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Nigella Lawson on recipes, writing, and the importance of home cooking

May 18, 2018

Nigella Lawson is one of the food world's biggest international superstars. She’s written 11 cookbooks, hosted TV shows for two decades, and is surprisingly terrible with a knife. While our host Francis Lam has been reading her work for his whole career, he just recently had the chance to meet her in-person when she came to the U.S. to tour for her new book, At My Table. During their conversation, Lawson explained why she has to defend the honor of home cooking, how snobbery ruins everything, and why her cookbooks feel like conversations. Lawson also shared with us three recipes for a delightful summertime menu: Butterflied Chicken with Miso and Sesame Seeds, Tomato and Horseradish Salad and Queen of Puddings.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: WHAT IS PUDDING?

FL: To begin, I want to ask you an English question: What's a pudding? Because for Americans, a pudding is a custard. But as far as I can tell, for the English a pudding could be what we call a cake or it could even be a sausage.

NL: Traditionally, a pudding was steamed. Of course, in a sense, all desserts were steamed because generally people didn't have ovens in their homes. So, the batter or the dough would be put in a floured cloth and then put in water to cook that way. We tend to call all dessert “pudding.” To use another English word, calling it dessert was always kind of naff. And that's because naff means it’s a bit tacky. The reason why is that in England it's always been considered pretentious to use a French word. And because dessert is really dessert, it would be people who were trying to have air and graces to call something dessert. But it is used a lot really. Even though there are distinctions, they are interchangeable. If I was to say, “What's for pudding?” to me that wouldn't indicate the type of dessert, rather the whole manner of that sweet final course.

FL: You have blown my mind.

NL: So, a cake is a cake. I might say, in writing a recipe, “this is wonderful for afternoon tea or with a little bit of crème fraiche on the side as pudding.” Obviously, the cake itself has the same constituent qualities, but it's how it's eaten. It's quite an old-fashioned sort of terminology and I think that you probably would find pudding used less in that way now. You wouldn't get it in a restaurant, it’s more of a home word. In a restaurant you wouldn't say it's pudding.

  IN DEFENSE OF HOME COOKING

FL: This is a perfect segue because your new book is a celebration of home cooking. You have been a global food world personality now for nearly 20 years, but it seems you have this need to assiduously remind every writer who is writing a profile of you that you are not a chef, that you are a home cook.

NL: I do have to.

FL: Why is that distinction important to you?

NL: In the first instance, it’s because I feel people are so mistaken about what it is to be a chef. They think it's a flattering term. And yet I don't ever want to seem to be making any claims for expertise on my part. I don't have the skills that a restaurant chef needs to have and I don't have training. How a cook makes food is very different from how a chef does. If someone thinks that calling someone a chef is therefore to imply they are a better cook – at the one time, I don't wish to be rude to the people who are calling me a chef, but on the other hand, I felt a bit miffed and put out on behalf of home cooks. I don't know if is better. I will say – and I suppose we will have this debate – I don't want people to be disappointed as well. And I feel that it slightly alarms me if people think the sort of food I'm going to do is a technique-heavy, precise molding of ingredients that a chef does; whereas I don't interfere as much in the food. Sometimes people see me on television and say you have no knife skills. I feel it's very important to say that I know I have no knife skills. It hasn't stopped me from cooking.

FL: How bad are your knife skills?

NL: I call myself clumsy. I am very badly coordinated and when I get nervous I’m worse. I don't have that wonderful virtuoso skill where people chop amazingly fast; I don't give a performance. But when I have people around for supper it doesn't matter if I take three minutes longer per carrot. The whole point about what you need to be a chef, it’s about the amount of times you practice. However, at home you are not cooking on the scale and repeating things as much. My butchers do a knife skills course, and every now and then I think that maybe I should learn from them. Then I think it better that I not, and leave it as it is.

FL: [laughs] It would be very off-brand for you at this point.

NL: Sometimes trying to get better can take the pleasure out of something. As sort of an analogy, I used to play table tennis. And I wasn't very good, but I quite enjoyed it. Sometimes I thought I should be more embarrassed for how bad I was and I thought that I would get better. I worked with a coach at night, then never played again because it made me feel much more awkward about not being good. I stopped enjoying it because it was just about a strenuous effort to be better. That's what I'm more worried about, and this is why a lot of people are frightened of cooking; they're so worried about their inadequacy as they cook, it stops them from enjoying the food. I feel my relationship with food is a very positive one and I don't want suddenly to be concerned about how inadequate I am.

