Q&A with Cookbook Author Nigella Lawson
We sit down with the OG domestic goddess to chat about her newest recipe book (and so much more).
Last week in Vancouver, there was a line outside of the Gourmet Warehouse that wrapped around the block—and it wasn’t because whisks were on sale. The crowd was there to meet the original domestic goddess, Nigella Lawson, who’s on the last leg of a 17-day, six-city North American tour promoting her new cookbook At My Table. After waiting in line, ticket holders hugged their signed books closely and sampled bites from it’s very pages, and before she jetted off, we sat down with Lawson to chat about writing and inspiration, celebrating the local fishmonger, her fave Vancouver restaurants and more. We were even able to snag the recipe for Lawson’s Pear, Pistachio and Rose Cake so you can test out the new cookbook at home.
WL: When you’re on the road is it a luxury to not have to cook all the time, or do you miss your kitchen?
NL: I miss my kitchen, actually. You have to be more organized when you haven’t got your own kitchen. But I always make sure I’ve got a kettle in my hotel room, so I can at least make myself a cup of tea. I just try as much as possible to eat somewhere in each city. Sometimes I haven’t managed it, but when I have I’ve been happy.
WL: Which Vancouver restaurants have you tried and loved?
NL: I had the most magnificent Hawksworth burger, which is a burger with short ribs and blue cheese. And today I just managed a quick—because I’ve been up since 4 a.m. and I didn’t have breakfast—fantastic egg-and-spiced-beef thing at Café Medina.
WL: How much of your life really does revolve around food? I know your whole career does, but what about your everyday life?
NL: I don’t really have a distinction between my working life and my non-working life in that way. My life does revolve around food and I’m always thinking about it, and I’ve spent the last few days putting orders in at home to make sure I’ve got everything I need so I can cook when I get back. I’m pretty much always thinking about what I’m going to eat. I also think that it’s food that gives my life structure.
WL: I think that’s an authentic way of living.
NL: Yes, it is! Obviously in my real life I look a lot messier. When I’m out and on the road and doing TV programs someone does my hair and makeup, whereas when I’m at home I’m not sure if I actually brush my hair. But I still cook a lot and think about what I’m going to eat. It is a central part of my life.
It’s not just about eating (which I do enjoy), but it’s thinking about what I eat, reflecting on what I have eaten and then pottering about in the kitchen or going to the market. I have quite an old-fashioned life in the sense that I have a fishmonger and a butcher that deliver in London; on Sundays, near where I live, there’s a farmers’ market and I do quite enjoy going there and having a look around. I’ll be back on Sunday so I’m hoping there will be some new asparagus in season.
WL: I’m a bit biased when it comes to the importance of butchers and fishmongers since I was a fishmonger for 3 years…
NL: Were you?! I’m very close to my fishmonger—I follow him on Instagram and every morning he [posts] his best catch of the day. I say, “Okay, Rex, save one for me!” I have to get in and do it quickly because I think, “Oh no, you’ve posted now!”
If you don’t use fishmongers or butchers, they’ll go and everyone will say, “Oh, how sad. There used to be fishmongers and butchers.” So it really is important, I think. Also, you can get good bargains and stuff like that as well. It’s not only about the freshness (although the freshness makes a big difference).
WL: So if food is constantly on your mind, does that make the process of writing your books a lot easier?
NL: Well, yes—but writing is a separate thing. My career has always been a writing career more than anything else. Cooking is what I do in my life and my career is writing about it.
The thing is, I always leave things to the last moment, so I don’t have too much time to worry about it. I just have to sit down and do it. I don’t take enough notes…but I always have [the recipes] there so it stops it from feeling like, “Oh, this is a book with a capital B,” because really, what I’m doing is topping and tailing recipes and putting it into language from shorthand. I go into it from the shallow end.
WL: Each of your books has a really clear theme. Do these come to you first or do they all come out in the wash?
NL: It all comes out in the wash, really. Some books I get an idea, like when I did Nigellissima about the Italian influence on my life. But sometimes I think I’m going to write one book and I suddenly swerve and I do another, so I let the book that wants to be written comes to the surface.
WL: How did you come up with the concept for At My Table?
NL: With this one—I always have a bank of recipes that I haven’t put in a book—I was thinking about my life and how I really see it as a series of tableaus of sitting around a table. And when I think about food I think about how much sharing it with people is part of it. I suppose from there I started thinking about what it means to be a home cook and how much it’s such a fusion between continuity and change—and how important it is that you don’t loose that feeling of continuity with the food you’ve eaten and where you’ve come from. But in the same way, if you’re alive in the world you’re going to change and how you cook will change, and the ingredients you discover will change. I suppose I thought this is the story of home cooking, and the story of home cooking is the story of my life. It just felt like the right thing.
WL: Can you speak to me about your experience in the culinary industry? You had such a different start.
NL: I don’t think I’m in the culinary industry: I work from home, I don’t really mix with people. I think that when I started, I was very much a home cook. I think there were some who thought, “What does she know? She’s making it up, she’s not a chef, she’s not this, she’s not that.” I don’t think they think that now (or if they do they keep it to themselves). All the talented chefs I know completely understand what I’m about because they know that home cooking is real cooking. I’ve got about four or five friends that are in the cookbook world, but otherwise that’s not my world.
WL: Do you think that keeps you grounded?
NL: I don’t know how I would do it differently. I don’t like to go out hobnobbing or networking—that makes me feel exhausted. I like to hang out with people that I feel cozy enough around that I can, frankly, be in a pair of pyjamas and slipper socks. So many people are interested in food and my whole feeling is that you don’t need to be a professional in order to be engaged or creative in the kitchen. I have friends who are lawyers, documentary filmmakers, theatre producers and so forth; what connects us will often be food and how we talk about it.
WL: I think it’s very refreshing to meet someone who has made a name for herself as a ‘domestic goddess’ and is actually down to earth and a homebody—it’s very relatable.
NL: When you’re on TV, people assume you’re an expert. And in a way, I find that quite intimidating because I don’t have all the answers. If ever I’m doing a Q&A I always say to people, “Please don’t ask me anything technical. I don’t know!” I can work certain things out, but I’m an enthusiast and I’m someone who cooks a lot, but it’s not the same thing.
WL: You’ve been in this business for a while now. How do you stay so creative? What inspires you?
NL: There are things I might discover when I go shopping—or I might be inspired when I’m out. I really liked the flavours of tomatoes and hummus and baba ganoush with egg at Café Medina, so I’ll think about that. It’s about finding balance all the time, even if something’s got a few new ingredients. I’m always thinking about the balance of spicy and tangy and sweet and salty.
But I don’t know that I’m radically different. I always think about what I want to eat. In a way, I think that’s the strength of a home cook and the slight danger in restaurants. Often in fancy restaurants, they think of what’s new, but the chef isn’t sitting down and eating it. When you cook for people at home, you’re eating it as well. I never start off thinking, “What can we do to make this new?” Although, surprisingly enough, you can add one new ingredient and it can make something familiar quite different. Sometimes you want to be reminded of something familiar—the intention is to create something that tastes good, not original.