As always, Nigella Lawson has a lot of balls in the air. Her new show The Taste with Anthony Bourdain, Ludo Lefebvre and Brian Malarky, has turned out to be quite a hit. At the same time, she's just released her 9th cookbook, Nigellissima, which celebrates the flavors of Italy. We sat down with her on Valentine's Day in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont to chat about cooking, cookbooks, television and typeface.
Squid Ink: Well, I watched [The Taste], and it's fun! A little silly, but fun.
Nigella Lawson: Thank you. Do you think it's silly? Silly how?
SI: Not silly as in … that's maybe the wrong word. But I gotta say, I find the idea of cooking as competition, as a sport, a little silly.
NL: Me too. I do not think of cooking as a competitive sport, and yet I feel comfortable being there. I think that's partly the blind taste thing and also because people are not forced to enter. I try to encourage more than I criticize.
SI: I mean, I shouldn't talk, I'm a restaurant critic, so judging cooks in a kind of competitive way is part of my job I suppose.
NL: Yes. In the same way, I love writing cookbooks, however, I also think the tyranny of the recipe is a bad thing, and cooking is about freeing oneself from that. I've often written about this too: Do the recipes, do them do them do them, and then get to know how you'd like to fiddle with them, make them yours.
SI: Do you feel like in your books and in Nigellissima there's places where you encourage people to do that?
NL: Always always always. I always try — to the point of really being repetitive — to remind readers that different conditions will determine different outcomes. The size of a pot, the dimensions of a roasting tin, the temperature of your kitchen, and all those things. Try to use those things to think about the cooking and actually make decisions.
SI: It's hard even — I grew up cooking in a household with many cooks, but I felt very tied to the recipes that were my mother's or whatever. And I remember — my mother makes this fantastic chicken soup and the first time my husband made it he threw in a bunch of greens, which is not in her recipe, I and was horrified. Then I tasted it and of course it was delicious. It made me question — I'm a creative cook on my own, but those family recipes that are passed down you feel so tied to emotionally.
NL: I've got a recipe called “my mother's praised chicken” and I call it that because it's not quite poached and not quite braised. And it is an act of devotion, it tastes like her chicken and it makes the kitchen smell like her kitchen. However, I do also like fiddling with it. When she cooked it you couldn't get fresh cilantro routinely in England. So instead of putting white wine in it, how about sake and cilantro and ginger? That's cooking.
When I was doing this book I was in Italy and an Italian chef said to me “How is your Italian book going?” And I said, “It's not really Italian, you know I love Italy but it's more about how Italy has influenced my kitchen.” And he said, “That is cooking.” He understood. The more you cook, the more you can trust your instincts. Which is why I think it's the very hard thing people do now, which is they don't cook routinely for themselves every day, and then they expect themselves to suddenly be able to start having 12 people for supper and have it be a stress free exercise.
It's like saying, well I haven't got my driver's license but I think I'm going to go be a driver for NASCAR. So I suppose that's why I feel like my recipes aren't just geared for entertaining. Most people I know are too exhausted. Who's having these elegant dinner parties all the time? For me it's more about just living, and having your friends over. I don't have a dining room. I have a kitchen.
SI: I found it really interesting, the typeface in the book, the way the first part of each sentence in the instructions is bolded. The emotional reaction I had to it was that it was very comforting. It felt like someone was right there with you each time. I wonder how that came about.
NL: I'm very very interested in type. What happened was I've always worked with one particular designer, Caz Hildebrand, and I think she's a genius. She designed the book the the Geometry of Pasta, and she's done a lot of food books. She and I have worked together since 1998, and she doesn't mind my interfering, which is important. She's so talented she doesn't have those sort of ego issues.
