Early last year, I was lucky enough to see Nigella Lawson at Business Chicks Melbourne Breakfast.
Nigella is an inspiring talent with a way of crafting sentences that is both engaging and beautiful to listen to. She mentioned when she reads she often thinks to herself that she loves the taste of good sentences – and I can confirm I enjoyed the taste of the ones she spoke.
She had gems of business advice hidden amongst her frank chat on food and the industry vs home cooking, as well as some insights into the filming of her show – which this video-phile was immensely excited by.
Without further ado, the interview from the charming Nigella Lawson at Business Chicks Melbourne breakfast event:
When asked about Australian cuisine:
Nigella: This is something which I feel is a very interesting model, if you like, which is that in Australia you are sort of gifted, blessed with the cuisines of so many cultures and in a way that seems very relaxed, things have become fused – although not ‘fusion’ which seems to me much more effortful – but these various cuisines and cultures and influences have become fused to become a very personal, totally unique cuisine.
What that says, because I think there was a stage when the various cuisines were a bit separate, and obviously they are in people’s homes, and what I think has happened is someone said:
“This is who were are. We are all these different cuisines and cultures, and we’re speaking with one voice and it’s our own. It’s made up of different vocabularies but it is absolutely a unique voice.”
I like it because it is sort of saying,
‘We don’t care what anyone else thinks, this is the way we want to cook,’
and I think it’s influenced people all over the world.
One of the reasons I say that, is that years ago I used to get all of the Australian food magazines, which weren’t actually available in the UK, and it became apparent to me that all the food editors would be getting them too.
And without quite saying that they were very influenced by, I would say, the Australian boldness of ingredients, plus the incredible art direction, that this influenced books in the UK, magazines in the UK – in fact, my second book which was released in the year 2000, I wouldn’t say I made my publishers but I requested and they complied, I made my publishers fly a very gifted Australian food photographer over to shoot my book. I’d seen her work and I just thought it had a freshness and I thought that Australian food has a freshness, that we certainly needed and I would say has very altered the way food is photographed and ingredients looked at in the UK.
Interviewer: I think you’re right, there is absolutely nothing pretentious about a pie floater.
Nigella: To me, I know everyone makes jokes about those Australian foods, and those ones are actually pretty much from the UK, but there is more to Australian food. It has got Greek influences, it’s got Italian influences, it’s got Asian influences, and somehow this creates a sort of cooking that is alive and vibrant and I’ve always thought that food and language have a lot in common.
If anyone here is French, I don’t wish to offend, but the French have a way of codifying language, and also of being very rigorous about the traditions of their cooking, which is great.
But if you do that too much, language dies, cooking dies. It has to be living. It has to change as people speak and different languages come into it.
So I think that it isn’t just about those, in a way those particular Australian foods that people always talk about, because for me when I come here, it’s about the fact that I learn about Asian ingredients that I didn’t know about before, like white soy sauce, I hadn’t come across it, it’s very good, and coconut vinegar, I hadn’t come across that!
I just feel it’s about that freshness, and a vibrancy which I find very uplifting and I suppose that’s what I think of when I think of Australia generally. It’s a bit too hot for me generally, as well, but I suppose on a regular day in Melbourne if it’s too hot, you wait a bit longer and it’s going to get cold.
You just touched briefly there on the importance of language where food in concerned, and the way that you construct language around what you do. It’s such an integral part of your style and your brand; in fact when you were ‘little Nigella’ you wanted to be a writer. So tell us about the transition from that to where you are now.
Well, it was language that got me into food.
I was a journalist, not a food journalist although I did do food journalism but that was later. When I was 26, I was the deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times in London and I then left that because I felt I was being paid to worry and not to think.
I also realised, and this is very important I think in life and it’s good if you can get that young,
I realised I was on the wrong ladder,
because from being deputy editor, the next step was literary editor and then department head, and you know, being an executive. I realised that I had no interest in having power over other people, that I didn’t want that ladder and I wanted to spend more time, I had less time for reading.
It was considered very odd at the time that I traded in my contract for a writing contract, and I did arts interviews and book reviews, and occasional film reviews, and a little bit of everything.
I started writing about food because it interested me to see whether language, which is essentially abstract, could be used and how it could be used with food, which belongs in the realm of the senses.
I’ve always thought that writing and cooking are analogous in the way of reading and eating. When I read a book that I love I always feel like,
‘I really love the taste of these sentences,’
and so for me they are fused at root level.
I was surprised when I did my first book, my late husband urged me and said,
‘You feel very strongly about food and you seem to think everyone else does, and not everyone does.’
