‘What I’m going to do is take my shoes off,” says Nigella Lawson as she approaches a small table where we will talk in a downtown Toronto event facility. “If I may,” she adds politely. She produces one of her signature little groans of pleasure as she plunks herself down and slips off her Christian Louboutin heels. Dressed in a purple clingy dress, she then curls herself into a lovely s-shape – a perfect pasta noodle on the fork of an angular chair.
There, that’s a description of the famous foodie and cookbook author you’ve perhaps come to expect. She’s a meal for cultural consumption. I know that’s what I expected, based on the coverage she has had over the years and especially in the last couple of months, while on tour in North America and the U.K. for her new book, Nigellissima, a collection of Italian-inspired recipes.
She became famous with her first TV cooking show, Nigella Bites, which came on the heels of her first two best-selling books, How To Eat and How To Be a Domestic Goddess in the mid-2000s. Now, though, she is served up as an entertainment all her own, a walking show of, well, let’s call it, Nigella’s Bits and Bites.
Inevitably, there’s comment on her white alabaster skin, the curvy gourd of her figure. Biographical details are sprinkled in: the privilege of her background, and the tragedies, too. She is married to Charles Saatchi, one of the world’s great admen and art collectors. Her father, Nigel Lawson, a former Conservative MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, is now Lord Lawson of Blaby. Her mother, Vanessa, was heiress to a catering business fortune. Lawson attended Oxford and worked as assistant literary editor at The Sunday Times, a book reviewer – once judging the Booker prize – and also as a restaurant critic for The Spectator. By the time she was 40, she had grieved the untimely deaths of three loved ones: her sister Thomasina of breast cancer at 32; her mother of liver cancer at 48; and her first husband, John Diamond, a brilliant and popular columnist for The Times, of throat cancer at 47.
What’s missed in this over-processed boilerplate version of her biography, I can tell you, is her spontaneity. In person, Lawson is like being in the midst of an unpredictable weather system. You never know what will hit you.
“I always thought when I first started doing TV that it was my sister who died that I was speaking to,” she blurts as part of a reply to a question about how aware she is of the sexual nature of all that licking of fingers in her kitchen.
Really? “Oh yes,” she says, never once turning away, her brown eyes steady and intense under big false eyelashes that have been expertly applied for all her appearances that day. “I needed someone who was on my wavelength. That’s how I started. I thought about what I would say to Thomasina.”
But surely, she is aware of her sexuality.
“You know what men are like,” she confides girlishly, tapping my knee. “They have this confidence, which I admire. They think everything is a come-on to them.”
Her late husband was the one who encouraged her to write about food. “He said, ‘You’re funny, because you’re not confident about a lot of things, but about food you are totally confident.’ ” He was also the one who told her she was “a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. I am camp to a fault.” While he was sick, she cooked and baked up a storm, a “terrible irony” that troubled her, she says, because he could only be fed intravenously. But, “I got comfort from being in the kitchen, and he liked it,” she offers.
The conversation slides to her current husband, who is very private and doesn’t like her to talk about him, she tells me before doing just that. “I use him as a sounding board. But I don’t ask him, ‘Shall I put rosemary or thyme in this?’ He wouldn’t have a view.” He is “quite a fussy eater,” and a fastidiously tidy man. “You can’t have two messy people in a marriage,” she jokes.
He even helps her accept her age, now 53, in the context of her television career. “I think about it a lot,” she says, adding that she keeps her youthful looks by drinking lots of water and wearing the infamous “burkini” swimwear she was pictured in while on Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, to protect her skin from the sun. “Charles says, ‘Who says you can’t be an old bag on TV? You’ll just be who you are.’ He always says to me, ‘You’re not some little starlet, you know. You are who you are. You cannot help but be that person.’ ”
She never plans what’s ahead – not in life, not in an interview. She writes the books that “simmer up” in her mind. The idea for Nigellissima, which is more about the passionate relationship Italians have to food rather than simply the recipes, was always something she wanted to do after having spent time in Italy as a student. But it didn’t come to fruition until now.
“Most of the important things in life aren’t planned,” she explains. “You can’t plan when you’re going to fall in love and who you’re going to fall in love with. And a lot of people plan to have children and don’t,” says the mother of two teenagers from her first marriage. “And sadly, you have no control over death.”
She lives by her instincts, which is her secret in the kitchen, too. “There’s no right or wrong,” she says. “You have to know what you like. And you have to be able to taste something and know what you think it needs or whether you’re pleased with it or not.”
Her recipes can give guidance. But she makes it clear that how your cake – and your life – turn out is up to you.