Writer and art director of my favourite cookery books, columnist and author of the brilliant autobiography Toast, with several BBC cooking shows under his belt, actual Nigel Slater hung out in my kitchen where I had prepared some of his winter comfort food.
Emma I’ve never read anybody who describes food more beautifully or writes about it with more passion than you. What is it that comes alive when you put a beautiful dish in front of somebody?
Nigel It feels like I’m giving them a gift, but not like giving a book that someone will read and then put aside. It goes in; it’s like giving something that’s going to become part of someone. And I love feeding people.
E You’re feeding people in every sense of the word, aren’t you – feeding the tummy, but your writing also feeds hearts and souls. You’re like a human version of comfort food.
N I suppose feeding has shaped what I do because there was a big void – a big patch in my life where I didn’t feel loved at all. I lost my mum when I was nine, and I didn’t feel loved by my dad. I don’t want anyone else to experience that and I know some people do. It’s just about making people feel loved I guess.
E I can see how this filled a void for you when you were younger, but 50 years later you’re no longer that person with a hole in them, yet you still have a mission to feed.
N It never fades. If everything fell apart and I couldn’t write about food any more, I think I might go back to being a waiter. That moment when you bring the food out and you put it down in front of someone, I’d go back to it in a heartbeat.
E I’ve noticed that on TV and in the way you write, you don’t tell people what to cook, you always ‘suggest’.
N I hope so. But I’m also very shy and I think that shyness can sometimes come across as arrogance.
E Has your shyness not lessened as you’ve become more successful?
N I still have it – I’ve gone to events in a cab, walked in and thought ‘I can’t do this’, walked back out and got the same cab home. I think I’m now a bit more comfortable in my skin than I was, but it’s taken me 60 bloody years. And it’s happened partly because of the amount of people who come up to me on the street and say hello. I think it’s lovely. It’s a very generous thing to do.
E Have you ever done it to someone else?
N I did it once to Alan Bennett. I saw him getting on his bike, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ But people have always said we’re rather similar – we’re both shy and we both like diaries – and I thought there might be a kindred spirit there, so I did it. And he said, ‘I’m so pleased you said hello.’
E For a shy person, you’ve lived your life very much in the public eye. Did you have misgivings about the events you revealed in your autobiography?
N Three-quarters of the way through writing Toast, I really did wonder whether it would be far too much information about what I’d gone through in my childhood. I said to my editor, ‘I can’t finish this, it’s too personal, nobody’s going to be interested,’ and she told me that they’d already sold it into shops so I had to finish it. Then when the book came out, I was flooded with letters saying, ‘You wrote my story, this is what happened to me!’.
E You’re very honest on Twitter and Instagram as well – are you happy to be that open?
N This is a really good question. I used to be very private and had no social media. When Twitter started, I wanted no part of it, but occasionally I would be shown something about me on social media which just wasn’t very nice. And I couldn’t understand why people were being a bit horrid – then I realised it was the privacy thing. People think there’s something sinister going on if you’re very private, they wonder what lurks beneath. So I joined Twitter and was a lot more open and the nastiness just dissolved.
E To create recipes and write so prolifically, you must need to believe that what you’re doing is coming from a good place. Where do you get that confidence?
N I still struggle with that. I’m still not very confident, I just assume that everybody else is right. When I was little, I thought that everything my dad said was right and to this day I think that other people know best. It took a very long time to realise that I might actually know what I’m talking about as I’ve been doing this now for a long time. And – still – every time the phone rings, I think they’re going to say, ‘Sorry we’re redesigning the paper and we’ve decided not to have your column’.
E What’s your perfect food?
N The bottom line has to be, ‘Does this make me feel good?’ You have to ask the question… does it spark joy?
E Ah – you’re the Marie Kondo of the culinary world.
E It’s quite scary to cook for you. Don’t tick me off if it’s wrong.
N I’ve never ticked anybody off in my life.
E Well that’s lucky, because I’ve never got a recipe right the first time in my life. And I’m going to plate it up with my fingers, is that ok? How big are you on hygiene?
N I think it’s about the most overrated thing on earth. And I’ll tell you an accident waiting to happen: antibacterial sprays. We’ll end up compromising our own immunity against bacteria. So really, don’t fuss too much about hygiene.
E My mum’s 92 and refuses to abide by ‘modern’ hygiene standards. She even likes her chicken ‘rare’ and it hasn’t killed her yet. So, down to business: for your pie we just mashed in two ingredients to cooked sweet potato – rose harissa and ras el hanout – and they have transformed some mash into an incredible main course!
N Sweet potato can be a bit too sweet, so adding a bit of spice works – it’s a great combination. And the smell is comforting and wintry. Let’s get the pies out now to let things gather their thoughts. They’ve been in the oven with all this heat; everything just needs to calm down a bit.
N Oh, that smell! We’ve got the back-note of sweetness. A tiny bit of spice, but they’re sweet spices, not hot and pungent. They’re very gentle, almost baby spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg – Middle-Eastern spices really.
E Why is smell so important to you?
N Because that’s what brings you to the table. When you come home on a cold wet day, you open the door and can smell something cooking, that’s one of the best things. Especially in this season.
E Which is your favourite culinary season?
N Winter. Absolutely, without a question. It’s the food of celebration and survival.
Find the recipe for sweet potato, puff pastry in the December 2019 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
Read more articles by Emma Freud
Recipe adapted from Greenfeast: autumn, winter by Nigel Slater.
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.