This month we are excited to profile Nigella Lawson, the “Queen of Home Cooks,” television host and best-selling cookbook author. Here, she tells us all about her cooking philosophy, her new book Nigellissima, and exactly what makes home cooks so special.
How did you become interested in a cooking career?
Actually, I never chose a career in cooking — I lurched into it by mistake. I was a journalist, not in the food realm, but first in the literary and arts section and later as an op-ed columnist. But I have always cooked, and for me — initially — the challenge was to find a language that best expressed the experience of eating and cooking.
On top of my other non-food journalism, I took on work as restaurant critic for the Spectator Magazine and then as a food writer for British Vogue, although by the time I took on the job at Vogue I had already started work on my first book. I thought the book would be a one-off; I had no idea that food writing — let alone being a food show host — would become my career!
How did your background in journalism and as a food critic influence the way you cook and think about food?
I see each recipe I write as a piece of journalism — a story, if you will, having to answer (implicitly) the journalistic “how?-when?-why now?” precepts. For me, although the reliability of a recipe is sacrosanct, there would be no point just writing bare formulas for cooking. It has to be about what’s behind the recipe, why I want to cook it, why my readers might want to cook it, and so on.
What’s your cooking style?
To put it politely, my cooking style is informal; less kindly, it might often be called messy. I would characterize it as spontaneous. I think if a chef saw me at work he or she would wince in agony. I have no knife skills, little dexterity and no technique. But I am passionate about food and would prefer it to taste goo than to look impressive!
You’re a self-taught cook, often called the “Queen of Home Cooks.” What do you think is interesting or unique about home cooks as opposed to restaurant chefs?
In the end, a good chef is an artist, and I admire anyone who is dedicated to his or her craft and driven enough to put in the work that makes their talent sing. But not all chefs are good. Of course, not all home cooks are good, either, but for me a good home cook is the greatest thing to be, not least because I think the pleasure then belongs not only to those eating but to those cooking, too. Most chefs are ambitious, conflict-driven perfectionists, and I’m not altogether sure that’s a recipe for happiness.
Naturally, we who cook at home cannot always be blissful in the kitchen, either. But having said that, I do feel that being in one’s own kitchen, feeding those we love, gives a quiet satisfaction and sense of groundedness. Too many people apologize for being “just” a home cook. I don’t see the “just;” home cooking is what keeps us all alive. If we needed a chef’s hat or a culinary qualification in order to cook, the human race would have fallen out of the evolutionary loop a long time ago! So, instead of concentrating on what chefs can do that we can’t, I think we should value what we can do that they can’t — which is be spontaneous, unpredictable and favor foods that may not be pretty but deliver on comfort and flavor.
Tell us about making the transition from print to TV. What have been some challenges and high points?
The challenges of TV chiefly are that there are a lot more people involved, and the more people, the more opinions on how something should be done. I started doing food TV relatively late in life, by which time I had accrued enough experience to be firm about how I wanted to work: namely, I won’t be scripted and I won’t work with people I don’t like and enjoy being with. If I feel I can be me, I worry less (and, truthfully, there is a certain fear factor involved that has to be overcome). Not because I feel so confident about who I am, but because I can’t be anyone else!
What is your favorite Mother’s Day tradition?
Mother’s Day is always hard for me, as my mother died young, when she was 48. But of course, I want to celebrate with my children. To be honest, if they write me a card and bring me up a cup of tea, that’s enough for me!
Do you cook at home with your kids? What do you like to cook or teach them?
When they were little we did an awful lot of baking together. Nowadays, I try to involve them more in everyday cooking because it’s being able to get regular meals on the table that we all have to learn. For a while, I encouraged them to cook one day a week each, but they had to make the same recipe each week for a month, so that by the end of the month they no longer needed a recipe. However, they then started getting so much homework at school that it became unfeasible. But they are interested in and appreciative of food, and that gives me pleasure; unfortunately, while they have learned to cook, they seem not to have learned to wash up!
How did your own mother influence your approach to cooking?
My mother’s influence is in everything I cook, and I feel her with me every time I step into my kitchen. It’s not that I cook the same food, though much of what I cook was passed down by her, but that her attitude — spontaneous; taste, not technique, driven; impatient — is most certainly mine.
Tell us about your new book, Nigellissima. How did you become inspired by Italian cuisine?
I lived in Italy for almost a year in between leaving school and going to university and after that, there was no going back! I used to want to write a big book on Italian food, but that was before the Italian food boom, and I felt there was no need to add to the many “straight” books on the subject. What I wanted to do is write about how Italian food, Italian attitudes, Italian ingredients inform and inspire how I cook in my kitchen; you could say that Nigellissima is a culinary love letter to Italy!
Your cookbooks are best-sellers. Besides your own, what are a few of your favorite cookbooks?
I have a collection of nearly 5,000 cookbooks, so it is awfully hard to pick out just a few. But off the top of my head, I’d say Dinner for Eight by Denise Landis; Big Fat Cookies by Elinor Klivans; The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers; and Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert.
What is one of your best cooking tips or tricks that people may not already know?
Whenever you cook pasta, just before you drain it, lower in a cup and remove and reserve some of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta, but not too well, and then when you return it to the pan and add the sauce, slowly add some of the reserved starchy water, which will help the pasta amalgamate with the sauce.
What’s your biggest inspiration in the kitchen?
Food. Nothing else.