TORONTO — Nigella Lawson, the celebrated cookbook author with 11 cookbooks to her name, was in Toronto last week to promote her latest cookbook, At My Table.
As part of the promotional Toronto tour, Lawson took part in the In Conversation interview series at George Brown College before a sold-out audience of 300 guests, who had the chance to listen to her speak and then meet and have her autograph her cookbook.
The interview was conducted by Rosanna Caira, editor and publisher of Foodservice and Hospitality, who asked Lawson a series of questions about her beginnings, her philosophy and her thoughts on all things food.
Lawson, champion of the home cook, charmed the audience with her down-to-earth approach, touching on the fact that though she is a celebrated author, she has had no formalized training in cooking. “I’m a bit of a fraud,” she quipped. “I’m not really part of the industry; I eat and I write about the food I like cooking. I always stressed that I haven’t had training. I want to make it clear, I don’t have any of those skills. But I worship what chefs do; I’m inspired by what they do,” said the British-born author.
Getting her start as a restaurant critic in 1985, during what she terms as London’s culinary renaissance, Lawson originally wanted to write a book about food, but ending up writing a cookbook instead. “I suppose all the important things in life I’ve had happen by accident. This is a happy accident.” But, she admits, she sees herself as a passionate home cook, even though she received flak from those who say she’s not an actual chef. “The day you take money just from people who are chefs in your restaurant, is the day you become irrelevant,” said Lawson.
Asked what fuels her cookbook development, and whether she comes up with a theme for each book, Lawson admits only her Nigelissima cookbook, which focuses on Italian dishes, began with a theme. She’s a fan of Italian cuisine, saying it “has a vibrancy that makes me smile.”
Her approach to her books is equally as relaxed as her approach to cooking. “I cook and some of the things I cook morph into recipes with my help,” she explains, adding that she doesn’t start off thinking too much about cooking time and measuring ingredients. “I see what happens. It’s not about technique. Cooking relies on flavour and flavour relies on texture. You don’t need to actually be so systematic about it. I’m often inspired by going out. I might eat something and it will open my eyes to cooking with it.”
Lawson likes to think of her cookbooks more as collections of stories rather than as manuals. They evoke memories of her past and highlight special moments. The one dish she says best represents that for her is mother’s braised chicken. “My mom died very young at 48, and this dish was something that we used to have a lot – chicken cooked on a stove with leeks and served with rice. It’s not chicken soup, it’s not chicken stew —– I love it. Cooking should evoke memoires or creates new ones.”
Her motivating factor when creating a cookbook is that every recipe has to work. “It should be easy to follow, and give you pleasure reading it, just like reading any other book.”
As for any parting advice to home cooks – Lawson says to cook for yourself. Don’t overwhelm yourself with cooking for a big group; that will ensure you won’t worry about things going wrong. “Pay attention to what you like, please your palate and always repeat recipes. When you repeat recipes you get to know them so well.” As someone who has become famous for what she cooks, Lawson is a big believer there is great honour in being a home cook. “In the restaurant industry, you have to be pretty formulaic, conformity is very important, but it’s not as important in the home.”