Nigella Lawson: Another British invasion

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
April 3, 2002

Good English food was an oxymoron until the Brits invaded America. Again.

While they’re barging through our kitchens this time, we’re not so hot to keep them out. It helps that the latest imports such as Jamie Oliver, that hottie on the Food Network’s “The Naked Chef,” are easy on the eye.

These days foodies are raising eyebrows at the sexy star of “Nigella Bites,” the delectable Nigella Lawson. She’s slim with model good looks, and this recent widow is raising a family without complaint or a ladle out of place.

Being British, the self-effacing hostess of the popular cooking show “Nigella Bites” dismisses any compliments about her looks and swears it’s the magical work of makeup artists and camera angles. She’s a little fat, she insists. So perhaps we can add being a little full of it to her resume, too. There’s a little truth to her dismissals, but let’s put it this way. Child and Martha Stewart are many wonderful things, but they’re not babes. Lawson, like her adorable countryman Oliver, is.

“I don’t think English cooks are sexier than Americans,” Lawson says, laughing. “Perhaps it’s that they’re trying a lot of new things in England. The English get itchy and they like novelty a lot. This ‘sexy’ image has more to do with marketing than reality.

When you come over to a country like America where you’re not known, they have to peg you as something, so that’s what they stuck me with.”

“Nigella Bites,” which has been airing since 1999 in England, now beams in locally Saturdays at 11 a.m. on E! Entertainment and at 7 p.m. on Style.

Lawson’s show is set in her lovely, but visibly lived-in, home. There she prepares relatively easy-to-make meals such as roasted pork with bay leaves and tomato rice soup, with mezze (using store-bought hummus and yogurt) as a side dish.

The one message that comes through constantly with Lawson is that food is a pleasure that should be savored and enjoyed. To do that, if you need to find shortcuts, that’s fine with Lawson. If making a dish with homemade stock is too much for you, do as she does, use bouillon cubes. Lawson knows certain ingredients, however truly simple, tend to set off an alarm in many a time-strapped home cook. If the mention of a shallot strikes fear, then use the white or two of a scallion.

Viewers can relate to her lack of fussiness. Her spices aren’t lined on a flawless shelf, a la Martha Stewart, but rather thrown into bags in her pantry. And when it comes to tossing the salad, she uses her hands rather than tongs.

The food she prepares largely is not English food as we know it. Lawson happens to be that rare British beauty who cooks in a variety of styles from around the world.

She’s not a perfectionist, but rather a homey cook who makes it appear that we, too, can duplicate her creations with a minimal amount of effort.

Not that she watches herself.

“It’s too embarrassing,” says Lawson, 42, during a telephone interview. “You know how you recoil in horror the first time you hear your voice on a tape recorder? Imagine what it’s like seeing yourself on top of that. No thank you! Obviously I’ll watch myself if I need to for editing purposes, but it’s on a need-to-see basis.”

Lawson began her career 15 years ago as a food reporter. She still writes a monthly food column for British Vogue. And her latest cookbook is called How to Be a Domestic Goddess (Hyperion, $35), something Lawson claims she really isn’t.

Not that it really matters. John Coletta, executive chef at Chicago’s Caliterra, says regardless of her background, he’s all for the proliferations of chefs (and cooks) making their way onto television.

“It’s doesn’t matter whether you’re a chef at a top restaurant or a home cook,” Coletta says. “As long as you communicate the message of good eating, that’s all that matters. It wasn’t too long ago that the only cooking shows we saw were by Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet. We’ve got such a variety of men and women representing various ethnic groups now. It’s a wonderful time now for food lovers.”

And Lawson defnitely is a lover of food. She loves to eat it, which is why she began cooking alongside her mother. It wasn’t until she was 15 that she realized other people used cookbooks. She assumed everyone cooked like her mother, adding a pinch of this and a dash of that to create delicious meals.

