After a brain tumour halted his career, John Lawson, a chef who has worked with the likes of Raymond Blanc and Gordon Ramsay, now puts health at the heart of his food.

This article has been adapted from a feature by Louise Wates, originally published in Autumn 2018.

In 2015, John Lawson had his own high-end restaurant at the Crown Plaza in Melbourne, Australia.

Three years on, after being treated for a slow-growing, cancerous brain tumour, he is back home in Essex where he grew up, creating food concepts, and cooking gluten- and dairy-free tasting menus.

He is also [in 2018] planning Brain Food — an event to raise money and awareness for Brain Tumour Research Campaign — with Raymond Blanc, a former boss who readily came on board to give his support.

It is hard to imagine that Lawson was so ill so recently. Now, he says he feels the healthiest he’s ever been.

His tumour could come back at any time, so these days he is on a ketogenic diet (typically high-fat, medium-protein, low-carbohydrate) which is used to treat epilepsy in children and has been investigated as a means to improve outcomes in patients with brain tumours.

And twice a month he consults a nutritionist who has been working with him on his diet.

Nutrition: a new obsession

Returning to England has meant a completely new start.

In Australia, he says, he was the “luckiest man” there. “At the age of 28 I got o­ffered a restaurant at the Crown Casino with my name on it.”

Within a year it had been awarded a Chef Hat — the equivalent of a Michelin star. Nutrition, he says, wasn’t something that he thought of much.

“I’d never been interested in [nutrition], to be honest with you. I always enjoyed eating healthy food but... I was doing what any chef does. I was working long hours, you’re working late nights, you don’t look after yourself. You just think ‘I’ll be fine’.”

Illness made Lawson realise that he didn’t want to live as he had done before his diagnosis.

“I started reading lots and lots of books on gut health and how the gut talks to the brain... I learnt so much during that time, I became obsessed with nutrition and kind of geeked out on the whole thing.

Nutrition had become “a whole new mindset, and it was what I wanted to do”.

From Michelin stars to low-carb

When he was at catering college, nutrition was only a small part of the syllabus. “When we’re cooking we’re not cooking for nutrition to fuel our guests … that is not the focal point. The focal point is to make it taste good.

“With tasting menus and Michelin stars you only get the best produce, so generally it is nutritious and healthy — but the focus is not nutrition.

“The focus is getting accolade, getting a Michelin star, how to be on trend with everyone else.

“I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to do it my way.”

Lawson decided to incorporate nutrition into his cuisine, and he cut out typical ingredients such as gluten, sugar and dairy. The restaurant’s tasting menus are also low in carbohydrate.

“Guests leave here not stu­ffed, they leave here happy. I believe that is how we should be eating when we are having a tasting menu. “

Despite his desire to create healthy food, Lawson says this is not the focus of the restaurant. “People dine in here and don’t know it’s about health,” he says. “I don’t want it to be in everyone’s face.”

Breeding education, questions and learning

But he believes that the public should be able to eat healthily. “We should be feeding people the right food. Chefs should be educated on health and nutrition — they’re not, they should be. We should be taught [nutrition] because we are feeding the public.

“People are just getting sick, more autoimmune diseases, cancer...”

To spread awareness, Lawson holds ticketed talks and masterclasses aimed at the public, on typically cheffy subjects such as fish or wine, and also more nutrition-oriented subjects.

“We get a lot of questions, so I have a nutritionist there as well.

“I’m not an expert, I don’t claim to be an expert — I’m a chef. But I love these kinds of environments because they breed education, questions and learning.”

Not your typical fundraiser

Lawson hopes that Brain Food will raise awareness as well as money for charity.

It’s certainly a far cry from the typical cake-o­ffs that most of us are used to when it comes to raising money for charity.

As sugar is increasingly being associated with diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer, the irony of cake and coffee mornings to raise money for health-related charities is not lost on Lawson.

“Most of the time it’s horrendous what’s being o­ffered in these fundraisers, because they’re not healthy at all!” he says. Yet, he adds, it isn’t impossible to do it more healthily.

“Co­ffee’s not bad, you can have tea... nice teas…” he says. “It’s quite nice — especially if it’s something like a celebration or charity — to have a cake; then let’s go down the route of having something like raw brownies or raw cacao cakes rather than a processed or refined sugar cake, which is raising our blood sugar horrendously and not doing anyone any good.

“There’s loads of options — just google it. There’s so many recipes for everything.”

When it comes to health, he says he is hopeful for the future. And in the meantime, he hopes that he can also inspire others to eat well and for better health.

Here are some of our healthy cake recipes:

Enjoyed this article?

Learn about how to make the healthiest smoothies

For articles and recipes subscribe to the Optimum Nutrition newsletter

Discover our courses in nutrition