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veganism

The Unexpected Rise of the Vegan Lad

We meet Henry Firth and Ian Theasby of food brand BOSH!, and step into their gently blokey influencer world for the day.

by Phoebe Hurst
22 May 2019, 8:30am

Left: Ian Theasby and Henry Firth of BOSH! Photo by the author. Pint man photo: Chris Bethell 

I’m in Clapham, southwest London with Ian Theasby and Henry Firth. In the basement kitchen-stroke-studio of the flat they share, a set of gym rings hangs from the stairs. Ian grips the rings, rotating his body in a gymnastics move that Henry tells me is called “skin the cat.” This is the only animal, with or without its skin, that I will encounter on my visit this afternoon. Henry and Ian are founders of BOSH!, a vegan cooking channel.

“We wanted to show that vegans can go on the hoops and do a skin the cat and not be deficient in things,” Henry says. Ian's dismounted from the hoops now and we sit at the breakfast bar to eat a BOSH!-recipe lasagne, made with mushroom “mince” and a plant milk Bechamel. “Because actually, it's perfectly normal and blokey," Henry continues. "Vegans can drink a pint of beer and get wasted with their mates on a night out. Vegans can do all that stuff and it can be just as masculine or feminine – or neither – to be vegan. You don’t have to be boring dude wearing a jumper.”

This was the mission three years ago, when Henry and Ian uploaded their first post to the BOSH! Facebook page: a video showing how to make "healthy sushi cake." Shot from above with simple on-screen instructions and visually appealing ingredients, it got more than 3 million views. “Our inspiration is a bit from Buzzfeed Tasty,” Henry says. “They were just doing cheese and bacon wrapped in more cheese and bacon put inside a potato. We were like, ‘Nah man, c’mon, let’s make plants look as sexy as that looks.’”

At the time, the pair – from Sheffield and friends since secondary school – were working at a tech start-up. Ian went vegan first; Henry followed after that classic tipping point: a harrowing evening spent watching Cowspiracy. BOSH! combined their digital skills and newfound interest in vegan cooking. “We both went on a learning process then. How to stock your cupboards, how to get food when you’re out and about,” Henry says. “We realised this was a knowledge gap in the world because amazing, delicious vegan food is easy to make but it wasn’t easy to find. So we set out on making that our mission.” Neither Henry nor Ian had professional food experience so they made the dishes up as they went along, refining them in reaction to fans’ comments and viewer numbers, as well as their personal taste.

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Vegan lasagne made with mushroom "mince" and a plant milk Bechamel

BOSH! now claim to attract 26 million video views per month. Their audience spans 1.9 million Facebook followers, 87,000 YouTube subscribers and a hugely popular Instagram profile. In 2018, HarperCollins published the pair's first cookbook, BOSH!: Simple Recipes. Amazing Food. All Plants, which became the best-selling vegan cookbook since records began. Their second book, BISH, BASH, BOSH!: Amazing flavours. Any meal. All plants, came out last month to similar acclaim. Last week, they beat Yotam Ottolenghi to win "non-fiction book of the year" at the prestigious British Book Awards. Before these guys, prominent male vegans tended to be extreme lifestyle dudes like the Cro-Mags frontman and ultramarathon runner John Joseph, or reformed sesh heads like Matt Pritchard. Now, they're the everyman.

As BOSH!’s popularity grew, its fans wanted to know more about the owners of the disembodied hands. Despite launching BOSH! as a faceless cooking channel, both men obliged, and began creating vlogger-style videos of what they get up to on their days off or reactions to the new Impossible Burger. In one video, they make a ratatouille with Gary Barlow. “People were messaging saying, ‘We want to know more information about who you are,’” Henry says. “I think the publisher were also very excited about us revealing ourselves, so when we got to a million fans, that’s when we said hi.” As Ian puts it, “Neither of us had gone to any kind of acting school – this is all very natural. We’d never consider ourselves influencers or celebrities, we’re just guys who run BOSH!.”

I can understand why the publisher was excited. Part of BOSH!’s appeal rests in their relatability. Both men look like the kind of guys you might meet on an unremarkable Bumble date, or have a pleasant chat with about the new Black Mirror at a mutual friend’s house party. In person, they're charming, at ease in the presence of a journalist. Ian bounces around the breakfast bar and Henry fusses over a tofu fish finger sandwich, moving stray peas so that I can get the perfect shot of the oozy garlic mayo. I'm the second press visit to the BOSH! studio this week. “Yesterday, we had like ten people here,” Henry says. “You can get a bit like rabbit-in-the-headlights because you’re constantly having photos taken!” They pose, smiling, when I ask them to stand in front of the BOSH! light box.

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Inside the flat and studio Henry and Ian share in Clapham, southwest London

BOSH!'s food is similarly appealing. Unlike many vegan influencers, their recipes use supermarket ingredients and mimic classic omnivorous dishes. You don’t need to activate organic almonds or spend ten quid on nutritional yeast – they’ll show you how to make a cheese-free pizza that isn’t shit or "popcorn falafel" that’s as good as KFC. It’s telling that Ian and Henry have been referred to as both new Jamie Olivers and the vegan Ant and Dec.

“It’s hearty with a little bit of health thrown in,” Henry says. “We’re not going to health food shops and buying expensive ingredients. Our food is incredible results with basic ingredients from Tesco – that’s what we’re about.” And it seems to be working. On a purely anecdotal level, everyone I know who went vegan in the last year has a copy of BOSH!: Simple Recipes. The promotional circuit for their latest book sounds like the European tour of a minor K-pop band.