And so I did my first book and I thought it would be a one-off. In the course of writing that I felt I must learn. It was a bit of an education for me at the same time, so I thought I must learn things like baking and how to make pastry, and I’d never done that sort of thing, and that was such a revelation, that I hatched the idea of my second book, How to be a Domestic Goddess – ironic title! Woefully misconstrued!
And that’s how it happened.
It wasn’t meant to be a career shift, but I supposed these things happen sometimes. I’m not really a planner in life, and I think when opportunities arise or ideas are hatched, instantly one knows whether that feels right or not and I think it’s so important to trust your instinct.
One of the things I always say to younger women who are trying to make their way, is just to really trust your instinct.
Because no one ever knows in life what’s going to work and what doesn’t work, and also actually that you have to be prepared for failure as well. If you don’t make mistakes you learn nothing.
But I think that whenever I’ve gone against my instinct, I regretted it. And this isn’t to say that everything my instinct tells me to do is right, it’s that I can live with it if it goes wrong. But if I do something that I feel is not the right thing to do, then I feel so uncomfortable and very foolish in a way that makes me feel like I’ve betrayed myself.
Mistakes in life, as in the kitchen, are meant to happen, and it’s how you deal with them that helps you grow as a person.
It also really depends because we’re all different and some of us are more risk takers.
I don’t feel like I’m risk taker, but I feel if I want to do something, I don’t agonise over whether it’s going to be a success or failure, I just feel it is what I want to do.
Sometimes I feel that something I need, or I want to read, or a recipe I like, or a conversation I want to have, because I do feel that talking about food is a conversation, it’s a conversation about life, is that there are other people out there and it is quite an intimate thing that I do, writing about food, so I certainly think that that’s greatly important.
The idea is that – when we’re writing about food, or when I’m writing about food, I’m not being a politician, I’m not trying to win around people who disagree. I am trying to persuade people who might be reticent, I do feel I want to encourage, but I don’t want to harangue. Occasionally I harangue and then there will be an apology at the end of the recipe.
But I think that when you make mistakes – I hope a lot of the mistakes I make get made before a book gets to be printed, but that isn’t always the case – I just think that there has to be a sense of alignment, I know that sounds like a very new age thing to say, about how one feels about life and what one does in the world, and I think then in a way we are all trying things out and working our what’s right, or what suits us, together and I think that’s an evolution.
We change our minds, we learn different things, we’re in different stages of life, and nevertheless, I think as long as I’m doing what I think is right and I’m saying what I believe, then I think that’s something that people can understand.
Not everyone has to agree, but I think it has to be an authentic exchange.
You say that you’re not a chef or even a cook, you say that you’re an eater.
Well, I’m an eater and I’m a food writer.
I mean I’m a cook in the sense that I cook a lot, but I have no training of any sort. But when I started I also felt there was something wrong with the fact that cooking had been totally dominated by the professional chef. It’s not to say I don’t respect chefs enormously and admire their talent and their skill, however
if you needed a qualification to cook then human beings would have fallen out of the evolutionary loop a long time ago.
How we cook at home is actually the true story of cooking.
Restaurants are wonderful, but to me they are theatrical experiences and I also think that home cooking is often denigrated, partly because it’s traditionally done by women, let’s be frank. But also because there isn’t really an understanding between a cook and a chef.
Chefs are very much drawn to conflict and that is partly in the nature of the drama of their work.
But actually, it’s always spoken about as if the cooking we do at home is very limited compared to the work of a restaurant chef, but the reality is I see it the other around because a chef hasn’t got the freedom to play with recipes once they’re on a menu, because if you go to a restaurant and order a dish, you want it to be the dish you ordered last time. In a way to me, restaurants are in the business of precision and conveyer belt mentality I find, and I like it when I cook at home.
I can open my fridge and look at my vegetable drawer and I can use whatever’s there and I can change things and if things go a little wrong I can either make them right or it’s not going to cause great issue if something’s not there, if you’ve invited people over or you’re cooking for your family or you’re cooking for yourself which I think is very, very important as well, and I like that freedom. I would feel very hemmed in having to cook something exactly the same way over and over again.
Obviously the chefs who come up with those recipes are enormously creative but I think it’s a great struggle for them because sometimes they’re a prisoner of their own brilliance and they can’t change their menus and it’s putting out the same food over and over again and I couldn’t do that.
The world isn’t short of cooking shows, but your point of difference I think really came when people picked up on how you speak about food. It’s not just food, it’s decadent and sultry and there’s something quite luxurious about it and it’s not just, ‘here is some cream’, it’s ‘a pale, billowing duvet’. Were you conscious of developing that style?
