How the self-styled “home cook” made it through the pres­sure test

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FRONT PAGE - IAN GIL­BERT

She has graced the cover of Vogue, prac­ti­cally in­vented food porn and is prob­a­bly the most recog­nis­able fe­male cook in the world — which makes Nigella Law­son’s lament about the de­mands of fame all the more sur­pris­ing. “If I never had my pho­to­graph taken again I wouldn’t be un­happy,” she says. “But I started as a jour­nal­ist, I write about food and I do like com­mu­ni­ca­tion with peo­ple. I like to meet read­ers and I like to talk about food.”

This may seem at odds with the woman who has just been strik­ing pose af­ter pose for the cam­era as part of the public­ity for MasterChef, but it makes per­fect sense: Law­son is as much about the writ­ten word as the im­age.

(True, she trav­els with a stylist, but that’s a re­al­ity for women in the pub­lic eye, es­pe­cially one who looks a decade younger than her 56 years.)

The di­a­logue that can seem over-egged on screen has a dif­fer­ent res­o­nance on the printed page. Af­ter all, Law­son — the Ox­ford-ed­u­cated daugh­ter of a se­nior min­is­ter in Mar­garet Thatcher’s gov­ern­ment — started her work­ing life writ­ing lit­er­ary re­views and opin­ion pieces for news­pa­pers.

“What brought me into the food world was lan­guage; it in­ter­ested me to try to write about it be­cause I was in­ter­ested to see whether lan­guage, which is ab­stract, could be used to evoke a world that so clearly be­longs to the realms of the senses,” she says. “Cook­ing and writ­ing are sim­i­lar in the way read­ing and eat­ing are. I like the taste of words.”

Law­son is in town to pro­mote MasterChef, in which she ap­pears next week, and con­duct­ing a day of back-to-back in­ter­views from the con­fines of a city ho­tel.

How­ever, she is only too happy to take up the of­fer of lunch at Mel­bourne’s bak­ery du jour, Lune Crois­san­terie, for cof­fee and el­e­gant patis­serie. It’s a break from her ar­du­ous sched­ule and a chance to see first-hand the ex­cel­lence of lo­cal chefs — and she’s im­pressed.

“I couldn’t make pas­tries like this,” she en­thuses. “I’m very much a home cook, which is dif­fer­ent. The skill that goes into these is im­mense.”

Law­son’s voice is clear in her writ­ten work. Take this pas­sage from her lat­est book, Sim­ply Nigella, about us­ing cast-iron pans: “I find both the an­cient ore they are forged from, and their steady heft, re­as­sur­ing.”

But while the lan­guage may be po­etic, the mes­sage is pro­saic. There’s no cheffy self-ag­gran­dis­e­ment; quite sim­ply, she wants to get peo­ple cook­ing. As one of the small-screen heavy hit­ters who can cause su­per­mar­ket short­ages by us­ing a cer­tain in­gre­di­ent — a la “the Jamie ef­fect” — how does she de­fine the Nigella ef­fect?

“I hope it’s made peo­ple re­alise you don’t need a qual­i­fi­ca­tion or ex­cep­tional skills or dex­ter­ity to cook,” she says. “I have no (cook­ing) qual­i­fi­ca­tions and no train­ing, I’m in­cred­i­bly clumsy, I chop badly, I burn my­self quite a bit, I make mis­takes, but I get things how I want them, and I think things don’t have to be show-offy to be de­li­cious.”

Her un­af­fected gusto for cook­ing finds a nat­u­ral affin­ity with Aus­tralian tastes. “I don’t mind go­ing bold on flavour,” Law­son says.

“I mix things up a bit, which is a bit like the Aus­tralian at­ti­tude. I like the re­laxed at­ti­tude to­wards food — there’s no stress, you can sense the en­joy­ment.”

Whether the same can be said of the MasterChef con­tes­tants who take on her “Pres­sure Test” is an­other thing, though Law­son is full of ad­mi­ra­tion for them.

