, but it was lucky someone then invited me back to Europe… I think that’s lucky! Or optimistic.
Also, no-one expects to have a second or even a third act in their career. I went to America, got that dream job on the Wall Street Journal, hated every minute of it, didn’t know what I was going to do next. I felt I had hit a brick wall. Relaunching the blog again and then it being so successful so incredibly quickly was never part of my game plan. I restarted the blog because I needed something to do, I needed a place to write while I was on a sabbatical tearing my hair out. No-one likes to fail and I felt like I failed. Nobody reading my blog in 2009 would have known I was on sabbatical because I didn’t know what the hell to do with the rest of my life, but being on that sabbatical changed my life. I started using Twitter and then my blog started becoming really big, readers just stayed with whatever I did. I had found people who liked my tone of voice.
Was there a particular moment when you realised it was becoming big?
In the first year I started blogging, 2007, Grazia picked it up and put it in their barometer and that was fairly astonishing because it was a tiny blog. Social media wasn’t being used then, I joined Facebook that summer, you couldn’t promote a blog – to find it was astonishing. It certainly wasn’t through me, people were finding it through Google or recommendation at that point. I had 30,000 page views in 2007, I get that in three or four days now, or one day if you are in the Daily Mail as I have just discovered [Lydia Slater’s interview with her appeared in the Mail on Sunday four days before we meet]!
When I went back to blogging in 2009, I realised that I was on the Sunday Times’ 100 best websites in the world list – not just blogs, but websites. It turned out to be India Knight who read my blog in 2007, I never knew that, and she put forward her three favourite blogs and I was one of them. I had American agents getting in touch, but I wasn’t really owning it – my head still wasn’t in a very good place because of the Wall Street Journal fiasco. Then the Telegraph put me in a best blogging lists and that got syndicated – the power of the perfect syndication – it went into the Australian, Indonesian newspapers and that listed the top ten fashion blogs and it was the gift that kept on giving for about four months, just sending colossal amounts of traffic. That’s when I realised it could possibly be my job – but I didn’t know how.
So where did the idea for the cookbook come from?
The cookbook came about because everybody on the blog kept asking me to write one, it was really as simple as that. This recipe (pointing to the top image on the book’s cover) is the most popular recipe I have ever written [LibertyLondonGirl’s Salad]. I don’t even think it’s a recipe, it’s a mixture of delicious food you can knock up from your fridge. They ran this in the Mail on Sunday feature and my Twitter feed is full of people tweeting me to say they made the salad and it’s their most favourite thing ever. It’s really lovely… The difference being on a blog, you have nice people talking to you about lovely things and sending you pictures of sausage dogs, and pictures of recipes they have made. It’s a very nice place to go, the blogging community, if you have been through the big newspaper mill. It’s very nice to go somewhere people are charming and aren’t mean to you!
When did you come back to London for good?
I came back in 2011. My sister has got multiple sclerosis, it’s getting worse, but she’s mobil – sorry, mobile, bad Americanism! When you are in America if you don’t speak American no-one understands you, I got so fed up being cutely English but incomprehensible to everybody. She’s on benefits and it’s no fun, and my job is a lot of fun I am not going to lie, so I can give her a quality of life that’s way beyond her physical, mental or fiscal abilities, that is why I came back. But karma – my business has gone whoosh since I came back.
And you came back to Camden?
Yes, Albert Street. The writer Tim Hayward, his sister in law is one of my best friends and appears in the blog a lot and lives in Highbury. I tweeted ‘friend looking for a place in London’, and Tim said ‘I presume that is you and would you like to move into my basement’. So I moved in there in Albert Street. They then sold it in the summer of 2011 to open up Fitzbillies their restaurant in Cambridge and I moved across the road. I have always been in North London. I moved to Kentish Town when I graduated, I bought a flat in Gospel Oak in 1999 with my sister and owned it for ten years. When I left university all my friends lived on the Cally Road, Holloway Road, then as they got more money moved down towards Angel. This has always been my bit of London, I don’t go south of the river unless I have a compass and a bag of nuts.
