The following interview first appeared in Folio Magazine, November 2007. Despite being a phenomenally busy woman - at the time she was zipping between the US and the UK, filming and promoting her latest book, she still found time to indulge me. I was already a fan...now I'm even more so.
Coming to both Bath and Bristol this month to publicise her new book, Nigella Express (which contains recipes from her current BBC2 series), the daughter of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson began her career over 20 years ago. Having read Languages at Oxford, she went on to become Deputy Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, where she met her first husband, journalist John Diamond, before moving on to establish the food column for the Spectator. Diamond, the father of her two children, sadly succumbed to throat cancer in 2001, but in 2003 Nigella remarried, this time to art collector and advertising guru Charles Saatchi.
Nigella has written for dozens of different publications, including Vogue, the Evening Standard, The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. Her first book, How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food was published in 1998, and since then she has authored a further five cookery tomes and garnered a clutch of awards. Surprisingly modest for someone so instantly recognisable, Nigella tells Folio that she never expected to become a household name. “I don't think I ever thought that. I had the notion that I would, if anything, ‘make my name’ in other fields,” she candidly admits. “The writing I did about restaurants was a diversion for me; it never occurred to me that I would move away from the other journalistic areas I was working in.”
“I don't regard that part of the job,” she says when asked about how she deals with her celebrity status. “I just feel inordinately blessed to have work that I truly love.”
It must have been difficult for her to be taken seriously as a writer when she first started. Did people assume she was simply trading on the family name? “I'm sure people assume all sorts of things,” she replies. “But I don't believe in dwelling on other people's preconceptions or prejudices. Anyone starting off in work has to struggle and there is nothing wrong in that. In fact, I regard that part of my working life as particularly precious.”
Nigella’s TV career began in earnest in 1998 with regular guest spots on Nigel Slater’s Real Food Show on Channel 4. This was quickly followed by two series of Nigella Bites, where she honed her trademark style of offering fuss-free food with maximum taste, prepared with minimum effort; an ethos that has come to fruition with Nigella Express. Her favourite dish is not something expensive or difficult to prepare, as you might expect, but: “Roast chicken. It’s the perfect supper.”
This approach to food was, and still is remarkably different to many other TV cooks and chefs, and has proved a massive hit with the viewing public. “I think that seeing someone who is not trained, no kind of expert, and indeed not a professional chef, must strike a note,” she tells us. “I am just a home cook like those who watch the programmes.” Asked if she ever feels the wrath of other cookery writers for giving the game away, using shop-bought stock for example or cutting corners with pre-prepared mayonnaise, she adds: “I am so not part of the professional food world that I don't know what they don't like about me! I am not part of their gang being, as I said, a home cook rather than a chef!”
Several more cookery series followed, along with a stab at her own daytime chat show and a famous appearance on Have I Got News for You, wearing a t-shirt cheekily emblazoned with the word ‘Delia’. She even has own cookery utensil range.
Regular viewers will know that much of her inspiration comes from her own family, although she is a huge fan of Anna del Conte, listing three of her books in her top 10 of essential reads for keen cooks. “I didn't really think about cookery books or their writers since, although my mother was a fantastic cook, I never saw her use a cookery book or refer to a recipe,” she says. “When I came across Anna del Conte in the 1980s, I was enraptured: she's scholarly, informative, her recipes are delicious and practical and she continued my love affair with Italian food.”
One of the features of Nigella’s TV programmes is the way in which viewers are carried into her world; we see the busy mum preparing lunch for her kids, seeing them off to school, or grabbing a bite whilst on the hoof between appointments. Her children often feature, and Folio wondered how they felt about having such a famous mum. “Well, I think it is both embarrassing for them and yet pleasing for them to be part of it,” she admits. “As for the ‘famous mum’ bit, to them I am just their mum and I think they probably don't get other people's interest in what I am doing.”