Nigel Slater, England's favorite food writer, chats about his new cookbook, British food's bum rap, and the future of fish and chips.
“Right food, right place, right time”: Nigel Slater, Britain’s premier food writer, summarizes his food philosophy in one simple sentence at the start of his new book, “The Kitchen Diaries.” But where other food writers might rest on that easily digestible aphorism, in “The Kitchen Diaries” Slater puts his mantra to the test, documenting every meal he cooks for himself over the course of a year — and showing, rather than telling, how to put a diet of seasonal food into practice. From pork ribs with honey and anise in October to baked red mullet with saffron and mint in April, Slater knows how to make season-conscious cooking a mouthwatering prospect.
It’s not hard to understand Slater’s appeal. Like their titles — “Appetite” and “Real Food” among them — his cookbooks are straightforward and unpretentious. Slater believes in pared-down, flavorful recipes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, and in his way, he has rescued British cuisine from its notoriously bad reputation. Though open to international influences — cilantro, lime and hot peppers frequently show up in his repertoire — Slater doesn’t shy from classic British fare like sticky puddings and bangers and mash. Combining his love for quality ingredients and simple techniques, he resuscitates sorry staples with simple, modern flair. It’s no wonder that all of England embraces him.
Slater began his career as a self-taught chef working his way through restaurant kitchens, but his path took a sharp turn after he was suddenly offered the position of food editor for The Observer in 1993. An overnight smash, Slater was soon being courted by publishers, and his first book, “Real Fast Food,” went on to sell 250,000 copies. “The Kitchen Diaries” arrives after the enormous success of his memoir, “Toast,” which described Nigel’s childhood, his relationship with food and how cooking proved a solace through the death of his mother and the remarriage of his father. “Toast” won the British Book Award for best biography, and like all of Slater’s writing, is heartfelt and thoughtful. It is also incredibly forthcoming, a testament to Slater’s generosity of spirit — a generosity that is equally apparent in “The Kitchen Diaries.”
It is, in fact, that generosity of spirit that should make “The Kitchen Diaries” such a welcome addition to American bookshelves. In the age of the celebrity chef, it’s refreshing to encounter a food personality who is happy simply to share his love and knowledge of food for pleasure’s sake. Like Italian prosciutto or Wagyu beef, Slater is an import worth celebrating.
Salon recently caught up with Slater by phone at his London home to discuss the differences between American and British tastes, the fun of farm markets, and the pleasures of takeout pizza.
Diaries are usually very personal. Did writing down and sharing what you ate every day change your eating habits?
Actually, not really. In many ways my eating habits are and were completely governed by what I get at the farmer’s market. There were only maybe one or two days where I’d have been quite happy to eat soup but I thought, “Hang on, I can’t do that,” because of the book — and ended up cooking a slightly more elaborate meal.
On August 19 you ordered pizza for dinner. I thought that was a nice touch.
Well, sometimes you just think: I can’t cook. It’s a pizza moment.
Absolutely. It’s refreshing that you admit that.
Nothing is ever perfect when I’m cooking. There weren’t any huge disasters — but there were certainly days that I didn’t have entries, when either something was too mundane for me to write about or I just had leftovers. I don’t think of myself as professional. I am completely amateur, really. If you compare the way professional chefs cook with the way I do, you’ll see I’m just a beginner.
Do you feel like you get all the pleasure you need from food as an amateur?
Yes, though it would be extremely useful to be a little bit more experienced with a boning knife. And if I wasn’t so squeamish I could clean game birds and chickens and stuff. But I can’t do that — I just think it’s yucky and it’s the shop’s job. But once you start doing stuff like that you’re engaging so much more with the food. I know there’s something very hypocritical about eating meat and not being prepared to kill it. But I’m just too squeamish to stick my hand up a rabbit’s insides.
How do you come up with recipes?
The things I cook are so simple — most are just classics I’ve tweaked a bit. I start at the market, seeing something wonderful, and imagining what I can make with it. And what I buy very often corresponds to how I’m feeling inside. I don’t scratch my head too hard. If I need comfort food, I’ll make a cake or I’ll make a pie.
Anybody can do what I do. I think that we all can tell the difference when food looks fresh and pretty and alive. It’s so obvious next to something that’s just a little past its best. But then again my grocer told me someone came in the other day and didn’t know what peas were — she’d never even seen them, even in a frozen bag. So you never know. But I do think that shopping well can be even more important than cooking.
Do you think the British think more about where their food comes from than Americans?
I like to think that we are much more connected to the land than I suspect we really are. I like food and I like shopping for food, and because my friends do too, I tend to forget that there is actually still a very big divide over food in this country. Plenty of people still buy apples from New Zealand or Australia at the height of the British apple season. They just don’t know the difference.
What’s grocery shopping like in the U.K.? Are there equivalents to Wal-Mart and Whole Foods?
Yes, we have this scary company called Tesco. You won’t believe it, but I promise this figure is true: One in every 8 pounds in this country is spent in a Tesco store. That just terrifies me. I’ve never stepped foot in a Tesco, partly because there’s something very wrong in a company having that much buying power. But Britain also has a massive organic movement — and actually I think Whole Foods is coming here too.
Still, the truth is, if I’m given the choice between an organic cabbage that’s looking a little bit past its best and a non-organic cabbage that’s looking extremely fresh, I will go for the fresh one. To me, it’s freshness that comes first. Partly I like to know where my food comes from. The more information you have about what goes in your mouth the better. Who produced it? Who picked it? Who planted it? Who tended it? To have that information and to meet those people is a thrill for me. If I come home with a potato and I’ve met the person who dug it out of the soil I can’t help but have respect for that vegetable.
