When we launched MiNDFOOD a very excited reader sent us an email telling us that while she was in a Bondi café discussing our new magazine, page by page, with her sister, a woman approached her and asked if she could see the new magazine. The woman was on her way to the airport to return to the UK. She said she loved it so much that she would buy a copy at the airport. The woman, as it turned out, was Nigella Lawson.
“I love it. I think it’s fantastic!” says Nigella of MiNDFOOD. “There’s not another magazine like it. I love the range; there are so many aspects to it.” High praise, indeed.
It has been well documented that Nigella’s first husband, British broadcaster and journalist John Diamond, died of throat cancer in 2001 and she married advertising agency owner and art collector Charles Saatchi in 2003.
Though life is busy for this self-titled “domestic goddess” who publishes books, has her own range of cookware, presents television shows and appears in television advertising around the world, the roles of wife and mother come first.
As Nigella arrives home from dropping her son, Bruno, to school, she says, as do many mothers of 12-year-old boys, “He doesn’t really want Mum to take him to school, but it’s his first day back so I wanted to take him.”
Nigella is very maternal and protective of her brood, which includes Bruno’s older sister, Cosima. Nigella is fun, intelligent, completely down to earth and unpretentious – you can’t help but enjoy her company. As we chat about life, favourite travel destinations, restaurants, celebrity chefs, Christmas and food, it’s obvious from the start that she makes the most out of life.
When asked what’s it like for her kids to have a mum who has a public profile, she says, “I don’t think they like it much; I’d imagine it’s slightly embarrassing, as children perceive you in a very different way. It’s not like it has always been this way. When I go to the school I’m apologising that the homework is late once again; it’s that kind of a conversation.” Like most of us Nigella juggles parenthood and her career. “It’s quite integrated,” she says. “I often get asked to man the cake stall [at school] and I don’t like to let them down.”
Certainly, what you see is what you get with Nigella. “I have a steady group of friends around me,” she says. “I don’t like it when I think people are sucking up or acting one [particular] way when they want something. That makes me uncomfortable.
“Even before they started school, I taught my children that just because I’m on television, just because I have a job that puts me on television, doesn’t mean that what I do is more important than any other job. Television can create something that doesn’t really exist. It tends to magnify things.
“That’s why I’m lucky – in that my life is more than a job. Even when I was jobless I always felt incredibly lucky to have ‘work’ that never felt like a job. This is what I do. The only thing that reminds me I’m working is when someone comes to do my hair and make-up.”
MAKING IT WORK
In creating food television and a range of cookbooks, her latest being Nigella Christmas, Nigella is very entertaining. Her style of cooking is very real and how most of us cook – fingers in the bowl, a handful of this and that. She is not always precise or fussy, and that is the magic of Nigella. It’s the “I can make that, I could do that” factor. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Her style of cooking is often about the story and the memory of food. “You want the feeling of the warmth from the table,” Nigella says, “a feeling of love for your friends. Also, you want to sit and chat with them, otherwise people feel intimidated. I love to watch how chefs work but I don’t do it like that at home. It has to be doable in the context of everyday life.
“I also think you don’t just want a recipe, you want to know the story, too – why the recipe has been chosen and why it’s a favourite. The story isn’t about 100g of flour and a couple of eggs; the story is that I first baked the cake when I was 12 at my grandmother’s house.
“I have a very close relationship with my readers. In a way, television is wonderful because it can broaden your audience and you can see what’s happening in a moving sense, but I love the rapport between reader and writer. I know it sounds sentimental, but I think it is a very profound relationship. When I do a book tour I like it when people come up with their stories. I love to hear someone say, ‘I didn’t have any wine in the house for a recipe so I just mixed a bit of lemon juice with tarragon,’ and I think, ‘Oh yum, delicious!’”
“It is impossible to be dishonest with food, because you either like or dislike something. Food is so sensual and there is an enormous connection with it.
“What people cook in restaurants is not something that I cook at home. You put it in the pan, you take it out of the pan. In the end cooking is straightforward. People complicate some recipes simply to make it novel.
“I don’t have the ability to make things complicated. I’m quite a clumsy person. I’m always dropping things. If I can do this, you can. It doesn’t have to be time consuming. Sometimes I do want to do something that is time consuming, however, sometimes a quick stir-fry is better than roast chicken.
“I like veal. If you really dislike veal, you need to cook it for yourself, that way you become more confident with your cooking. You shouldn’t be worried about things going wrong.
“Cooking is about bringing pleasure into your life. So many people live in their heads so much, so it’s nice to get your hands into something. It also creates that beautiful thing in life with memories. Food has some sort of collective memory.”
And with memories of food, cooking styles change. “It’s all about what’s in season, the taste and focus, and the enjoyment really being there. I love reading about food from all around the world and I have loads of cookbooks.
“There are people who say there are things you should do – ‘read that book, eat that food’ – but I feel it’s very important not to get hung up on that stuff. People often have a lot of anxiety about what they are eating. I think [food is] too important not to have too much sauce or this or that. It should be about the pure enjoyment of making the food and sitting down and eating it.
“When I read a cookbook I put the words in my mouth and savour them. I read a recipe and think, ‘That sounds delicious, but I will use swordfish, not lamb.’
“I think the family style of eating is important – the more involved kids are in the meal, the more they are happy to eat,” Nigella says. “I also love to chat to my kids while I’m cooking. I love it when my son comes and says, ‘Oh, is that coriander?’”
This philosophy about involvement in cooking sees Nigella support the Common Threads charity that is nurturing low-income children in Chicago and Los Angeles through food-oriented cultural exchange and learning.
“It’s trying to bring children together from different backgrounds and races to cook together.” she says. “The only way to break down barriers is to teach children. People from all over the world come together and show other people how to cook their food – it’s that whole sharing of communal knowledge. Being in the kitchen and cooking, I certainly feel that communication.”
Common Threads provides after-school programs for children aged between eight and 12. Students learn basic kitchen skills, cooking techniques and the importance of using fresh ingredients as they prepare healthy ethnic cuisines together.
Chef instructors incorporate nutrition tips and cultural information into lessons that teach students how to connect with their bodies, their neighbours and their world in a healthy way. The additional summer camp centres around health, wellbeing and cultural awareness.
There are also programs that teach prisoners to cook, which seems to help their rehabilitation more than anything else.
“There is something about food that connects people,” Nigella says. “For a lot of people who come unstuck, the [sense of] accomplishment from cooking is amazing.
“One of the joys of getting older is I couldn’t care less what people think of me. In your teens and 20s you can get crippled by embarrassment. Now, I get into that kitchen and start baking. It’s quite therapeutic.”