No, not at all. I have to say I don’t think it’s sultry, I think I’m quite an intense person and I think when I’m talking about food it’s quite an intimate thing, but I don’t think it’s sultry.
What it is, is that so much of the pleasure of food is in the feel of it when you cook, and the smell when you’re cooking, and these are two things that when you’re on TV you can’t convey enormously so I try to use language to describe the sensations either of what I’m seeing as I cook or how it feels when I’m cooking.
I’m very, very obsessed with sound because I feel on television the sound does the duty of smell.
I’m known as deputy sound on set because I’m always very focused on how much you can hear; it’s absolutely essential that every little crackle of the cooking noise can be heard.
It’s those things you might not be taking into account consciously but those things make a big difference.
I also have an incredible director and the cameraman is wonderful. We shoot a bit like a film, it’s one camera and it takes a long time.
When I go to America sometimes they say, ‘How many shows do you do a day? Two, three?’ and I say, ‘No, one show takes about six 13-hour days.’
We do a wide shot, a mid shot, a very close shot right on me which is called a mime erroneously because it’s the one thing you don’t do in a mime, I’m talking but I also have to act so that there is a clean cut which is a great help for editing.
And then there are two passes we do of the food, one that we do that other people tend not to do which is a side view, which most people would think is a waste. You get that idea of things moving but you actually don’t see very much. And then there’s one in the pan. So that takes a lot of crafting and it takes a lot of time.
The important thing really, is that I’m not scripted, sometimes when I’m talking I look away to think about what I’m going to say and that I think feels more direct. I have some idea of what I’m going to say but sometimes I’m actually almost like a sports commentator doing a commentary on what I see as I’m cooking.
When I write the books, the books are not TV tie-ins, the TV comes after and I’ve done many more books than I’ve done TV series, sometimes I decide not to. And I suppose in the same way I won’t do a book year after year, I take my time and I wait until I feel like I’ve got a book and whether I want to do a TV series.
It’s a great luxury but it’s very important, because it means that, you know, as I said I was talking about authenticity, it has to feel that it’s right to do, I have to feel enthusiastic about doing it until I’m slightly impatient to do it. But that’s the thing.
It’s a very good team. I’ve worked with the same crew, I’ve had a different cameraman this time, who is great, I love both of them. I’ve had the same crew all along, it’s like my work family. It’s a very small crew, one sound man, one camera man, a director, obviously a producer.
I moved to doing it as a co-production with the BBC and I said to them,
‘Look, you know what I do, you can commission it, but otherwise I’m too old to be told what to do.’
They laughed and I said,
‘I’m not joking!’
Really, by now, this is what I do. They’re not under any obligation to commission but I’m not a performer. I can’t be a different person or do something a different way. And yes, when you’re filming, sometimes you think of a different way of filming, and a different set. It’s based on my kitchen but it’s not exactly the same, because you need more space. So it’s all a bit fluid and that’s the great thing. It’s not scripted, not really. We just have the director who says ‘Action!’ and we all just wing it.
It gives it life, I think.
The ‘Nigella brand’ encompasses so many things now: it’s TV shows, it’s books, it’s kitchenware. Describe for us a little bit of that journey for building that brand and some of the challenges you’ve faced.
I don’t feel it’s a brand. Because it’s just me.
I don’t think it’s a brand. I’m very hands-on, whatever we’re doing. To the extent that I’ve worked very closely with my book designer Anna. She’s very good.
One of the things I’ve learnt in my working life is that when people are very talented and confident, they are very open to other people’s ideas. When they’re insecure or perhaps less talented, they’re aggressive and territorial. And I can’t work with those people.
Even though Caz Hildebrand is an incredible designer, she doesn’t mind when I say for the kitchen book,
‘You know, when we do the book I’d like for the print to be dark brown not black. I don’t know if people will notice it, but to me it gives much more warmth of the kitchen.’
And she will go with that, she doesn’t say,
‘No, do you mind, I’m the designer.’
It’s very collaborative. For example, every single book, when you take the jacket off it’s got a little secret thing. So for Kitchen, I said to Caz,
‘You know what I want for the cover? I want the photographer to take a picture of my chopping board. Print that on the book so it looks like my chopping board with the scratches on it.’
And I got very into the pink and green which are a few colours from my house when I was doing Simply Nigella and spent a lot of time looking at Pantone charts to get the right pink and the right eau de nil green for the end papers. I find pink a very, very uplifting colour and the green very calming.
We do the photographs at home and we have to find photographers who don’t mind when I look down the barrel of the lens.
For me it’s everything. I wouldn’t enjoy leaving that to someone else to do and I’m there, I’m cooking. I’m going over a choosing what napkin to put and I’m very good at messing things up.
