Fast food needn't be junk food

Leon is at the forefront of a new generation of restaurant chains that promote healthy fast food. Its founder, Allegra McEvedy, shares her top winter recipes

It used to be that nipping out for a quick bite to eat meant picking up a soggy sandwich, flaccid burger or, at best, a limp salad. We asked little of our fast food. Aside from being an easy way to line the stomach. Nutrition didn't come into it. But now it seems we have become more demanding; a new breed of healthy fast-food chains is moving into our high streets in droves.

Take Leon for example. When it opened its first branch almost two years ago in London's Soho, crowds immediately came flocking for the healthy, seasonal fast food it offered. Revenue was 25 per cent higher than its founders, John Vincent, Henry Dimbleby and Allegra McEvedy, had anticipated. A second Leon opened in the City shortly afterwards, a third is due to open in West London, and a fourth is planned for Spitalfields in the summer.

Vincent believes the secret of its success is the fact that people have got fed up with eating stodge. "I would go on my lunch break and there would be nothing to eat but junk. I became fat and ugly," he recalls. "Fast food is a pseudonym for rubbish. At what point did it become OK to poison our nation?"

In Leon the menu monitors sugars and fats and many items are organic or GI friendly. What makes the food stand out is quite simply the quality of the ingredients. Everything from the nutty avocado to the free-range chicken and creamy feta is of the highest quality. It's not often you get food of this standard and still get change for a tenner. (The average lunchtime spend is £5.10 a head.)

"The idea is so simple, it's amazing no one's done it before," says McEvedy, formerly a chef at the River Cafe. "People know about nutrition, but healthy food needs to be yummy or people won't eat it." McEvedy changes the menu every season and spends hours working on the recipes. "I tested 50 kinds of feta for our winter salad," she says.

It's a fast-food revolution that has arguably been rolling out for the past decade. First there were the takeaway "homemade" soup chains which started with the opening of Soup Opera in Canary Wharf in the spring of 1998. Soup Works launched soon afterwards, followed by all manner of others.

Then there are the posh burger bars. Such is the number that now inhabit our high streets, it's hard to believe that the first Gourmet Burger Kitchen opened less than five years ago. Now people who like a little beetroot or rocket with their organic beef can choose between The Fine Burger Company, The Real Burger Company or The Ultimate Burger, to name just a handful.

And it's a fad not just restricted to London. After starting off in the wealthy suburbs, many chains are now expanding nationally. V2Go, for example, which has its most profitable outlet in Manchester's Trafford Centre. "I have 20 years experience in the fast-food industry," says founder Stephen Marsden, "but I realised it was time to serve something better. I couldn't eat a bad burger now."

Itsu is the Japanese take on fast food which launched in London in 1997. While its fare is basically boxed takeaways, the cooking is taken extremely seriously and sourcing ingredients is key. Apparently, the supplier will go to Covent Garden market and cut open an avocado to return half an hour later to check if it's still green before buying a batch. Glenn Edwards, Itsu's retail director, says they can afford to do this by simply selling more. "We serve 1,100 meals a day in our Piccadilly store in London - so the price can come down."

Edwards believes it's down to a change in our demands. "The faster our lives the more vices we have," he says. "But we seek to counteract that by being more health conscious. We drink more, but we make up for it by smoking less. We are incredibly conscious of lifestyle and the British public wants better, healthier food now." Chloe Scott-Moncrieff

Leon, tel: 020 7486 4424, www.leonrestaurants.co.uk; V2Go, tel: 0845 056 9851, www.v2go.co.uk; Itsu, tel: 020 7479 4794, www.itsu.com

Allegra McEvedy's winter salad

During the winter months it can be hard to get excited about salads. At Leon we strive to make our salads full of seasonal specials and, above all, damn tasty. Lentils are a good slow-release carb, and the tangy feta works great with the greens. The toppers (quinoa, alfalfa and toasted seeds) are used to finish many of our salads: firstly for the extra crunch and secondly for the nutritional punch.

Serves 4
100g/31/2oz baby spinach, washed
50g/2oz rocket, washed
150g/5oz cooked beetroot, cut into bite-sized chunks
4 tomatoes; they don't have to be absolutely ripe
1 head of broccoli
120g/4oz feta, crumbled
2 tbsp quinoa (dried weight)
A sprinkling of alfalfa
3 tbsp puy lentils
A mix of seeds (sesame, pumpkin, sunflower)

Cut the tomatoes in quarters and lay on a baking tray. Sprinkle with a little dried herb, some chopped garlic, a drizzle of olive oil and season. Put the tray somewhere warm (an airing cupboard, for example) for 4-6 hours.

Cook the lentils for as long as it says on the packet. Add the quinoa 5 minutes before they're done and simmer. Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Toast the seeds until they begin to brown. Use about a tablespoon per person.

Cut the broccoli into florettes and slice the first third of the stalk as well which, I think, is the best bit. Blanch in boiling, salted water for 3 minutes, drain and immediately place under cold water so it retains its colour.

Build the salad in the order the ingredients appear in the list and season. If you are using raw beetroot you can grate it on or boil it until the skins split, peel and dice. At Leon we use a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil to keep it light.

Baked sweet potato falafel

This is Leon's winter version of the Middle Eastern standard, replacing herbs with spices, and using sweet potatoes instead of chickpeas.

Serves 4-6
1 large or 2 small sweet potato
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
80g/23/4oz flour
1 clove garlic, chopped
A few sesame seeds
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas5 and bake the sweet potato for about an hour. Meanwhile, toast the spices in the oven on a tray for a few minutes.

Peel the sweet potato and mash roughly. Stir all the other ingredients, including a couple of pinches of salt, into the potato and place in the fridge for an hour.

Lightly oil a non-stick baking tray and, using a spoon or a falafel scoop, make your mix into falafel shapes (small round balls) and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6 and cook for 25 minutes.

We serve these with a garlicky yoghurt sauce. Just chop a little garlic into a couple of tablespoons of thick yoghurt and whisk in an egg cup full of light olive oil with some seasoning. It's also good with a bit of chilli.

Ham hock soup

This hearty, wholesome soup is enough to keep your energy levels well topped up. It's really a brothy version of the old pea and ham classic, but uses pearl barley which is a better grain for you to digest.

Serves 4
1 ham hock
500g/16oz cavolo nero or Savoy cabbage, shredded
3 carrots, whole, washed with the tops trimmed
2 whole onions, peeled
3 sticks celery, washed
2 bay leaves
150g/51/2oz pearl barley
15g/1/2oz sage, chopped
A splash of good extra virgin olive oil
Put the ham in a pan and fill with three litres of water. Put in the carrots, onions, celery and bay leaves. Boil, then simmer for 2 hours. Strain, keeping the vegetables (but not the bay leaves) and put it back on the heat.

Cook the barley and the sage in the stock for about 45 minutes then stir in the cabbage. Put the vegetables in a food processor and purée. When the ham is cool enough pull the meat apart and chop. Once the barley is ready, stir in the vegetable purée and the meat and season. Keep it all on the heat for another 10 minutes then turn off and let it rest for 10 minutes with a lid on, before serving with a splash of olive oil. It keeps for days.

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