In Nigella Lawson’s new book, Kitchen: Recipes From the Heart of the Home, the preface to a beer-braised pork-knuckle recipe reveals a fierce side to the usually amiable British cooking show star. Lawson writes of the humiliation she felt when a German talk show interviewer introduced her with a joke about how the English have a reputation for being the worst cooks in the world. Instead of laughing at the condescending jab, Lawson decided to give her bully a serving of piping hot honesty and replied in a self-described “graceless” manner.
“I told him that as far as the world was concerned, German cooking didn’t accord much respect either,” she says on the phone from her home in London. The program’s live audience went dead silent. Still, Lawson, who has been communicating about food on TV and in magazines and books for more than two decades, refused to smile for the cameras. “I’d heard that bad quip over and over again,” she says. “I’m not one to lash out or confront, but it was a direct insult and a very outdated opinion.”
Lawson’s opinions—which have helped her amass a $25-million empire since writing her bestselling first book, How to Eat: Pleasures and Principles of Good Food, in 1998—have proven to be nothing to laugh at. Now 50, she’s the author of nine bestselling cookbooks. On top of her literary achievements, Lawson has starred in and co-produced nine world-syndicated television series, and has designed her own line of cookware to boot.
The reason for her success is as simple as her five-minute naan pizza recipe. Lawson is the Oprah Winfrey of food. Oprah has those manic aha moments; Lawson has ecstatic culinary epiphanies triggered by the liberal use of words like “gorgeousness” and “sumptuousness.” (Her now-trademark ebullient demeanour has inspired countless YouTube spoofs.)
Although Lawson’s recipes from TV series such as Feast and her latest, Kitchen, aren’t half as fast and furious as, say, the dishes U.S. cooking star Rachel Ray makes—or don’t demand the ridiculous meticulousness of Martha Stewart’s—they do encourage average cooks to go beyond their gourmet comfort zones. “Being scared of making a meal is absurd, so my mission is to make it all seem less daunting.”
It’s a mission she takes very seriously. “I’m such a control freak,” she says, before revealing she spent weeks “driving her team mad” while creating her new iPhone app. “I wanted it to have the same design cues as everything else I’ve touched—it had to be more than a mini-magazine. I insisted my stamp be everywhere, so it is gushing with bells and whistles. I really fought hard—and won—for a little shopping-list function on the app, and I have to say, it’s brilliant.”
One of the things Lawson has no love for is what she considers to be the “hypocrisy of the fashion industry.” Chatting about a former job, a stint as a food editor for British Vogue, one gets the sense Lawson is still scarred by the experience. “I can’t stand places where cults of very thin women are,” she says. “When I walked into the Vogue offices, I could see the editors shaking in fear as they looked at me. I know they were thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I could look like if I ate,’ and some people treated me like I worked at a nuclear waste factory. The way I see it, fear of food and fear of the flesh equals fear of joyous living.”
When the subject of fall fashion shows casting curvier models comes up, Lawson scoffs. “Curvier to who?” she says, before explaining that she is tired of people “talking about a woman who is 140 lb. as if she were 280 lb.” She cannot comprehend “why models are paid to starve themselves.”
In fact, Lawson’s newest hero is Joan Harris, the fictional office manager in the TV series Mad Men, played by curvaceous actress Christina Hendricks. “When I’m having a bad day or start hating myself for something that I’ve done, my motto is ‘Be like Joan.’ She walks across the room like she deserves that space and, believe me, she is never seen as the butt of anyone’s jokes.”