“We were in Amsterdam two weeks ago and we rocked up to this thing called Veggie World,” Ian says. “We were like, ‘God, this is Holland, who is going to turn up to this thing? Why have they sent us here?’ We got to this room and, no word of a lie, there’s 400 people there and they’re going mad.” Henry continues: “Like standing ovation, sold-out crowd. We had the same thing in Brussels.”

“And we couldn’t be more happy,” Ian adds, quickly. “Obviously for us it’s a great life experience, but also online if this is happening to us, it means vegan food is getting bigger.”

BOSH! represent a new breed of vegan influencers, distinct from both the early wave of DIY bloggers like Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Oh She Glows, and the chia seed-evangelising Instagrammers who eschewed meat and dairy in the name of wellness. As veganism becomes fully mainstream, and we no longer view plant-based diets as a form of “clean eating”, the lads have stepped in. Alongside BOSH!, the last few years have given rise to Gaz Oakley, a 26-year-old Cardiff vlogger whose Avant Garde Vegan channel has more than 630,000 subscribers, and The Happy Pear, the often topless vegan YouTubers recently dubbed “Ireland’s most famous identical twin brothers.”

But when I mention the recent rise of blokey vegan influencers, Henry and Ian say that age, not gender, is the biggest difference between their audience and those of the plant-based bloggers who came before. “Younger people are much more on board with veganism because they’re thinking more independently about food and what they put into their bodies. I think it’s more than about gender,” says Henry, although he does add: “You are seeing more and more men moving into vegan food and people like us or Gaz Oakley are making that possible.”

Of course, BOSH!’s popularity isn't entirely down to a strong social media strategy or being good on camera – it’s about the recipes too. Ian and Henry made the decision not to put “vegan” on the front cover of both their cookbooks. Inside, you’ll find "Notting Hill patties," sweet potato tikka masala, "burrito samosas" and hoisin pancakes next to one another. Gaz Oakley and the Pear brothers have a similarly apolitical approach to food, sharing recipes for Bombay potato curries and vegan jerk burgers, along with steak and kidney pie. In vegan lad world, vegan food is just vegan food. Except don’t call it vegan, it is simply: food. The only grouping BOSH! subscribe to is you – the dairy- and meat-avoiding individual – and what you want to eat.

“We wanted to have ‘your favourites’ from different cuisines,” Henry says, of the new cookbook. “We have this chapter at the beginning with a visual index with curries, Southeast Asian, takeaway classics, Christmas, eat the rainbow, Mediterranean, protein, British classics. It was about your favourites from different cuisines and showing that you can use plants for all of them.”

Did they have any concern about accusations of cultural appropriation, I ask? Henry pauses for a moment. "What, like the jerk rice thing?" he laughs. “We’re appropriating everything from meat,” Henry continues “We used to love pulled pork sandwiches and now we’ve got a pulled jackfruit sandwich. Veganising is what we do so maybe that will happen later but for now, it’s all appropriated from meat.”

Ian jumps in. "In the age of the internet, it’s difficult not to appropriate. You just take influence from everywhere and in my pocket" – he fishes out his iPhone – "I've got a window to the entire world. It’s really difficult not to have a little bit of this from here, a little bit of that from there and just bang it all in together and have this wonderful thing."

“There would definitely be some Italians who would complain about a pizza being made with cashew mozzarella," says Henry, "so I think that, like...” he pauses again, a perfectly relaxed smile stepping in as he searches for the right words, “we just don’t worry about that. At the end of the day, food has always been appropriated and rehashed and turned into this and turned into that.”

“It’s one of the reasons the British Empire took such a keen interest in India because they were like, right, food can taste good, finally,” Ian adds.

“And was it Picasso who said, ‘good artists copy, great artists steal,” Henry agrees. “I think there is no true originality, it’s all just an evolution of what’s done before – at least we’re honest about that.”

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A BOSH! recipe tofu fish finger sandwich with vegan mayonnaise and peas

When Henry and Ian do talk issues, their gentle approach sticks firmly to the environment, never straying into the messy intersections between race, identity and food. They both seem to clearly care about the environment – as anyone who got freaked out by Cowspiracy does. Their Instagram contains earnest to-camera videos recommending the new David Attenborough climate change film and shout-outs to Extinction Rebellion in between the pulled jackfruit sandwiches. But preaching to the masses about melting ice caps is not a BOSH! priority.

“We’re not bothered about raising awareness, there are people already doing that,” Henry says. “But what we do want to do is show you how to make a pulled pork sandwich out of jackfruit or a New York-style cheesecake out of tofu. That’s what we’re good at and I don’t think we’re ever going to get involved in a political debate.”

Maybe this is how we get people – twenty-somethings who can’t imagine life without hungover McMuffins; parents who want new midweek fajita recipes – to go vegan: inoffensive white guys with recipes for reggae reggae pizza and regular YouTube uploads. As a species, we must drastically reduce our carbon emissions, which means finding a way to eat less meat. The BOSH! method certainly seems to be working – in three years, it has created one of the most followed vegan pages on Facebook. But that doesn’t mean we can’t question why theirs is the brand that inspires widespread change to meat-eating habits, rather than a member of the active black vegan blogging community, or one of the many cultures whose cuisine has been rooted in plant-based cooking for centuries.

As we finish our lasagne, Henry gets his phone out to show me some of the responses to the latest BOSH! Instagram post. One woman is making cookies with her year ten class; someone else has sent a photo of a BOSH! dish they cooked at the weekend. There are countless more likes and comments. “We’re lucky enough to be able to wake up and do something that, for us, is meaningful,” he says. “And trying to make the world a better place as well.”

@phoebejanehurst