FL: That's so interesting. It’s like that phrase: the spirit of the amateur. Amateur comes from amator, or “to love.” And once you start doing it, there is a filter of personal competitiveness.

NL: Yes. I find doing demos horrible because I think everyone's expecting me to be better than I am, and that's difficult. Whereas, I'm quite self-unconscious when I'm cooking at home. Funnily enough, I'm alright about cooking on television so long as it's my program. One, because I've had the same crew forever. But, also because they are amused about what I can’t do. My program doesn't dwell on those factors; I feel it's about the ingredients. One of those ingredients is words, which are very important and can tell a story better than pictures sometimes. Certainly, you need both. A picture will demonstrate, but a word could get you to relax as you watch. We joke that we're doing radio with pictures.

Nigella Lawson's Summertime Menu: Butterflied Chicken with Miso and Sesame Seeds, Tomato and Horseradish Salad, and Queen of Puddings Photos: Nigella - Debra Hurford Brown | Food - Jonathan Lovekin

  WRITING COOKBOOKS FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A HOME COOK

FL: I want to talk to you about your writing style because I'm fascinated by it, I love it. But I want to stay on this idea of home cooking versus chef cooking. I think about this a lot because there are generations of home cooks who have, in a sense, lost the chain of inheritance. Romantically we think of how we learned to cook from our grandparents who taught our parents who taught us – stretching all the way back to when people first started using fire. But that chain has been broken for many people and many families. At this point, generations who have grown up without their parents cooking in the home; maybe they grow up eating more packaged food than from scratch, homemade food. Obviously in the 1950s, certainly here in the United States and in much of the Western world, it became very fashionable and aspirational to not have to cook at home. What we see now is if and when those people who didn't grow up learning to cook from their elders want to cook now, where do they to? Who do we think of, as a society and as a culture, as the experts in cooking. We think of the chefs.

NL: Yes

FL: We watch them on TV and we buy their cookbooks and we go to their restaurants. We now start to think that to cook at home means to cook well. We don't have a distinction between chef food and home food.

NL: I think you're right. And that can be problematic.

FL: Truthfully, I'm sort of that way. I didn't learn to cook from my mother or from my aunts and uncles; I learned to cook by going to culinary school. And they taught me how to cook in the restaurant style. Does that concern you?

NL: You know it does. But, there is positive and negative in that. I think that things change over time. That certainly is in that notion that people thought when they invited friends for dinner they were to act almost as if they were opening a restaurant in their own home. That distressed me and was one of the things that propelled me to write my first book, How to Eat. But the thing is you could come to cooking in 70 different ways; you could be taught cooking by a parent or you can be inspired to cook because you have parents who can't cook. I don't think it really matters how you get to cooking. And although I make a huge distinction between restaurant chef and a home cook, I also think that an attitude towards food is more important than your skillset. A lot of great chefs are interested in giving pleasure with their food. But I think that many chefs – and home cooks – are inspiring because they can convey their love of food.

It’s been a disincentive for cooks because they have felt that they're lesser beings if they can't present their food as beautiful as a chef. To some extent, the way food fashions are going now really helps the home cook. Because when the French culinary canon ruled over everything, that was very technique-heavy, and so it was so stressful for a home cook. I'm not talking about bourgeois French cooking but the cuisine that is difficult. Now, we're beginning to see more free-form food, even in restaurants, and perhaps the artfully rustic. We may be amused by that, but it does encourage home cooks to think more about the great flavor and how they make something like this. As much as I'm not a chef, I'm very inspired by what chefs do. It always sounds like I'm attacking chefs; I'm not. I'm very inspired. What I take much more from them is a pairing of ingredients or an idea of using a vegetable in a way I hadn't thought or just reminding me of what's out there. These days, chefs are very aware of what's in season, and I've always been, rather shamefully, a sort of unseasonal cook. But that's also because I come from a country where if you cook seasonally you would be eating parsnips and cabbage for a great part of the year. It does make me think about, for example, the asparagus season, and I think a lot of chefs have driven.

