Interview with TV Chef Nigel Slater
F&W talks to Nigel Slater, host of Taste of My Life on the BBC.
What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"I had been approached several times, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of doing TV. Then a producer came to me with an idea about a show on ingredients I was particularly passionate about. So I went ahead and did it. It was the first time I’d cooked on camera, and I’m not particularly comfortable doing it. Not my forte. But I actually enjoyed the series. I didn’t particularly like watching the end result; I’m more interested in the production of it. I don’t watch very much TV cookery-Nigella [Lawson], and that’s about it. I found myself doing the one thing I said I’d never do: Cooking on television. Real Food is still almost always on the food channel here [in the UK]. It was a greedy program; I did an awful lot of eating on camera. There are still TV cooks who won’t eat on camera, and I just tucked into everything."
What do you think of food television in the UK right now?
"We’re not doing much straight cookery on camera-the old demo format. You’ve seen one person make a pudding and you’ve seen them all. Now everything has a reason: All of the cookery programs are either game shows in disguise—what can you make from this jumble of ingredients?—or they are quite educational, like Jamie Oliver teaching school-dinner ladies how to make proper food for the kids. And then there are these back-to-nature, grow-your-own-food shows that are really big right now. So basically everyone sits at home, eating their TV dinner while watching a program about growing and cooking your own food and how much more delicious it is. Then they go back to the supermarket and buy more takeout meals. But it does inspire some people."
Where does your new show fit in? What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"Taste of My Life is more of an interview show, really. I talk to people who are well-known here, like the writer Alan Bennett, and take them through their lives, talking about milestone meals and things they remember from their childhood: Things Mum used to make, foods they hated."
Is it easy to get this information out of people?
"I’m not an interviewer; I’m actually a very shy person, so the idea of interviewing these people terrified me. But I went along with it for some reason—it felt right. But the minute we start talking about food, people just open up. Some of these people on the show are very private and guarded, normally. But food brings out another side of them, makes them open up."
Was this show a result of your autobiography, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger?
"That’s exactly what happened. I got a lot of offers after Toast came out. Toast did a lot for me, it was a fascinating experience writing it. So I was happy to do it in another form."
What are some of your favorite recipes that you’ve made on the air?
"I’ll have to go back to Real Food. One of my favorites is Camembert Baked in its Box. And there’s a sausage Toad-in-the-Hole, which is sausage in batter. It sounds ghastly, but it’s really delicious. It has an onion gravy with it. And the potato chips with aioli are wonderful. And there’s a really good green chicken curry; it was the very first thing I cooked on television. And there weren’t a lot of green curries around England then. Now you find it in every pub; it’s like chicken tandoori, almost our national dish."
What did you love about these recipes?
"There’s a comfort quality there. They’re both quite wintry things—I quite like things that are a little bit rich or stodgy. I can’t help it."
Any tips or secrets you didn’t get to share about those recipes on TV?
"Yes! [laughs] When you make the Camembert, make sure you buy Camembert in a box that has been stapled shut, not glued shut. Because the glued box will come undone in your oven, and you’ll end up with melted Camembert all over the bottom of your oven. I got some letters that said, ’Um, help.’ And the success of the Toad-in-the-Hole depends on the sausages you buy. Go for broke and buy your very favorite butcher’s old-fashioned sausages, not those little pink supermarket things."
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"The green chicken curry was the first thing I cooked on television. When I cooked it, I put it in this beautiful brass bowl that I’d bought in Thailand. And I was so pleased with it. But my cleaner, who is Thai, looked at it and said, ’Why did you put it in that brass bowl? That’s a bowl we use for bathing.’ Then there was something we had to cut. I was trying to make sausages-the sausages for the Toad-in-the-Hole, actually. And it was the first time I’d ever used a sausage machine. And I just, uh... I have a very childish sense of humor. And while trying to get the sausage meat into the skin, I completely lost control of the machine. Instead of having nice little juicy 4-inch sausages, I got this great big snake that was getting out of hand. It was all very rude and suggestive. I completely lost it and collapsed in laughter. That’s why I’ve never done live TV."