Despite her latest cookbook’s title, Lawson says, “I’m certainly no domestic goddess. I suspect Martha Stewart probably is. Someone was saying in an article about me that I was betraying the sisterhood by going back to the kitchen. I can’t blame them because I know if I was writing an article about my book, I’d have picked on that, too. But you can’t take these things too seriously and focus on other people’s reaction. It’d be too easy to get self-absorbed.”

Which brings us to her reputation as the sexpot of the kitchen … the ‘It’ girl of London … the supermodel of sous chefs!

“My friends tease me about being a sexy chef,” she says. “They come around asking me to lick my fingers or tilt my head back. If they do this too much, they get banned from my kitchen. But as long as they support me, they can mock me.

“It’s a difficult act to live up to being billed as a sexy chef. I’m fairly relaxed about it because people are always going to try to find something they can use to define you. I view myself as more straightforward than sexy. I’m greedy and I don’t hide that. I do what I do because I want to eat.”

Like most women, she struggles to maintain a fit figure and admits she’s happiest when her relatives said she’s looking rundown.

“Coming from a Jewish background, I know this is a code word for being thin,” she says, laughing.

“When they tell me I’m looking healthy, I know I’ve packed on some weight. I am certainly not obese, but I have a woman’s figure. That will never change.”

Uh huh. She looks pretty darned slim on television, even with the proverbial 10 pounds the camera is supposed to add on.

“It’s strange being on the other side of the fence being interviewed,” Lawson says, deftly changing the subject. “I often say afterward to journalists, ‘If you need an elbow quote to make a segueway from one block of text to the other, give me a call and I’ll try to help.”

She also jokingly tells this reporter to feel free to make up a quote if hers are too boring.

Since the death of her husband in 2000, Lawson has raised their 8-year-old daughter, Cosima, and 5-year-old son, Bruno, alone. Her shooting schedule revolves around her children’s activities. She shoots her series from their family home and makes sure she’s available to pick her children up from school every day.

Sometimes Lawson will serve culinary experiments as their afternoon snack. Though both are adventurous eaters, they have their limits. Her son will eat squid, which her daughter won’t touch. But their taste buds never fail to baffle her.

“They love something one week and think it’s disgusting the next week,” she says. “Left to their own planning, my children would want pasta with butter every day. The other day I gave them minestrone. My son tried to be nice. He said, ‘It may look disgusting, but it tastes good.’ Chopped, cooked veggies don’t look so great to a kid.

“I love that kids are so honest about food. Adults worry about a status thing and don’t want to be liking this or that if it’s not in style, whereas children don’t make those kinds of distinctions. They like both chicken nuggets and steamed mussels. Why should one food be good and the other bad?”

Bad food is something England was famous for in times past. Lawson agrees that her country probably deserved that distinction in previous decades, but insists that today’s British cuisine rates with anything the French could concoct.

“I live in London and I think the restaurants here, like in most major cities, do really brilliant work,” she says. “You’ve got the divergence of all these different ethnic groups bringing their delicious food into one place. It has changed quite a bit from the 1980s when the food was just too nouveau cuisine.”

Like Oliver, the Naked Chef, Lawson takes a non-nonsense approach to cooking. Unlike Oliver, who is a trained chef, Lawson is self taught. She even refers to herself as a “home cook.”

“Ask any chef where they love eating the most and they’ll tell you that it’s at home,” she says. “And great chefs are nearly always influenced by what they’re grandmother and mother cooked. I will never be a great chef. I have no training and couldn’t even begin to tell you the best way to fillet a fish.

“When you go out and pay for a meal, you expect something you can’t do yourself. Home cooking isn’t at all about that. I don’t do individually-plated food. To me, it’s more about sharing [family style] from one big bowl.

“Even my family sometimes makes fun of home cooking. They always tease me because I make a roast chicken every chance I get. It’s a lovely food. I could eat that and mashed potatoes every day. And you couldn’t find an easier dish to make.”

Nigella has spoken. And we didn’t even have to make up a quote.

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