There is also a lot of elitism in food. I always say to people that in the old days you had to be very rich to get a pineapple. If you were poor you ate seasonally and locally and everything was organic. Now that the masses can go to the store and buy food that comes from all over, suddenly it's considered not quite the thing. There's a new elite which is saying it has to be local, it has to be seasonal, and it has to be organic. Yes, there are very good health concerns and very good ecological concerns. But at the same time there's always someone trying to feel better about the food they eat and trying to make other people feel they're making the wrong choice. That's where snobbery can creep in. Sometimes I want to talk about condensed milk and canned peas simply because I get so cross with the food snobs. It so goes against our deepest desires when it comes to cooking for others. You want to make people feel welcome in your home. It’s such a basic human instinct to share food; all cultures have that. And instead you have ungenerous associations with food that sadden me too much. So many people are there to make other people feel bad about what they eat. It is quite expensive to eat seasonally and locally, and most people don't have that choice.

FL: Hopefully there are people out there who are trying to change that.

NL: There are. But no one changes by being made to feel bad about what they do. It's not a productive way of going about it. Being enthusiastic about the many splendors of cooking is much better than wagging a finger at people saying you shouldn’t be eating that. How can that help?

FL: You brought up your first book a few minutes ago. Famously, the story of your inspiration to write that is that you were in a friend's home, they had invited you for dinner and they were making some elaborate meal with so many course that it was overwhelming. You heard them go back into the kitchen and have a bit of a breakdown.

NL: We heard sobbing from the kitchen. We all heard it. It was terrible.

FL: I was also fascinated to read that when you wrote that book you were a rather new parent with young children. I have a two-year old. I adore her and I cook for her. I now cook much more at home, and I do find that my cooking, frankly, has gotten much more functional. Maybe with more of a focus on healthfulness because I want to live longer now that I have a reason to. The cooking is much more about what can I make that that is tasty, but streamlined. It's not about digging into the fabulousness of it and going into the truly intellectual or emotional creative pleasures of it. With that book, how did you have the wherewithal to think of food as an intellectual and emotional creative pursuit while there were these new demands of your cooking life?

NL: Even though I had no idea what to write about, the book was obviously percolating in me. It really was everything I’d eaten in my life up to that point – and I was 38. A lot of the recipes were ones I jotted down as I was cooking. As my children got older I did cook in a more streamlined way. I think my recipes were straightforward and it had to be easy. I was reflecting on a lifetime's eating. My mother died young when she was 48. One of my sisters died very young at 31, at the exact same time as my first child was born. Part of the reason of writing the book was that I felt a great need to continue the conversation that I always had with my sister and my mother about what they were cooking that night and what they were eating, and also to memorialize their food. So, there were several strands going into that book.

And it's also a strange thing that around the same time – a bit later when my son was born – my husband was diagnosed with oral cancer and he stopped being able to eat. It’s a lot of my thinking about food and how my food life had become very important. I had to work on keeping food in my life. It made me understand how important that social function of food was too, and when there's someone who can't eat, how difficult it is to be part of society and to feel that you are sharing with other people. It did make me think about food in a particular way and I needed that. But at the same time, it's a very practical book. There is a chapter on weaning and feeding infants and toddlers in that book. All of my books are, in that sense, from a stage of my life. There are people now who say to me that they have babies and they make these strange concoctions I used to make. And I love seeing it now, seeing things I used to feed the children when they were little. And then other books chart as they get a bit older.

I noticed – and it made me laugh as well – that some of the recipes I wrote after I had children presumed I had less time on my hands than I had earlier. But at the same time, you realize how little time you’ve got and you still do it. I did a lot of cooking with my children, or with them in the kitchen with their crayons. I'm not a very athletic person, so I never really wanted to go and play in the park or do something like that. A huge part of the baking I started doing was that it was a wonderful way of taking care of the kids and having them in the kitchen, letting them play with a bit of dough or mixing up a batter. In that way, cooking actually became something that took up more of my life.