But even my food-obsessed friends complain that the farmer’s market is more expensive than the grocery store. How do you answer the argument that most people can’t afford to shop at farmer’s markets on a regular basis?
Well, everyone has to tailor what they eat to what’s in their purse. We might like to have asparagus every day or the most expensive cuts of meat — but there are lots of other incredibly good things that are cheaper. And maybe we just have to learn that even though we might want certain things every day, we just can’t have them. We should take advantage of cheaper cuts that are much more delicious than a fancy little filet.
I made a pork loin from your cookbook and it only cost me $7 and fed three people very well.
Exactly. Cheaper cuts of meat and the cheaper vegetables can make for excellent eating.
Have you spent much time in America?
I did a tour with “Toast,” my autobiography. I spent about three weeks in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York — all around the edge.
Did you find that American tastes were different from British?
Not really. There will always be people who would rather have a Big Mac, but in both countries there is a lot of energy focused on eating well. That I found in both countries. And I had some lovely things to eat in the U.S.
Is there any food in America that you can’t find in England and vice versa?
I found lots of the fresh produce to be a lot cheaper in the U.S. than here. England is second only to Tokyo in the price of food, I believe. Maybe Instant Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. It’s so divine, but we can’t get it here. They could have it in Harrod’s for $10 a box.
Many of the British cookbooks coming out now, like Jamie Oliver’s newest book, and even your book, seem very influenced by Italian food. Is that a recent phenomenon?
It is a recent phenomenon. Traditionally you had a lot of French cooking in Britain, but the problem with that was that it was too rich, had too many sauces, and it didn’t adapt to quick cooking. Italian food’s innate simplicity just makes it so much easier for home cooking. You can just put something on the grill with a little bit of olive oil and some lemon.
The British, you must remember, are great magpies — we’re the thieves of the culinary world. I mean we’ve been all the way around the world 10 or 15 times and we’ve stolen all the best ideas. We’ve taken Hamburg, all of Chinese food, a bit of Indian, a bit Italian. It’s all part of our very mixed pot that we call British cooking.
Do you think Britain’s changing politics might play a part too? Perhaps there is a desire for simpler food in times when the world is more complicated?
Maybe. There is certainly something political happening in people’s shopping baskets at the moment. In Britain we have a huge fair trade movement for products that come from Africa and places like that — coffee and nuts and all sorts of things. People are now more aware of how we’ve exploited other cultures’ foods and produce. So anything with a fair trade label on it, where we know the producer is paid a fair price for their produce, makes you feel good when you put it in the shopping trolly.
Your memoir is very forthcoming about your difficult childhood, especially the complicated relationship you had with your mother, your father and your stepmother. As a public figure, what was it like when it came out and people suddenly knew so much about you?
It was a problem because I’ve always been very private. I’d always been the guy who didn’t do photo shoots, didn’t do photo calls, didn’t do interviews or anything like that. And then all of a sudden I published the most intimate memoir ever. I can’t explain why I did it, I just did it. And there was a point where I didn’t want the book to come out, but then it was a smashing success.
But the thing I hadn’t expected was how many people said, “Ya, I went through all that. I had exactly the same experience.” I thought people would remember the same food, but I hadn’t understood that there were other children who went through the same terrible things I went through. People would come up to me and say, “You’ve written about my childhood.” But when it comes down to whether I actually should have written all that stuff, I still just don’t know.
I think it probably is. It took years for James Beard and Alice Waters and other cooks I’m fond of to come to the U.K. So the cross of cultures, I think, is very healthy. And on a much more basic level, they know they can sell 10,000 cookbooks in the States — it’s just a massive market there.
British food had such a bad reputation for so long. Do you think it’s coming around?
It had a terrible reputation! It was very outdated, but it has improved immensely. There are things that we used to eat, all very stodgy things, that we simply don’t as much now. And we have a more international diet than we did before.
I have to give credit to the work of cookery writers — it’s one of the few good things you can ever say we’ve done. We’re starting to seek out the people who really are producing great food and we’re promoting it. The biggest thing in Britain right now is local cooking and seasonal food. Every newspaper and every guide is telling you what to eat this week. And so we’re getting a great interest and respect for what’s actually growing here. Little farms that were crumbling and dying are growing things, producing cheeses that they wouldn’t have before, and they’re making a bit of money out of it.
What about the old British staples like fish and chips? Are those still going to last forever?
No, they’re not. If you said to me, “Where can I get the best fish and chips in London?” I would be very hard-pressed to tell you where. Chip shops are closing down all the time. Partly it’s the price of fish, which has absolutely gone through the roof.
And now I’m afraid we’ve got this ghastly thing called the gastro-pub, where there is a proper menu with all international food or local food. Everyone thinks it’s wonderful except for me. But that’s because the days of ordering a pint of beer and crisps or a sandwich are pretty much over.
I take it you’re not a scold about nutrition, then?
Well, I think about it, but I also believe that often weight-loss diets and low-fat diets can be incredibly damaging. I think it’s much healthier to have a balance. Eat a good mixture of food. Food in season. If you feel like eating a chocolate cake with whipped cream on it, then eat it and enjoy it and love it and get everything out of it, just don’t have it tomorrow.
When people tell me something is unhealthy, I disagree: I think there isn’t unhealthy food, there are unhealthy diets. Those two things are very, very different. Maybe people should get a little more exercise and enjoy good food. Eat and enjoy it.