Nigella Lawson Insists She's Not a Chef. Here's Why That's Important
The seven biggest takeaways from her essay on feminism in the kitchen and taking pride in being a home cook.
Before I began teaching myself how to cook in earnest—only about three or four years ago—I took a certain degree of pride in my lack of knowledge. “I’m not domestic. My powers exist outside of the home,” I used think to myself, smugly. This attitude, thankfully, is almost entirely dissipated from my consciousness. I am now humble enough to understand that home cooks are creative, spontaneous, highly focused, and quick thinking. To identify as a home cook should elicit high praise, but especially among women, the title still doesn’t garner the respect it should. Enter Nigella Lawson, who addresses that issue, in addition to explaining her own relationship to home cooking, in a recent essay for Lenny Letter.
In this moving, thoughtful, perhaps even provocative meditation on why home cooks—in particular, those who identify as women—should feel free to take more pride in their skills and experiment more with their dishes, Lawson also dispels the myth that she is a chef. Here are seven of the most important takeaways from her essay.
Don’t call her a chef
“I am not a chef, but a home cook who writes about food (I have no training and have never cooked professionally),” Lawson writes. She’s not being modest—in fact, she contends that “to deduce that [home cooks] are inadequate at the task of creatively feeding ourselves and others is madness.”
Don’t put restaurants on a pedestal
“Real cooking is what happens in the home,” she writes. While restaurants can certainly be “oh-so-marvelous,” home cooks have the flexibility to be spontaneous and experimental in the kitchen, whereas professional cooks are sometimes stifled by “conformity.”
Home cooking is a feminist act
One reason Lawson thinks home cooking has historically been so devalued is that “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.” This powerful statement—that we take women cooks for granted while holding them responsible for sustaining the family—is especially resonant now that women are demanding more recognition for the labor they do to maintain kitchens, both professional and domestic.
Belittling home cooking works against women
Lawson also calls out a still-insidious belief system (that I myself once clung to): “There was a time when denigrating cooking and insisting on how hopeless you were at it were ways of establishing distance from the role of domestic drudge. And yet I have always felt that to disparage an activity because it has been traditionally female is itself anti-feminist,” she writes.
Technical skills aren't a necessity
Don’t know how to use a chef’s knife? Don’t worry. Neither does Lawson. And that’s okay. “I haven’t got a knife skill to my name, but I cook often and gladly,” she admits. “For home cooking is not technique-driven but taste-led.”
Recipes are made to be broken
Lawson takes pleasure in straying from the instructions, and she thinks that’s what gives home cooks so much of their power. “Cooking is by its very nature improvisational,” she writes. While recipes are often “reliable” roadmaps, home cooks should feel free to think of them as “an invitation, not a command.”
Creativity is key
Don’t feel hemmed in by past traditions or cookbooks passed down from generations ago. For Lawson, “Cooking is [a] supremely creative act.” You can use “far-flung ingredients,” or whatever happens to be in your refrigerator at the moment, as long as you make a meal that brings you, and perhaps others, joy. “Ultimately,” Lawson concludes, “all home cooking provides comfort.”