Whenever something’s too neat they always say, ‘Go and get Nigella, she always can make anything look messy.’
Which is true!
Sometimes it makes me a bit… Sometimes I won’t refresh my website often enough because I won’t let anything go out under my name unless I’ve written it. I do my own Twitter account, which is why I’m often late with recipe of the day. And I do these things because they give me pleasure, my Twitter and Instagram.
I feel, for me it’s about doing everything myself.
Not being a brilliant delegator is not something I would recommend to everyone, I have to say. I can get overloaded.
I work with people who I respect and who are talented. But I can’t let anyone do my work for me. So in that sense I don’t really feel like a brand. I think a brand means you’ve got people being you. You’ve got people who seem like they are being you, but it’s not.
If there’s ever something on Facebook or my website which I haven’t done, it will say ‘The nigella.com Team’, or it will put me in the third person. I think it’s incredibly important to be honest. In a way I feel as though I do it as a person. I don’t wish to be a commodity.
When I did the kitchenwares, which I’m taking a break from, those were all my ideas and I would do drawings around my kitchen table which looked like they were done by a seven-year-old who had a broken finger because I’m not very good at drawing, but I can’t then say to someone,
‘Oh you take it on and make it like this’
and do all sorts of things that I don’t think need to be in the world. I have to be like, I’ve drawn them myself.
So aside from the beautiful colours of Simply Nigella, tell us something more about this book. I understand it’s meant to be designed for slumped on the sofa, everything in a bowl-
Well, no, that’s one chapter, that is called Bowl Food.
Which rhymes with soul food.
It does and I think many of the same connotations, but I think it doesn’t mean stodgy, nostalgic, bland. I think, sometimes a bowl of ramen for me is very calming and uplifting. I like spritely flavours.
But I suppose it’s really, my books have always come out of my life. I felt this was the way I cooked, and I suppose it’s a question of cooking differently on different days. So I’ve got a chapter on everyday suppers, which I’ve called Quick and Calm because I think the idea of fast cooking is a bit phrenetic. I don’t find the idea of doing all the chopping and then stirring at all calming. I’d rather put a chicken in the oven.
So that kind of food, and maybe less meat, because that’s I guess what a lot of us are eating every day.
And then I also feel like what makes my life easier. I’ve got a chapter called Breathe. That’s really about slow cooking, either in a slow cooker or low oven, cooking in advance. Because I feel that either quick and calm or a slow approach. Those are the two things that really make life easier.
And then between that, there are, you know, how I cook when people come around for supper. I’m very informal. I don’t like formality, I don’t think you should pretend that your home is a restaurant.
But really, I think I came to the idea of what was at the heart of the book. I suppose it was what I felt I needed, but also what I felt I was feeling. When I got to writing and cooking for the book, was the feeling that came out of the cooking.
And it also came out of my house, which I will say is very reflective in this book.
I was looking, I had taken a picture, I was just arranging some shelves in my conservatory, which is off the – it’s all open plan my house – off the sitting room which is in turn also off the kitchen. I was doing these shelves here and I took a picture and it suddenly occurred to me that what it conjured up what actually what was going to be at the heart of the book, which is a mixture between serenity and cosiness.
Often we refuse to talk about serenity, to me it’s quite clinical and clean and minimal. And if you say ‘cosiness’, it’s rather claustrophobic and full of clutter, heavy fabrics. Which you know, in the right mood is good. But I wanted something that wasn’t bare and cool. It wasn’t cluttered but somehow did have that fusion of those things.
They may seem to be in opposition: cosiness and serenity. But that’s what I feel I wanted the design of the book to convey.
I feel the cooking helps brings that, and the food is about that. I think it’s something that we all need in life. You know, I think of it, if you strive for that sort of otherworldly zen, you’re going to find that very difficult to accommodate into a busy life, and yet if you carry on with all that busy-ness it’s too much and it’s too hard to be productive and creative.
But both are good. Both are good and you have to find that balance in the middle.
You know my mum has given me two things in my kitchen. One is a book entitled ‘How to Repair Food’ and the second is a coaster that’s stuck on the wall that says ‘If it fits in a toaster, I can cook it.’ That is my admission to you.
No, no, no. One of things I’ve always wanted to distance myself from is the awful smugness of people who like cooking. Not everyone! On the whole, those of us who like cooking do it because it gives us pleasure or strength or comfort, and a feeling of being creative. But I do not think that a person who can cook is morally superior.
I always say to people,
‘I buy my clothes, I can’t sew, so what is the difference?’
