Miguel Barclay had to fake a dentist appointment to get out of work when he got his first big TV break.
After his Instagram account dedicated to meals costing £1 or less went viral in 2016, Barclay was asked to appear on This Morning – so he bunked off from his nine-to-five office job to whip up chicken katsu curry live on telly for Ruth Langsford and Eamonn Holmes.
“I turned up with pots and pans in my backpack,” Barclay recalls on a video call from his home in Camden, London, where he lives with wife Lucey and three-year-old son Charlie. “I didn’t know if they were going to provide their own pots and pans, I’d never done it!”
He then dashed back to the office, where he would sneakily beaver away on his side hustle while pretending to work.
“I used to sit at my desk and have a spreadsheet up. Obviously, if you’ve got a spreadsheet up, everyone assumes you’re working. On the way home, I used to buy my food, whatever the spreadsheet said, then go home and cook it,” he remembers.
A publisher offered Barclay a book deal after seeing his This Morning segment, and One Pound Meals was published in 2017. Now, the author has released seven titles in the series – but cookbooks weren’t the plan back when he started posting budget-friendly recipes online.
“I thought that I was going to create a community of people,” he says. “I wanted to challenge people to cook meals for a pound, but it just ended up being people just cooking my meals. I still don’t think to this day I’ve had anyone submit their own one-pound meal idea.”
With no formal training, the Surrey-born chef, 35, says he picked up his culinary skills from having a “front-row seat” in professional kitchens during his teens and 20s.
“I worked in golf clubs, hotels, McDonald’s, Pizza Express… Basically, I worked in them all, lots and lots of kitchens. I was normally just the washer-upper. Even at McDonald’s, I was the washer-upper when I first got there. I always found it really fascinating, because back then there weren’t really that many cookery shows on the telly. So I learned in the restaurants by myself.”
When his first book landed, Barclay had around 3000 Instagram followers. Now, after quitting the day job to work full-time in food, that figure has risen to 290,000, and says he knows instinctively what his “very strong core of followers” want from his books.
The latest in the series, Green One Pound Meals, is focused on plant-based dishes – but it isn’t entirely meat-free. Instead, you’ll find recipes like chicken drumstick cassoulet and prawns and peas in tarragon sauce, alongside aubergine parm burger and green veg toad in the hole.
“Personally, I’m eating less and less meat,” says Barclay. “And that’s quite a big thing in the green space, not eating so much meat. It just felt right.”
Instead of the popular “meat-free Mondays”, he suggests flipping the concept and going veggie for six days a week: “Maybe you want to save the meat for Sunday and have a roast. I think that’s definitely the way people are going, and I can definitely recommend it. It’s a lot healthier as well. And it makes you feel great.”
One of the more unusual plant-based dishes in the new book is made by frying shredded banana peel in spices and ketchup until it looks and tastes like pulled pork, an idea Barclay found on TikTok.
“I didn’t even know it could be done. So then I started experimenting – it’s really, really tasty and it’s so, so easy.”
As well as rustling up his latest book during the pandemic, Barclay opened his first takeaway outlet, Miguel’s Pizza in Camden’s Buck Street Market, then promptly had to shut it down two weeks later when the UK’s first lockdown hit.
While he recognises life would have been “more difficult if it had been a Michelin-starred restaurant”, the unflappable chef wasn’t fazed by the enforced hiatus. “You know what, I had nothing else to do,” he says. “And I didn’t know about running it before the pandemic.”
Life during lockdown didn’t change much for the self-confessed homebody, who relished having time to spend with baby Charlie.
“I very rarely leave the house or leave Camden anyway. I had a one-year-old kid, so it just meant I could just concentrate on sorting that out. He learned to walk during [the first] lockdown, and he learned to talk during the last lockdown,” he says.
Looking ahead, the Insta-famous foodie is thinking of branching out beyond his budget-based series: “I have an idea, it’s a bit of a weird one. The idea I’ve got is not a one-pound-related idea, but I haven’t spoken to the publishers about it. And they’ll probably say no!”
In the meantime, he’s happy to keep tinkering away on his spreadsheet and serving up deliciously simple recipes for his loyal followers, whether they’re watching the pennies or not.
“I don’t write [books] to solve a problem. I write them more because it’s my hobby, and I just enjoy making food that costs a pound because it’s a challenge,” Barclay says. “I never preach about stuff. A lot of people that buy my books aren’t even on a budget. They’re just lovely recipes.”
‘Green One Pound Meals’ by Miguel Barclay (published by Headline Home, £16.99; photography by Dan Jones), available now.