Nigella Lawson thinks home cooking is a feminist act. In a recent article penned for Lenny Letter, she points to the domestic kitchen as a site not often afforded enough importance, considered an inferior version of its professional counterpart. She writes: “There’s a reason why the home cook has always been seen as a lesser creature: traditionally, chefs had been male and paid; home cooking was ‘women’s work,’ unwaged and taken for granted, sentimentally prized but not essentially valued or respected.”
She eschews the title of chef, preferring instead all the messiness, practicality, and creativity that come with labeling oneself a “home cook.” Her newest book, At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking, is nothing short of a testament to this ethos. It’s an exultation and an encyclopedia of everything that makes entertaining and feeding others in one’s own home such a delight.
I talked to Lawson on the heels of her book’s release and at the start of a whirlwind tour across the U.S. She entered our offices with the calm confidence of a home cook who knows just how to please even the most finicky of guests. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
VALERIO FARRIS: What would you consider your signature dish?
NIGELLA LAWSON: Are you asking what my signature dish is, or what people cooking my food would consider it to be?
VF: I’d say for yourself.
NL: Well, I’m not sure it’s possible to do what I do and have a signature. I would say a chicken traybake of some sort or another. I mean I’ve written recipes for this sort of cooking for so long, and I do tend to fall back on that myself so much when I have people over. I would hesitate to choose any one in particular because I’ll go through a period of doing one over another. For a long time I did the traybake with bitter orange and fennel, but now I lean more toward the one with peas and leeks or the Indian spice and potato one. I don’t know that my fridge could ever know what it would be like not to have some chicken thighs in it.
VF: Say you’re trapped on a desert island, but there’s a kitchen and a grocery store. What would you need to cook for yourself?
NL: Well, I suppose I could get salt from the sea. Lemons, I couldn’t be without. If I have salt and lemons and good olive oil and maybe butter or ghee, I feel I could use whatever else is there, whether I’m going to spear a fish or hunt… Can you hunt a chicken? Well, you’d have to run fast. Or forage for greens. I think I would be okay. But I’d have to hope that somehow there’d be a magic repository for dark chocolate.
VF: There are different types of dishes for different types of people. I often think about what I want to cook for a certain person. What would you cook for, say, a lover?
NL: You see, that’s something you can’t ever decide in the abstract, because you’re cooking things that speak to that person’s personality or history. For me, food is so much about conveying a particular language. Whether it’s picking up on the language of someone’s family food or their particular personality in quite a detailed way. Because of that, it’s quite hard, in that case, to say what you would cook.
I always joke that many years ago I had a boyfriend who was from Australia—and I know that New Zealand has also claimed pavlova, and I don’t want to get into that right now—but nevertheless, I learned how to make a pavlova because of that. I always used to say that he has long since gone, but the pavlova has remained as one of my signature desserts.
VF: That’s funny. I agree with what you said earlier, especially if you think of cooking for an old friend versus a new one. One obviously has so much history.
NL: Yes, I think that in many ways with a new friend, it’s so important to be able to get one’s emotional energy going in conversation. You’re finding out, in all these cases, a bit about the other person and you’ll want to talk. So I think, in the case of a new friend, I would do something that needed not too much fiddling about with at the last minute. I’ve got some coconut shrimp, I might do that. I make a really great little sauce with coconut milk, yogurt, and turmeric. That’s all it is.
We all have these anxieties when we cook, because you want to do something that makes a bit of an effort, but you don’t want to be too try-hard, nor do you want to set for yourself a task where you start getting anxious. Maybe I would make some chocolate cookies and some ice cream. I do a really, really absurdly easy ice cream: a salted caramel ice cream where you buy dulce de leche, mix it with some heavy cream, a bit of salt, and a little bourbon or brandy. Then have that with some cookies; there’s something so welcoming about that. You can go quite low-key there with what you have first: just a plain roast chicken—it doesn’t have to be anything more than that—with a salad. You’re saying welcome to a new friend and you’re not doing so much that it becomes about the food. It’s home and you’re welcoming someone in that you might have never invited before.
VF: On the other hand, say a boss, or a higher-up at work, how would you…
NL: I think that’s a really difficult thing. It reminds me of the ’60s and Mad Men and Don Draper. When people used to invite their bosses over, it was all about cooking to impress. Such a nightmare. I think that I would do something that’s still quite homey, something like a beautiful lamb stew, something that you know you’ve cooked all ahead so there’s nothing left to do but eat it, and some old-fashioned mashed potatoes. In a way, if you’re having a work person there, you’re establishing a more informal relationship with someone who you would otherwise have a more formal relationship with. Maybe do a fabulous flourless chocolate cake for dessert. Again, you’d make it in advance. There’s one I do with amaretto, and I do an amaretti cream as well. It’s like a riff, not radically different but just a bit.
Oh well, all of a sudden I’ve gone brown on brown, so I’d have to think whether I’d want to go into that. My great aunt used to say that you can’t do two brown courses, and she was quite right. Maybe then I would do something like lemon cake or maybe a pavlova, go back to the pavlova. See, that’s quite good. Pavlova needs to have more of a presence here [in America]. Everyone knows meringue, but it’s that sort of marshmallow-bellied interior which is so good about the pavlova. And you can cook that ahead and then all you have to do is whip up some cream and cut some fruit. So I think cozy stew, mashed potatoes, and a pavlova. And a good strong cocktail to start off with.
VF: Cookies, sweets—here at Food52 we do a lot of that kind of eating. What is your favorite thing to eat after you’ve enjoyed one too many slices of cake?
NL: I don’t understand the question. I don’t compartmentalize food like that. I don’t like the implication that eating is dirty and something you should feel bad about. All food, most food, makes me feel good. I might want a vegetable soup or I might want some good dark salted chocolate. I think it so depends on mood. I’m a great believer in eating intuitively and with what your body needs and feels like at the time.
VF: Everyone loves to talk about “eating clean,” but implicit in that is the other side of the coin. If you’re not eating clean, then your eating is…
NL: Dirty and shameful. And that troubles me, because I think too many people persecute themselves over what they eat, and I think it’s something to be watchful of.
VF: What’s something that’s sitting at the back of your pantry?
NL: If I cleared mine, we’d find herbs growing back there. Most of the things that I don’t want are bottles of barbecue sauce that people give me. I’m not that keen on a lot of vinegar and sugar together in things. So I have these barbecue sauces and I can’t bring myself to throw them away, so I’m always trying to give them to people as they leave the house.
VF: How would you describe a perfect evening at home?
NL: Sometimes the perfect evening at home is just a quiet dinner and reading and talking. Other times, I want to have the house filled with people with everyone around the table. I love company, but I also love being without people. Both are important: you can’t really enjoy one without the other that much. A perfect evening I suppose is when I’m cooking for people that I really feel so at home with that it doesn’t matter that I could be, frankly, in pajamas and giving them a bit of cheese and bread. That makes me enjoy the cooking much more, because I can be playful and enjoy it without thinking What should I do? and Is this right? Is it going to work?
VF: What are the things you do to get out of the kitchen?
NL: I’m a reader. I feel words are ingredients as well. I like the taste of them. I feel the only thing that will make me be still is reading. Otherwise I force myself to do some yoga—that’s good, too.
VF: You have said that writing is really your first everything.
NL: I’ve always felt that writing and cooking are analogous in the same way that reading and eating are. I feel I need that as well. I need that sort of nourishment.
VF: As for something of a self-care routine, what do you do in addition to yoga?
NL: Yoga and walking and lying down.
VF: Lying down is the best.
NL: Lying down is very good.