We all have a specific language – and I wrote a book about this called Kitchen – when I said that I felt that in the contemporary world we think everyone must pay attention with a capital A. But sometimes people flourish more when you can't give them the full beam of your attention. If you’re in the kitchen cooking, you find you can talk to friends or talk to a child in a very deep way because your mind is partly on the pan that you are stirring; it takes off some of the pressure. Everything doesn't have to be like a highly charged interview. And people often speak freely, in the same way as parents often say they can really talk to their children when they're driving because you can't be staring and really giving your full attention to your child. Therefore, it's much more liberating for them to talk. So, I do feel by cooking at home I've had many conversations with my children or they've been doing their homework in the kitchen or we've been discussing things. I've had friends talk about what's going on in their life. You cannot do that as a chef; you do need complete attention. The sort of cooking you do at home means life is lived while cooking; it’s not a separate activity.

  A LIFE IN FOOD

FL: What was your food life when you were a child?

NL: I hated mealtimes so enormously as a child. People often say to me that they can’t get their kid to eat, and I say, “Don't worry, I didn't eat until I was about eight.” I didn't like it at all. My food at home was different than a lot of families in England. My mother was not a very traditional British cook; she was more European, meaning it was French and Italian and quite food obsessive. Somethings were quite old-fashioned, her cooking wasn't. It was at the time when the only pasta people had was what we erroneously do in Britain: spaghetti Bolognese, which makes all Italians weep.

FL: Spag bol.

NL: Yes, spag bol. So, that my mother would often do spaghetti with garlic and a bit of chili and olive oil. In those times you had to go to the drugstore or into Soho to get oil. My maternal grandmother cooked in a more recipe-led way, but my mother didn't use recipes. I used to spend Friday afternoons with my grandmother often and I used to cook brains with brown butter and capers; it was just delicious. I did eat quite a lot and food was quite a focus of our life at home. It was considered vulgar at that time in England to talk about food as you were eating it. But we always did. So, I ate and I was interested in food and I cooked quite a lot at home. My mother believed in child labor, so my sister and I were always being conscripted.

FL: You have a wonderful story in the book about making mayonnaise, and how mayonnaise was a three-person act because you would whisk, your sister would pour in the oil, and your mother would direct.

NL: She would direct. And it was difficult because my mother was very wonderfully impatient – it’s something that I've inherited – and she’d be cross. If you were pouring you’d be concerned that you weren’t pouring slow enough, or you weren’t whisking fast enough; you had to get it right. We had an old-fashioned range, she'd put chairs next to it and we'd sit there stirring pans. That's a great way to learn how to cook.

FL: When did you realize that you love to cook?

NL: I realized I was interested in recipes when I was at a boarding school where the food was bad, so I became a bit obsessed with reading about food and reading recipes. It was being deprived of good food that may have began the obsession. Then I went to Italy for a year between school and university, which was wonderful because I'd been brought up thinking French food was the food that you had to aspire to. Italian food and learning Italian changed me enormously; I found that liberating. I think that’s why there's always been a slightly Italianate influence in my ideas about what food should be like.

And then when I went to university I cooked an awful lot, partly because it was a good way of frittering away time when I should have been studying, but also because I realized I was a feeder and I enjoyed it. Cooking was so natural to the way I grew up; it just seemed normal. I would go and buy really inexpensive things like breast of lamb and cook that.

When I became a young journalist, I found it's not just that you're putting off deadline, but sometimes you can have better thoughts when you're not exerting yourself to think but rather you’re stirring and chopping. I've always found that to be helpful in life.

FL: It's like what you said about sometimes having a more open or more honest conversation.

NL: Yes. And also with oneself. I keep thinking I want to learn to meditate, and I get apps and listen to them. But for me, I do decompress by cooking. The thing about cooking is that you feel like cooking is something that's familiar, you’re letting go, you’re trying a recipe just to see how it goes. You need enough focus so that you can't be thinking about everything else that could be bubbling up inside your head. At the same time, you're doing a certain amount of mindless repetition. In one of my books I have a chapter about risotto called “The Solace of Stirring.” I think that cooking can be a wonderful way to decompress, but not if you're trying to impress someone and not if you're doing anything enormously challenging.

  RECIPES AS STORYTELLING

FL: Let's talk about your recipes and how you write them. I love reading them. Very often I feel a voice behind them; it feels like the person who wrote them had a good time writing them. You ask us to salt the water exuberantly. You ask us to you give it a little squidge; I don't necessarily know what that means, but I can hear someone saying and I can intuit it. It feels conversational. I heard you give an interview – I think you were talking about writing your first book – and you said you didn't intend on being a food writer, that you had a career as a serious journalist prior to that, but you were compelled by the linguistic challenge because food belongs to the world of the senses, and writing is abstract.