There’s plenty going on here to keep you interested…
I love Camden, I couldn’t be happier than living here. We are launching an App, LibertyLondonGirl’s guide to Camden, because no-one has done a good one yet. There’s plenty of people who come here, it’s something like the third biggest tourist destination in London now, but they are doing amazing work renovating it, especially Camden Lock food market. Great restaurants, global food court, really interesting design shops, it’s not all hippies and containers of crap from Asia. We are sitting in Yumchaa, which I love… Camden has kept enough independent shops going here. Being in London informs everything that I do and that’s become my identity now, in the same way fashion informs my identity even though I am not a fashion site. I like doing the fashion stuff as that was my career for a really long time and I would be sad if I had to give it up, and a lot of my clients are fashion brands. Ralph Lauren are hosting my book launch party for my book… They want to put their fashion brands in a lifestyle context. It makes sense, a lot of fashion blogs are only read by other fashion bloggers. I am actually read more by people who aren’t bloggers, I have got a lovely wide reach of people who don’t really engage with digital at all, but they do read me. It’s why it’s commercially successful – I am in my 30s, I speak to a demographic that is not served very well by traditional personal blogs, certainly not fashion blogs. Either they are mummy blogs or they are homeware blogs.
Does blogging come really easy to you?
Sometimes, you must know this, you just can’t be arsed! You are sitting there and you have got to transcribe an interview, it’s the same as any writing gig. Sometimes it’s within you, sometimes it isn’t… It’s not always easy. Because now I have a got a business to run, it gets to 11pm I would have been working all day, and I realise I have got no blog post up. Last night I was up until 1.20am writing because I didn’t start blogging until midnight.
Back to the cookbook, I love the little introductions to each dish. Is this a very personal book?
Every single recipe in this book was cooked by me and photographed by me, so there was no dry ice and gravy browning on the chicken to make it look crispy, this is literally my food – and my dog. It really is my life and the things that I have done, that’s what I wanted it to feel like. It’s meant to feel inside the world of a blog.
Your enthusiasm is infectious – was it enjoyable putting the book together?
I wanted to cry nearly every single day! Writing a book at the same time as running a business is no fun. Also doing it in December and January when it only gets light at 9am and goes at 3pm, if you have meetings and get home after lunch the light has gone… I am never shooting a book in winter again. It was really hard work, I am not going to pretend that I dashed it out, I can’t bear people who pretend sh*t like that. Hollywood stars – not that I am putting myself on the same level as them – go ‘yes I am naturally skinny and look after my kids’, but don’t mention the 8 nannies and fitness instructors on speed dial. It was really hard work, it’s a full-time job writing a book. My flat is full of mess, full of cooking equipment, full of food, just awful. I had a mouse invasion, my oven door broke, I burnt off all the skin on my knee on the oven door… It really was a labour of love and I am really proud to have got it completed. I signed with Quadrille last July, so it was a really quick process. I ran a pop-up restaurant in my flat for about 70 people in September last year, created a Google calendar and booked people in…
Did an interest in cooking start at an early age?
My mother is a phenomenal cook, really good. She has been in Waitrose Kitchen as a great English domestic cook. She used to cook pates and things for local delis, she is by far the best domestic cook I have ever met. And she is inventive. She would cook game, investigate with products, you can’t help but be fascinated by food growing up with a mother who makes everything. Apart from baked beans, we never had processed food.
So who is your reader?
It’s perfect for anybody who loves food. I love food, so I hope my passion and enthusiasm for food comes through. When we were pitching it I said I wanted this book to be accessible to both the novice and the seasoned cook, but it shouldn’t just be talking to one. One of the things I have discovered writing the blog – it’s great as you get permanent feedback from people – a lot are terrified of cooking. They really are, it just doesn’t fall for them. They want to religiously follow a recipe. So when I wrote the recipes I wanted to make sure they had a lot of chat – don’t open the door while you are cooking, if you needed special equipment I wanted to make sure it was in the ingredients at the start – the amount of times I have cooked a recipe where halfway through I realise I don’t have the equipment to make that recipe. It should have enough interest in it. I don’t want someone to do a recipe and something goes wrong – here’s what you do if it’s not working. I read cooking books, I rarely cook from them, so I wanted a lot of chat in this.
Is this the first recipe book of many?
I am writing my second one already, photographing it too while we have got some sunshine and seasonal fruit. A couple of recipes didn’t make in here purely because I couldn’t get hold of the ingredients in the middle of winter. I cooked twice as many recipes than is in it, so there’s quite a lot kicking around already. I am going to write a book that’s a little bit more about having a lot of people at the same table with different requirements, so a few more gluten-free, or integrated – here’s how to make a vegetarian version of a meat dish. Gluten-free is huge. I think we do eat generally in a more healthy way these days. It’s been a really interesting journey. I never thought I’d sit here with a cookbook in front of me, but I am absolutely thrilled. It’s quite weird!
Interview by Mark Kebble
Friends Food Family by Sasha Wilkins is out now, priced at £18.99; libertylondongirl.com