We all, if we’re lucky, find an outlet for creativity. For me I am – I don’t think there’s a moral imperative there. I feel that there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from it. But not if people are haranguing you and telling you you should do it, and you’re a bad person if you don’t. And in the same way as haranguing people about what they eat and making them feel bad if they’re eating the wrong things.
You never make any good decisions from a bad place, so I don’t think that’s helpful.
I go back to thing about the difficulties of feeling that a professional chef is to be aspired to, is that a lot of people, like you, who say they can’t cook, is because they think cooking is more complicated than it is. Whereas actually, anyone can cook.
You may not be interested, but it’s only about paying a bit of attention. Putting a chicken in the oven, cutting a lemon in half and putting it inside, squeezing some lemon and putting a bit of olive oil, not extra virgin olive oil, it’s a waste to do it then,
I would never have known that.
and then putting it in the oven, that is not difficult and anyone can do it. People first see recipes that actually probably require six people helping and chopping. So the reality is, I think people often think cooking is more difficult than it is.
Now I say that about the extra virgin olive oil because it’s the flavour which it loses. When it gets to very high temperatures the flavour will be lost. And it smokes more, earlier, than regular olive oil.
I had no idea. I have to say though, there are many things I’ve learnt from watching your show. One of them is my absolute favourite and people think that I’m terribly clever when I do this. The most annoying thing is when you get a little bit of eggshell in with the egg. You try and get that eggshell out – it’s futile. So you put the rest of the shell next to it and it almost magnetises it back.
You reminded me, I had forgotten, I often just leave the shell in.
I just love that, how the little bit just kind of magnetises back. Like a little duckling back to its mum.
But you know, on that, sometimes people will complain. They’ll say that my hair isn’t tied up or in a net. And I just… I’m not serving to people I don’t know. I grew up having to eat my mother’s hair so I don’t see why my children can’t.
I want to quickly touch on something you brought up before. Which is how annoying it is when people try to tell you what you should eat and shouldn’t eat.
Well sometimes it can be helpful but it can also be confusing.
But you are this icon of womanliness because you don’t seem to deny yourself anything. As women, a lot of the time we don’t allow ourselves to consume the things we want to consume. Denial is sort of the order of the day. Is that an ethos you have specifically honed, or were you brought up that way?
No, not at all. My mother had a very troubled relationship to food. That in some sense made me feel that I didn’t want to go that way. Often people extrapolate incorrectly that because I don’t deny myself food, I eat eight cream buns every day. And it’s that because I think everyone always takes such an extreme position.
I don’t deny myself food, but nor do I binge on it. I think often that mentality is because of denial. So I don’t feel that excess is necessarily a good route to choose, but it’s that French saying:
Everything in moderation, including moderation.
Different days you eat different things.
It’s rather interesting, I cooked a birthday cake for someone recently.
She’s gluten-free so I a made a gluten-free cake, and she said,
‘Oh, it’s so nice to be made a gluten-free cake because I don’t get to eat cakes very often.’
And I said,
‘But who eats cakes very often?’
It’s for birthdays or a celebration or you’re having people for supper, and that’s the whole thing. I love baking and I always have recipes for cakes and sweet things, it doesn’t mean I eat cake everyday. It’s denial that makes people think about those things all the time.
So I just say to myself,
‘Well what do I want to eat?’
Sometimes all I want to eat is a crunchy salad and sometimes I want a bowl of pasta. So if I want a bowl pasta I don’t eat a salad. If I want a crunchy salad I don’t eat a bowl of pasta. Although when I’m on the road I can’t be making so many choices. It seems to me that that’s what encourages a more healthy attitude towards food.
There’s so much more I would love to ask you about, but we are out of time. I just want to ask you, very finally, which recipe best sums up your life now?
Oh my goodness me. Which recipe best sums up my life now? Well, I suppose I’d like to say, there’s a recipe in here that’s an oven baked chicken shawarma, and I love it because it’s just full of spice and very easy, you just put chicken thigh filets in a plastic freezer bag with a load of spices, leave it overnight, tip the thing into the a pan, put it in the oven, it doesn’t take very long to cook. And then for me, often I like to have sort of indoor picnics.
You know, you’ve got flatbread, make a chilli sauce, make some garlic and yoghurt. Or yoghurt mixed with tahini and add some pomegranate seeds, some shredded iceberg and just make these wonderful bundles. And for me, that really is one of the pleasures of cooking and about making things easy in life.
So I suppose, that would have to be it. On a different day I might think something else, that’s the only thing!
I’m suddenly absolutely starving. Nigella, it’s been such a great pleasure having you here with us today, thank you very much for being here.