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TBI Interview: Nigella Lawson

Nigella Lawson is one of the most well known faces in the food world both in Britain and around the globe. Originally a restaurant critic, Lawson, daughter of former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, made her name as the author of How To Be A Domestic Goddess before hosting her first TV series Nigella Bites for Channel 4.

Following the success of Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen, Nigella Feasts and Nigella Express, as well as appearances on formats including Iron Chef America and Masterchef Australia, Lawson is launching her latest series, Nigellissima.

The 6x30mins series, which also has a one-hour special, was commissioned by British public broadcaster BBC and is sold globally by BBC Worldwide. It sees Lawson cooking Italian food using traditional and authentic – yet accessible – ingredients.

TBI spoke to Nigella about the show as well as her thoughts on cooking on television and her other projects.

What’s the background to Nigellissima? Why Italy?

When I was a teenager I felt I wanted to be Italian and at school was doing A-levels in French, German and English. I even though I thought I was going to read modern languages at Oxford I did a crash course in Italian. I did it to O-level standard and in the olden days you needed to sit an exam to get into Oxford or Cambridge so when I said I wanted to do Italian they said I could do it from scratch if I promised them that I would go to Italy in my gap year and I lied and said I was going to go to some eminent school of learning and in fact I got a job. I said I’d do anything except cleaning lavatories and obviously ended up cleaning lavatories; I got a job as a chamber maid in Florence. I learnt Italian with the equivalent of a cockney accent. It was a family run hotel and the granny cooked and I watched her cook and became totally immersed in Italy. That was my formative experience.

Italy for me represents being who I am and I love everything about Italy. Every book and series I’ve done has always had a lot of Italian food but I felt one day I wanted to show people how you can cook Italian without doing theme park Italian.

 

The ingredients are so inspiring and nowadays everyone eats fast food and Italian food is lots of stove top cooking, which is fast. It has wonderful ingredients and offers simplicity and honest voices in the kitchen. I was getting quite evangelical and wanted to do a series that reflected that. It’s about the spirit of Italian food and bringing it into our kitchens. That’s what I wanted to do with the series; I wanted to inspire people. It’s not just about spaghetti bolognese.

Did you cook much in your year in Italy?

No and in a way, this corresponds to TV. You learn so much about cooking by watching someone else cook. So for me it was watching the granny cook. It’s not about following rules; it’s about seeing how someone does it. So to bring it to a broader topic, about what food on television does, it stands in for how we all think is an ideal way of cooking. When you cook on TV, people can see how it’s done and that’s the great gift of food TV, you’re bringing people into the kitchen.

What’s your favourite Italian dish?

I’ve got so many favourite dishes; if you ask a greedy person to pick one dish that’s not enough. I’ve got a sicilian pasta and we’ve all had pesto,the basil one and most people get it out of a jar, but with my one you get cherry tomatoes, almonds – because in Sicily they use almonds not pine nuts – some anchovies, a bit of parsley and mix them in blender with some olive oil and then dress the pasta with it and some basil leaves and you get the most amazing depth of flavour and that only takes three minutes. It’s not about dumbing down the recipe, this is the recipe. They’re all familiar ingredients with an unfamiliar taste, that’s what I think cooking is.

You are also working on The Taste, a competition series for ABC. What do you make of the rise of the competitive food format?

It’s a very difficult one because I believe cooking is not a competitive sport, but here I am making a programme with a competitive element. The thing that is key is teaching people how to cook by showing them. I haven’t turned into a shouty, aggressive competitive person and I feel I’m here [on The Taste] to represent the home cook because TV cooking has been dominated by chefs, whose food is great but who are intimidating.

I’m a bit pathetic; I hate saying nasty things. I don’t think being nasty helps anyone cook. You need to make cooking simple, the kitchen has to be a happy place. You’re not cooking to impress, you’re cooking to bring joy. That’s my message.

Home cooks need to be represented because a lot of home cooks feel bad that they’re not chefs.

I’m not trained so when I chop a carrot, I’m a bit clumsy and the slices aren’t even but that’s how we cook at home. That’s so important. I believe in home cooking over chef cooking; every chef I know dreams of home cooking. No one’s last meal on their deathbed is a filo-stacked pastry with aubergines and balsamic vinegar, they want roast chicken and potatoes with an apple crumble. The cooking I do is the cooking everyone in the world needs. Home cooking is what provides and sustains the human race; if you needed an exam in order to be allowed in the kitchen, humans would have fallen out of the evolutionary loop a long time ago.

Are you aware of the international reach of your shows?

I am not a strategic person so I never think ‘this will appeal in France or Malaysia’. I feel unless you’re honest, it won’t appeal to anyone.

Italian food is interesting because not since Roman Empire has Italy had such dominion over the world. Italian food has colonized the world; everyone in the world seems to love Italian food. I’m not a business person, I’m just someone who loves food.

Food is a universal language; every country has a different cuisine but food has strong emotional truth. It unites us. I can be in any country and the one way to having a conversation is when we start talking about food. In a way TV is a conversation and it doesn’t matter what I’m cooking people understand the emotional connection. When I’m talking about food, I’m talking about life.

What are your favourite food formats?

I tend not to watch cooking shows, even great friends of mine. I don’t want to see if I’m being copied because that irritates me but neither do I want to pick up other people’s ideas and without knowing it bringing into my cooking.

I do watch The Great British Bake Off religiously. It’s not a similar programme so I can watch it and be untainted. It’s competitive but it’s so English and polite. The thing is that I wrote a book years ago when baking in England was not done – How To Be A Domestic Gooddess – I’m really glad people have responded to that.