So one year when we did a Christmas book I said, let's go dark dark green for the type, and we'll go red for the ingredients. And then when I did my kitchen book, I said “I want it to have coziness without people really knowing why, so let's go dark brown for the type. Most people won't even notice it's not black.” Then when we did this book, I had this notion, what I wanted for it to have that Italian look, a slightly Milano cool, but at the same time I want it to have warmth. So we went for a slightly more rounded typeface and I needed to be clean, and I wanted a wider measure.
After doing all these books I wanted a different challenge on the photographs. We do all the photographs at my home — I am involved on every single level. So I said to Caz, let's go charcoal on the typeface. And let's make it so the only color is the food, so the color of the food really shows. And we tried it in many different ways. And because of the wide measure, it became problematic to have blobs for instructions, but I didn't want numbers. As you know, the whole of life is about solving problems. So we came up with this, to have the beginning of each sentence bolded, to let people know it was a new breath. It was her idea. Form and function.
SI: The effect it had on me was it feels very much like there's a presence there with you, in those parts.
NL: I hope it feels that way in the introduction as well. Food writing is a form of autobiography. And it's a communication. It has to be conversational. There has to be an engagement.
SI: For people who have been buying your cookbooks for a long time, can you tell them what's different about this one?
NL: Nothing's ever going to be especially different essentially. To be very different would be inauthentic. I have my voice and it's my voice, and the sort of food I like, which is informal and easy. It's more of the same, but a distillation. Some of these recipes are old ones and some of them are new. The first book was when I was first raising my first child. And there's a chapter on weaning, and feeding toddlers. Of course now my children are teenagers, so it's both the food they like eating and the food they can cook. They say to me in a very reassuring way, “You know Mum, this is your best book so far.”
SI: Ha! I so hope that when my kid's that age he'll be that encouraging.
NL: He will be.
SI: There's a section of the new book about an Italian Christmas. Christmas is one of those times when people are so attached to their traditions. Is it a time where you have real stanch traditions, things that you have to cook?
NL: Yes, I do. For some people this could be an alternative — I do a very traditional British Christmas, but I feel I have a lot more people over around that time of year. There's a lot of party-type recipes. There's the one turkey recipe that I was interested in doing because I am quite interested in the hybrid, the Italian hybrid recipe. Because of the Italian diaspora, there are Italian communities everywhere. People think fusion is a fake thing, but of course there is such thing as authentic … Australia for example, there are so many Calabrians in Australia that it is a slightly different from what it would be elsewhere.
SI: The word “authentic” makes me insane.
NL: Well I cook authentically like an English person who loves Italian food. So that's why I was interested in doing this. I feel slightly defensive, despite having no connection to it, of Italian American food because actually that is a culture of its own. Food is like language. It changes. And that's in some ways why the French have had problems with language and food, because if it lives it breathes and if it breathes it must change. It interests me.
SI: You've been involved in food media since before it exploded into this feeding frenzy, for lack of a better term. How do you see that? Do you feel like everyone's finally got it, or if it seems a little insane to you?
NL: Actually, when people say to me, “why is everyone so interested in food?” the answer is, well everyone eats. And so it doesn't surprise me. I think it's odd that people weren't interested before. I've always thought of myself as an outsider anyway, because I started from non-food journalism, and a lot of people thought, “what are you doing? You're not a chef, you're not trained.” I remember once there was a restaurant critic who a chef got cross with for the same reasons, and I thought, if you think that people who aren't chefs shouldn't eat in your restaurant, don't take their money.
We live in this idiotic age I think, that exults the experts, in cooking and child-rearing — the two things that if we needed experts for, humans would have fallen out of the evolutionary chain a long time ago. One of the things I love doing is going online and looking at people's recipes. And believe me, I'm not going to some fancy site with experts' recipes, I just like seeing how people cook. Cooking is a form of social history.
I feel in England, I was one of the ones who forced it, the idea of food in newspapers and on TV. Can you have too much? A lot of people think there's too much food on English television. But on the other hand, there are very few things that everyone does three times a day and is necessary for survival. Therefore it does seem to me — you could argue “why is there so much sport on TV?”
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