Why Nigella Lawson's star is shining brighter than ever

Nigella Lawson's Christmas meal is traditional.
Nigella Lawson's Christmas meal is traditional. Photo: Robin Fox

Nigella Lawson's attention is a wonderful thing. Sitting down at The Palisade Hotel in The Rocks after lunch on a Sydney afternoon, she brings her whole self to the room. She's wearing platform sneakers, wide-legged black pants, a black Zara top and a white Theory jacket.

Her voice is strong, her diction crisp. She pronounces pasta to rhyme with "Rasta". Not once does she glance at her phone or look at her watch. Her manner is calm and unhurried, yet the wheels turn fast. She falls immediately upon a book left lying on the table – a paperback copy of Patrick DeWitt's French Exit, which later ends up in her handbag – before declaring her newfound love for the sweetbread-schnitzel sandwich at Fleet, the small but perfectly formed restaurant in Brunswick Heads on the north coast of New South Wales.

She makes short work of your correspondent's pleas for guidance about Christmas lunch, and then talk turns to what she might do to help the other 26 million Australians who are wondering right about now what the hell they're going to cook for the family. Here we get briefly lost in translation.

Lawson is a fan of Fleet's signature 'schnitty sanga'.
Lawson is a fan of Fleet's signature 'schnitty sanga'. Photo: Kate Nutt

"I'm afraid to say my Christmas might not be Australia-friendly," she explains. The notion of Christmas being something that involves the making of decisions is strange to her, she says, because she is so bound by ritual at this time of the year.

"I find Christmas quite easy because I don't have to think about it. I just do the normal things – turkey, brined; ham, glazed; potatoes, goose-fat roasted; brussels sprouts, buttered and chesnutted – but I can't imagine what it would be like to be eating Christmas lunch in this weather. I might have to do custard this year as well; I've got an overwhelming desire for custard. It sounds so wrong talking about it in this heat."

"Food, for Nigella," writes no less august a personage than the novelist Jeanette Winterson, in the foreword to the new, 20th anniversary edition of How to Eat, "becomes a way of talking about what is good and what is not, in the deepest sense of what nourishes us and what doesn't."

I try and make people feel as if they're with me.

And gosh, Lawson can talk. Her TV voice is her book voice is her voice right now. It's also the voice she will use when she returns to Australia in the new year to give a speaking tour. Ask her why she thinks it is that she has struck a chord with people in her books or her broadcasting, and she'll tell you it's because her voice is the voice of a home cook. What she wants, she says, is to make it feel like she's having a conversation with her reader. "I try and make people feel as if they're with me."

She is excellent company, and is as witty in person as she is as charismatic on television as she is provocative in print. Consider the world Lawson creates in How to Eat. It's a place where the point of reference for the colour of a fish pie yellowed by saffron is William Blake, and making mayonnaise reminds her of reading the novels of Henry James (that is, something she enjoyed unselfconsciously until someone asked her if she found it difficult).

The language swoops from lush and evocative to pinprick-precise. The excesses of nouvelle cuisine are termed "hootingly risible", chicken roasted breast-down ends up with "a flapper's bosom, flat but fleshy", and quartered figs bloom "like bird-throated flowers".

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Lawson is also thrillingly partisan. She says she doesn't like rules, and is not sold on what she calls the you're-doing-it-wrong school of food writing she sees online. But she never shies from sharing the views she has formed from her own observations at the table and in the kitchen. Salad goes on plates, not in bowls. Tomatoes have no place in anything leafy. And there isn't a vegetable soup in the land that doesn't benefit from the addition of a little dry sherry. She refuses to use a double-boiler to make lemon curd, not "because I'm brilliant and know how to stop it from curdling or because I like living dangerously, but just because I'm impatient".

How to Eat has proven such an enduring source of assurance and inspiration over 20 years because it's the real thing. Nigella Lawson might be posh – her father, Nigel Lawson, baronet of Blaby, was Margaret Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1983 to 1989, and her mother, Vanessa Salmon, was an heiress – but she is still a person who likes to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in. She is someone who has no qualms about picking bones from other people's plates to save for stock ("I'm afraid I even do this in other people's houses"), and is clearly someone who has spent a hell of a lot of time on the tools making dinner night after night. What she calls the "expansive, jaunty hobbyist approach traditionally taken by men" in the kitchen has never been her way.

"When I wrote How to Eat, I had a baby, a toddler, and a terminally ill husband and a job," she says, "so the way I cooked and approached food had to fit into my life. I didn't and still don't go at it as if I've got days."