“I think the stan­dard is very high. I think they’re very good. So many go on to work in food and be­cause of that it does en­cour­age peo­ple who are good and it keeps it all go­ing — it’s like a fel­low­ship. It seems once that series has gone, those peo­ple aren’t for­got­ten.”

Pro­files of Law­son of­ten fo­cus on the phys­i­cal as much as the food, which may seem su­per­fi­cial but recog­nises her ca­pac­ity for em­pow­er­ment. A healthy ap­petite — in both senses — is no bad thing.

But por­tray­ing Law­son as a poster girl for guilt­free eat­ing misses the point: her maxim isn’t “eat what you like” so much as “like what you eat”. You can have your cake and eat it, just not the whole cake. “I don’t do dessert ever, nor­mally,’’ she says. “I would never think of do­ing it day to day. The whole point is that it’s spe­cial and a treat.

“I think a lot of peo­ple have that ob­ses­sion with sweet things be­cause they’re al­ways try­ing not to eat them. Put a packet of salt and vine­gar crisps in front of me and I find that far more of a chal­lenge.”

(She scoffs at the sug­ges­tion that she might be up

‘I make mis­takes but I get things how I want them and I think things don’t have to be showoffy to be de­li­cious’ NIGELLA LAW­SON

at 5 o’clock ev­ery morn­ing to pound the tread­mill. “I don’t look like some­one who is,” she says, gen­uinely self-dep­re­cat­ingly.)

Law­son’s ethos led her into some choppy wa­ters re­cently when she elab­o­rated on more fad­dish di­ets.

She says: “I don’t like the term ‘clean eat­ing’ — it comes from a place that some­how eat­ing is a bit dirty and there’s a shame at­tached, but if you’re ask­ing whether I think food that’s fresh and isn’t pro­cessed is a good thing, of course it is. I also am very aware that for many peo­ple it does be­come some­thing that can tilt an un­healthy re­la­tion­ship with food in the wrong way.”

This is per­haps a nod to Law­son’s ac­knowl­edg­ment that her mother, Vanessa, had en­dured an eat­ing dis- or­der, though ques­tions about fam­ily are strictly off lim­its — a legacy of her an­nus hor­ri­bilis of 2013. That was the year her dis­in­te­grat­ing pri­vate life be­came tabloid fod­der: first ex-hus­band Charles Saatchi man­han­dled her on a restau­rant ter­race, then the trial of her for­mer per­sonal as­sis­tants aired plenty of dirty wash­ing.

Is cook­ing her “safe place” to which she re­treats? “It has been in the past,” she says. “I can’t sep­a­rate cook­ing off into some­thing out­side of my­self.” She comes across as re­mark­ably grounded (“I don’t go to pre­mieres and that sort of thing”) and says: “I have proper friends. I don’t have the kind of life where I meet peo­ple who con­fuse me with some im­age that’s pro­jected on to me, be­cause they know me and they know me well.”

We also may feel we know her well, with her hav­ing been on our screens for 18 years. When Law­son was a jour­nal­ist, she never thought she’d be­come a food writer, so what will she be do­ing in an­other 18 years?

“Pro­fes­sion­ally, who knows? That’s what I find ex­cit­ing. I some­times think I might do some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent. The world is di­vided into those who make plans and peo­ple who feel very claus­tro­pho­bic with plans, and I’m some­one who can­not bear think­ing about what I should do in the fu­ture.

“When peo­ple say, ‘What are your goals?’, I’ve never had a goal in my life.”

Then she makes what could be a com­men­tary on the slings and ar­rows she has en­dured with­out ever los­ing her poise.

“The way I feel that life is, you can’t plan for things. You never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen, you can’t take any­thing for granted, so I wouldn’t want to jinx my­self by mak­ing plans for the fu­ture.”

MasterChef Nigella Week airs on the Ten Net­work from Sun­day, May 22, at 7.30pm.


Law­son with Mas­terchef hosts Gary Me­hi­gan, Ge­orge Calom­baris and Matt Pre­ston


Law­son on the set of Mas­terchef Aus­tralia

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