Diana Henry talks ‘good culi­nary ad­ven­tures’


Diana Henry had a de­gree from Ox­ford, a great job at the BBC and the prom­ise of a golden fu­ture.

But when she turned 30, cu­rios­ity got the best of her. She took a leave to at­tend a course at Lei­ths School of Food and Wine and re­mem­bers stand­ing proudly at a Lon­don bus stop in her chef’s whites.

“I didn’t want to take them off,” Henry said re­cently in her open­plan kitchen, the sun touch­ing her glow­ing cheeks as she re­counted the mem­ory. “Ev­ery day was a kind of joy.”

Two days into the course, Henry left the se­cu­rity of the BBC and stepped into the un­known. Nine books and a slew of hon­ors later, Henry still pauses in dis­be­lief. Her shelves, floors and ta­bles groan with hun­dreds of cook­books from some of the big­gest names in food, in­clud­ing Alice Wa­ters, Claudia Ro­den and Ann Wil­lan. Some crit­ics sug­gest hers may soon stand in their com­pany.

“She is get­ting closer and closer to do­ing some re­ally great work,” said Molly O’Neill, a for­mer food colum­nist for The New York Times Mag­a­zine, who be­lieves a re­nais­sance is un­der­way in Bri­tish food writ­ing, in part be­cause Bri­tons are in­su­lated to some ex­tent from the Amer­i­can belief that a large num­ber of fol­low­ers on so­cial media equates with knowl­edge. “She’s try­ing to cre­ate a niche. It’s not an easy task.”

Henry con­sid­ers her rise im­prob­a­ble. She grew up in North­ern Ire­land, where good cooks were mostly seen as be­ing good bak­ers. The food was good, but not ex­actly ex­otic. An ex­tended trip to France changed that, with her ex­change part­ner school­ing her in proper vinai­grette and pot-roasted rab­bit. It gave her a sense that there was some­thing be­yond the Bri­tish Isles. She felt con­nected.

“You can go any­where with food with­out go­ing very far at all,” she said. “You can stay in Lon­don, you can stay in your kitchen, but you can be trav­el­ing any­where.”

Mov­ing to Lon­don in the mid1980s was a rev­e­la­tion. There were Ital­ian, Turk­ish and Greek shops within walk­ing dis­tance. She tried Viet­namese food in the liv­ing room of a woman in Lit­tle Venice and ate Ethiopian food with­out cut­lery. She’d go across town for the per­fect Turk­ish pep­per. She be­friended butch­ers for veal bones.

With some cash from her granny, Henry bought Ro­den’s “A New Book of Mid­dle Eastern Food” and Wa­ters’ “Chez Panisse Menu Cook­book.” She was trans­ported.

She thought about Ro­den en­ter­tain­ing Jewish emi­gres at her fam­ily’s home in Lon­don, tak­ing down their mem­o­ries and their recipes so nei­ther would be for­got­ten. She imag­ined Wa­ters kissed by the Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, sun- shine, sug­gest­ing desserts that were sim­ple, sea­sonal and el­e­gant — such as a bowl of cher­ries with a few per­fect cook­ies.

“It was like see­ing a paint­ing and say­ing, `Oh. My. God!’ Look at the way they look at the world,” Henry said.

Ro­den sighs with pride when told of her im­pact, say­ing it is an honor to be con­sid­ered one of Henry’s in­spi­ra­tions. She likes that Henry “puts things to­gether that re­ally go to­gether,” and com­bines that with an eye for color, which is crit­i­cal in a cook­book.

“Some­times peo­ple overdo things,” Ro­den said. “When you need two fla­vors, they put in five. She has a good sense of do­ing it sim­ple.”

Henry has earned a rep­u­ta­tion for pro­duc­ing beau­ti­ful cook­books with recipes that work, said An­drea Weigl, chair­woman of the James Beard Foun­da­tion book awards com­mit­tee. But the books also have per­son­al­ity, a sense that you hear Henry’s voice from across the ta­ble as she tells you how the dish came to be. That per­son­al­ity helped win her a Beard nom­i­na­tion this year for her book, “A Change of Ap­petite: Where Healthy Meets De­li­cious.”

Henry says she found the book hard to write, not just be­cause she had to do a lot of re­search on the science be­hind healthy eat­ing, but be­cause it dealt with is­sues that were very per­sonal.

“It was quite brave in the ‘Change of Ap­petite’ book be­cause my weight has been an is­sue for­ever,” she said. “It was hard to know where to draw the line.”

Reader’s Re­sponses

Read­ers re­sponded to the hon­esty. At Kitchen Arts & Letters, the New York City book­store for food lovers, man­ag­ing part­ner Matt Sartwell said his cus­tomers ap­pre­ci­ated that Henry wasn’t on some sort of cru­sade, a pa­leo diet or such. She ex­per­i­mented, but wasn’t go­ing crazy.

“She’s not throw­ing kiwi fruit on pep­per­oni pizza,” Sartwell said. “But when she pulls some­thing non-tra­di­tional you get this sense of sit­ting up straight and say­ing, ‘Wow, that does make sense.’”

She reached back to her roots for her new cook­book — which is fo­cused on chicken — “A Bird in the Hand.” Her grand­fa­ther was a farmer, pri­mar­ily of dairy and poul­try, and she learned early how to pick the bones right down to the `oys­ters’ on the un­der­side. And she wants ev­ery­one to ap­pre­ci­ate the crispy-salty skin of a roast.

In her kitchen in Lon­don’s leafy High­gate area on a re­cent June morn­ing, she spoke about her pride in her fam­ily. One of her two sons was home sick from school, but he didn’t want to ven­ture far with mom giv­ing an in­ter­view. Henry flipped from de­scrib­ing her first bowl of hum­mus to ban­ter­ing with her son about pi­ano prac­tice to the fact her part­ner is a sci­en­tist — all with­out paus­ing for oxy­gen. She is not ex­actly shy.

De­spite that so­cial gene, Henry, 50, re­fuses to raise her pro­file by ap­pear­ing in front of a TV cam­era. For some­one who started out pro­duc­ing tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries, she dis­plays an al­most patho­log­i­cal fear of cook­ing on cam­era. Still, the Beard nom­i­na­tion and a Cook­book of the Year award from the Guild of Food Writ­ers have brought recog­ni­tion, some­thing Henry de­scribed as “the sort of thing you dream about but never think will ever hap­pen be­cause you’re Bri­tish.”

“I wasn’t am­bi­tious, I sort of left that be­hind in telly,” Henry said. “I just wanted to do the very best job I could, so I have al­ways put my all into them. And I did want to write books that were worth leav­ing be­hind — that has al­ways been im­por­tant.”


Food writer and chef Diana Henry poses at her home in Lon­don, in this photo dated Thurs­day, June 4.

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