Nigella Lawson's speaking tours transcend the chop-and-chat format.
Nigella Lawson's speaking tours transcend the chop-and-chat format. Photo: Supplied

It's worth remembering, too, that Lawson had been a restaurant critic for 12 years before she wrote the book, part of a career in journalism that had seen her named deputy literary critic of the Sunday Times at 26. Her father had been a journalist before he entered politics and her first husband, John Diamond, chronicled his experiences with the throat cancer that went on to end his life in heart-rending detail in his column the Times.

Her life with journalists and journalism, Lawson says, has shaped the way she sees the world and the way she describes it. "I feel, even if I'm writing a recipe, that it has to explain or make it evident why this recipe matters, or why I want to draw people's attention to it – what it's saying about the world or me or life. A recipe, in a way, is a story."

It's the same on screen, only here she is doing something more immediate, done without a script, almost akin to a running sports commentary on what she's cooking. "I'm saying what's happening in the pan, or for the first take, anyway. My cameraman can't see into it in that first take, and nor can the director, so I'm telling them what's happening," she says. "I can't decide what I'm going to say before it happens. I might know why I like it, I might have an in to the recipe that I've worked out in my head – and I've always written a book first – but when I talk about it, it's painting the scene, even though there are pictures."

Though she is closer to 60 than 50, Nigella Lawson's star is shining brighter than ever.
Though she is closer to 60 than 50, Nigella Lawson's star is shining brighter than ever. Photo: Supplied

Lawson is a shameless feeder. While she says she is made "intensely happy" by any experience which makes her feel fed in one way or another ("some literal, some metaphorical"), she prefers to be the person making the decisions about what's for dinner.

She doesn't profess to completely understand what it is about feeding people that she finds fulfilling, but she has given it some consideration. "One is supposed to think it's something wonderfully loving and nurturing, but I suspect there's an element of being deeply controlling as well."

And why will people turn out to see her speak live on stage, sans whisk and absent chocolate icing? "God. Only. Knows. I don't know. I love talking and I love talking to people, and I think it's wonderful to be asked questions. But if I sit and think about it I get panicked and start to wonder and get frightened. What are people expecting? I don't want to let them down."

How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson.
How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson. 

Lawson insists that she is not a performer, but that doesn't quite tally with the fact that people are no longer just paying money to see how she scrambles an egg or licks a beater. This new tour transcends the chop-and-chat format, and makes us start to wonder if she needs the "domestic" qualifier in Domestic Goddess any more. Her fans simply want to be in the room with her, to get a taste of that presence. More than 20,000 of them will do so on her tour of Australia and New Zealand alone in 2019.

Twenty years into this part of her life, closer to 60 than she is to 50, having risen above her personal life becoming front-page fodder for the tabloids, selling books and winning Instagram followers by the million, and having shaped the tastes of a generation, Nigella Lawson's star is shining brighter than ever.

"It's the same when I do my TV shows. I'm not scripted so I'm not really worried. I mean I hate it when the director says 'action', but then I have to fill the silence." That suits her more, she says, because having to think about what she's doing as she's doing it leaves no room for self-consciousness.

"Still photography is always awful because you're always aware of just being an object. But if you're talking and you're thinking at the same time, you remain the subject, and that's very important in life."

Googling Nigella Lawson

Type a name into Google's search-box and the site attempts to anticipate your query with a suggestion. Here, we've asked Nigella Lawson what she thinks of the first eight suggested search-strings associated with her name on Google.

"Word associations are something for performers and I'm not really a performer," says Lawson, "but let's try it and see how we go."

Nigella Lawson age

"Everyone's always interested and I'm very open about it."

Nigella Lawson recipes

"I'm glad to hear that comes pretty high up."

Nigella Lawson brownies

"Isn't that interesting? I thought it'd be Coca Cola ham. Generally speaking the most searched recipes over the last 20 years have been 'chicken', 'cheesecake', 'chocolate'."

Nigella Lawson 2018

"It's been a busy year. I spent a lot of it in Australia."

Nigella Lawson children

"I don't like talking about my children – they need to have their own identity – but they were in my early TV shows and I am proud of them."

Nigella Lawson pancakes

"I could do with a pancake now. I spent every Saturday and Sunday for many, many years making pancakes. They're always good, though I've moved onto waffles now."

Nigella Lawson chocolate cake

"Oh yes. There's a chapter in one of my books that I called my Chocolate Cake Hall of Fame."

Nigella Lawson daughter

"I suppose people are interested because they'd seen them when they were little on TV."

Nigella Lawson family

"Yes. My family is a neat little unit, a sweet little triangle. We're all nosy about everyone else, and the children are such a presence in the books, which I'm much more comfortable with, and I suppose other people have children and they identify."

An Evening With Nigella Lawson – touring Australia from January 27th.  For tickets and details visit NigellaLiveOnStage.com