Interview with TV Chef Nigella Lawson

F&W talks to Nigella Lawson, host of Food Network's Nigella Feasts.

What was your first big break on food TV? How were you discovered?
"My big break in terms of food programming was completely by chance. I appeared on this Christmas special with a good friend of mine who's a really fabulous food writer, Nigel Slater. And he is very, very, very shy, so he thought he'd feel more comfortable if there was someone there to chat with while he was doing his thing. So I went on to be this cozy person alongside him, and then I got a series of my own after that."

Did someone approach you with the idea for the show, or did you help devise it?
"The idea for the first show came about because I wrote my first book, and a glossy UK magazine wanted to run an excerpt. The book had no pictures, so we did a shoot in my home for the magazine. We really had fun; I had my kids there, and one photo was my feet in shocking-pink kitten heels, and some were of food, and the whole feel of it was warm and messy and fun. A commissioning editor at a network saw this shoot and loved it and wanted to buy an option on the book, and I said, 'I don't want to do TV, forget it.' And he said, 'Please, please, we'll do it the way you want,' and he was very patient and let me do it my way and let me spend so much time on the pilot. When I say 'my way' I mean unscripted, letting me go into the kitchen and babble on and—you know, the whole 'one camera, one house, someone talking.' Back then it was quite new. And it all happened because this very, very nice editor liked the picture of the pink kitten heels and knew it was for him, and he always tells people that."

What are some of the best recipes you've made on-air, and why?
"Sometimes the things that I think make good recipes when I write a book don't translate to TV. TV is very process-driven. It's good in life or in a book to do a recipe in one minute—stick it in the oven and that's the end. But that's not much for the TV viewing public to see. What works for TV recipes is something that transforms in open space, like in a skillet. When I write a book, the words really inhabit the page and get behind the page. But on TV, you want the viewer to have the same experience as you in the kitchen, and you need to unite visually. I do a running commentary and really try to use words in a very precise way and try to be evocative with my language.

I'm lucky because I have a fabulous crew: My cameraman is so good, and he can really get right up close to the food and show how easy and wonderful it is. You see the food so clearly that you can almost smell it, feel it, touch it. For the food to come to life when you're watching TV is the goal. When I lean over, I have a mic on me so it can catch the sounds—every sizzle, crack and pop has to be as clear for the viewers as if they were in my kitchen. When you lose the taste you lose a lot, so the other senses available through the TV medium have to make up for that. It's no good if the viewer feels the camera is too far away or didn't linger long enough on the beautiful mozzarella slices. I did a spaghetti carbonara, and the camera got so close to the cubes of bacon when I was frying them-the smell in heaven must be the smell of frying bacon. The poor viewers: Since they can't smell it, I tantalize them with the sizzle of it coming out of the TV speakers."

Are there any specific recipes that you think worked really well?
"I made a one-pan chicken, sausage and sage bake that is so simple. If I were just to say to you, 'Take the chicken pieces, put them in a freezer bag with the marinade, then put the sausage on,' well, that doesn't sound grabby. But if I do it on TV, the camera gets up close on my hand on the bag, and you can hear the squishing noise when I move the chicken around in the lemon juice, mustard, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and white wine vinegar. So you hear it, and you can see that it's not hard work. And then suddenly you see the sausages go on and it looks exciting, and then the next shot is the dish coming out of the oven looking golden—that's three simple steps. It looks a lot more exciting than just explaining the method. I'm proud of this dish because my sound man had his mother-in-law coming for the weekend, and he cooked it for her without a recipe. That for me is something only TV can do: He watched and saw how simple it was, and he was inspired to do it. Those three simple frames relay a whole lunch."

What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"I can only be me, so I think what you get from me is, in a way, negative qualities—and not in disingenuous way. I have no training as a cook. I cook for friends and family, so when I chop something, I chop like a normal person, not quick and not pretty. A great chef can be inspirational but also intimidating: Sometimes they do things so fast you can't see. And sometimes I get stressed because I don't have great dexterity, but in the end, I swallow my pride and say I can't do it in this way. But it tastes good, and it doesn't make a difference in the end if it tastes good. To be honest, your food is there to eat. You can make it look pretty in all beautiful ways, but I love the messiness. I find it warming. And I love big bowls on the table; I don't want to be plating individual dishes."

What is the worst experience you've had on TV? Any disasters?
"I did set fire to something once, and thanks to my lovely, loyal cameraman, the director never noticed. For some reason, I had paper towels and tea towels near a flame, and they caught fire and got knocked onto the stone floor. The cameraman somehow managed to stomp it out with his foot while continuing to shoot, even though the camera weighed a ton. The worst is when I go on talk shows to do demos. It's so frightening—I'm almost weeping and sobbing as I go on. When you go on with someone funny, like David Letterman, I don't know what I'm meant to be doing: It's a cooking demo, you're chatting, and you have to be prepared to let someone make fun of your recipes. That part I got used to—I always say I have an older brother, so I can handle being teased—but I always get butterflies in my tummy. Letterman is the scariest—he's a genius and his show is brilliant, but I find him a bit detached, and I need to have a rapport."

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