NL: I was interested in using words to convey the realm of the senses.

FL: Eleven books into your food writing career, is that still a thing that you think about?

NL: That is still a thing that interests me. I have an intense need to describe the act of cooking and how food tastes when you eat it. That's very much what drives me when I write a recipe; I'm not really interested in writing a formula. It's conversational because I feel it is a conversation. I am talking. It is my voice. Words are an ingredient and I like that. I feel I have two twin aims in a book. One is that it should be an entirely practical manual and the other is it should be a good read. That's what I look for in cookbooks myself.

FL: Maybe this is far too geeky a question for anyone else to care about but I'm fascinated by it. When you're writing a recipe, are you the kind of writer who goes through many drafts or are you the kind of writer who essentially writes it once and gets it?

NL: It really depends recipe to recipe. What I do first is I cook; I just cook. After that I have to turn what I've cooked into a recipe. Sometimes I just can't because I need to go free-form first and then I try to turn it into a recipe. Sometimes it's nearly right, and I keep tweaking it. Every time I cook something I find a way of making it simpler. I normally have an instinct about what needs to be changed. I used to have a “three strikes and you're out” rule; if I had to test something more than that, I thought it wasn’t not meant to be. But now I'm a bit more persistent. I'm quite a tough editor on myself, and so I always I cut away anything that I don't think is absolutely right.

When people write cookbooks there is a tendency, which I don't think is helpful, that if a recipe has worked then you put it in a book. I think it has to be the sort of recipe you have to stop yourself from cooking all the time or something that you cook on repeat. Because it's not enough that recipe works; you’ve got to want to make it repeatedly. Otherwise why are you taking up space with it?

FL: It's a gift, right? It's essentially a gift of this knowledge, and you want it to be useful.

NL: It really is a sharing of enthusiasm, so it’s got to be a genuine enthusiasm. And obviously, one's tastes change a bit and you feel differently now. By now, I've written so many that I sometimes look up past recipes I've done and I think, “I can't remember writing that recipe, but I want to eat that now!” What I think is interesting as well is that I might return to a recipe, I might be thinking of a recipe my grandmother made, but I'm not interested in creating a museum of home cooking; I might be able to get very different ingredients and spices from the local store than my grandmother might have. In that way a recipe will change. A recipe is living; like language is living and food is living. I think that it's wonderful to celebrate the food of the past, but I think it has its own character and it will change according to the kitchen it's being cooked in and what's available at the time. If I'm traveling I will always bring ingredients back. If I go to a shop at home and I suddenly see a jar of something I haven’t heard of, I have to get it and try it.

HOME COOKING... BACK AT HOME

FL: Speaking of travel, you're traveling right now. You’re away from your home and doing an extended publicity tour for this book. You’re gone for nearly three weeks around the United States, living out of hotels, and probably without doing much of any cooking. Are you dreaming of when you get home and what you will cook?

NL: I think I will make the chicken with miso. I always miss a lot of vegetables too. I do miss cooking; I find it odd not cooking for a long time. I also realize how much cooking is about the security of knowing what I'm going to eat or knowing that I am going to eat. I always slightly worry. I think that I have an atavistic refugee mentality. My family is Jewish which is also why – not to stereotype – food is quite important. I have to be quite careful at home that I don't build up too much of a pantry. I have an absolute fear of not having something to eat, and when I'm on the road I do fret a bit if I don't know that I'm going to get something to eat at a certain time. I find emotional security in knowing that I'm going to eat, and being in charge of food intake is part of that. When I'm away from home I don't have control. I'm at everyone's mercy.

FL: That's such a vulnerable place to be.

NL: It is. But, it can also be exciting because you are eating new and different things. But I do sort of squirrel things away. Speaking of being in hotels, I would have to somehow bring back something to the room, so that if I wake up hungry in the middle of the night I can eat. I was in Australia travelling for a while and it was wonderful. I love Australian food because I get to eat fish that I didn't even exist. But, I always think you don't get enough vegetables when you're on the road; it's just a different way of eating.

FL: Thank you so much, Nigella. It’s been wonderful talking to you.

NL: And it's been lovely talking to you.