Nigel Slater: ‘I’m happy, but I’ve only just realised it’

Nigel Slater: ‘Little can compare with making someone something nice to eat.’ Photograph: Jenny Zarins/4th Estate
THE FOOD WRITER AND TV PRESENTER WROTE A BOOK ABOUT HIS TOUGH CHILDHOOD, AND HE NOW REGULARLY GOES TO SEE THE PLAY IT LED TO. IT IS HARD TO WATCH, BUT HE HAS SINCE FOUND HAPPINESS

“Good morning, I’m here to meet Nigel Slater.” I have waited a long time to utter those words, and I hope the brisk and efficient women guarding the entrance to the private members’ club at Quo Vadis, the restaurant in Soho, in London, can’t hear the nerves in my voice.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth

The British food writer and TV presenter is famously reticent about face-to-face interviews, and although we’ve exchanged emails a couple of times, we’ve never met. He says he is shy. So am I. How will this go, I wonder? Having been granted access to the sunshine-flooded first-floor members’ bar and lounge, I spot Slater across the room, alone with his newspaper, no publicist or PR sidekick in tow.

And it’s a surprise – a lovely one – when he casts aside my outstretched hand and says, “Can I have a hug instead?”

He is sipping an espresso, with a pot of what looks like lemon and honey water alongside, to ease a persistent cough. And here’s the thing: he is exactly the same as he is on TV: chatty, warm and thoughtful, with a slight mischievousness.

I’ve brought him a copy of Marian Keyes’s baking book, Saved by Cake (a title he says he is extremely jealous of), and he seems genuinely touched when I point out that he is mentioned in the acknowledgments. “No way! Oh my word.”

Next week Keyes will interview him in Ireland, as part of International Literature Festival Dublin’s Off the Page series. The sold-out event is only the third public-speaking event of this type that Slater has done – down to that famous shyness again. “I’ve never thought it was part of my world, that sort of thing... and I actually quite enjoy it.”

He has been to Dublin only once before, “about 30 years ago” – to join a friend on a camping trip in a part of the country that now eludes him – and is looking forward to returning, and to meeting Keyes. “I have followed her on Twitter for as long as I can remember; she is one of the gorgeous things about Twitter.”

He has a substantial following on that social-media platform, as well as on Instagram, and like his friend Nigella Lawson – whose TV career he kickstarted when he invited her to be on Real Food, his first show for Channel 4 – he manages his accounts himself, personally responding to hundreds of comments. “If someone is spending even 30 seconds of their day talking to you, you ought to reply,” he says.

Follow Slater on Instagram and you’ll catch lots of tantalising glimpses of his home life – he has lived in the same Georgian house in north London for 20 years. He shares lots of photographs of his garden (designed by Monty Don, who was then a fellow columnist at the Observer newspaper), the orderly basement kitchen, the bathroom with its cedar bath, the dining room, and the reception room with his desk, where he holds meetings. But you won’t learn much about his private life here.

In theory I live alone, because I like my own space, and I don’t like compromise, but in reality that is rarely the case. There always seems to be someone staying, and there is always something happening

“In theory I live alone, because I like my own space, and I don’t like compromise, but in reality that is rarely the case. It is a busy house: there always seems to be someone staying, and there is always something happening here – meetings, photo shoots and so on. So time alone is precious,” he says.

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For more background, at least up to his late teenage years, you’ll have to refer to his 2003 memoir, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, in which he writes in detail about his childhood and adolescence; unhappy, most of it. His mother died of an asthma attack when he was nine; his father remarried, and the family cleaner became his stepmother. Then his father, with whom he had a difficult, sometimes brutal relationship, also died, leaving Slater an orphan at 16.

Toast subsequently became a BBC television drama, and was then adapted for the stage. It is currently touring in the UK, and Slater is a regular in the audience. “In almost every venue, I’ve been at least once. I like to support the play, to support the crew, and love meeting the audience,” he says, estimating that he has seen it at least 25 times. He does not find it easy to sit through, however. “There are lines in the play that I rather wish I hadn’t said.” (His last words to his mother, in a childish spat about mince pies, were “I hope you die.”)

“There are things that other people said or did to me that come back, and every single time, no matter how many times I see it, it’s quite emotional, it gets to me. I would love to say it’s like watching someone else, but it isn’t; it’s me and it’s my story.”

There is another reason he has to avert his eyes from the stage, too. A lifelong aversion to eggs stems from his father force-feeding them to him. “Give me a souffle or custard and I’m fine, put a fried egg in front of me and you could not write a cheque big enough for me to eat that egg.” Watching the re-enactment on stage “just brought back everything, absolutely everything”. The abuse did not stop at force-feeding. “If he ever hit me he could not stop,” Slater has said.

The time you spend on your own is so precious. I have never been lonely, and I have never been bored; there is always something interesting

It all sounds so grim; it’s hard to reconcile this tough upbringing with the cheery, generous soul sitting beside me, who carved out a career working in kitchens, broke into recipe testing and became an internationally known food writer and TV presenter.

So is he over it now, that tough childhood that he has said made him feel much less loved than others? Has he found happiness?

“Yes, I am happy, but I’ve only just realised this. I still feel slightly guilty about being happy, if that makes sense. I always worry that it can come over as being a bit smug or a bit pleased with yourself. I think it was only a few years ago that I thought, You know what, this is pretty good, don’t knock it.”

And is he ever lonely? “No,” he says resolutely. “I hate the fact that the word alone is part of the word lonely, because it’s actually a bit of a gift. Actually the time you spend on your own is so precious. I have never been lonely, and I have never been bored; there is always something interesting.”

He is coming to Dublin to promote Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter, the recently published companion to Greenfeast: Spring, Summer. As their titles suggest, these are volumes that celebrate vegetables. “I could tell you that I sat down and said, I’m going to eat less meat, for my health, for the health of the planet, but it’s not the truth. The truth is, I write down everything I eat. I’ve done this for years; I did it for a diet and I’ve kept it up.”

There’s a little diversion here as I ask if he has the notebook with him. He does, and the brown leather book is filled with incredibly neat lists – pages that look like calligraphy artworks. It started as part of a weight-loss diet, but now he is ultratrim, verging on skinny. “I don’t even know why I do it now. There it is... everything I’m reading and everything I’m eating. Pumpkin and goat’s cheese tortelloni last night, a muffin and Marmite, steamed kale and hummus – I must tell you, that’s not a usual thing to find in my book.”

Looking back through his lists, he realised that he was consuming a lot less meat and fish, and decided to write about the way he is eating now. “This was my way to do a book with no meat and no fish, but to present it not in a preachy way, because there’s a lot of preaching out there. It’s terrifying; I don’t want to be part of your club. I am a great believer in all schools of moderation.”

Slater’s TV shows are filmed in a rented artist’s studio in Hampshire, but the books are researched, written and photographed in his own home, with help from his longtime recipe collaborator, James Thompson, and photographer, Jonathan Lovekin. “Thirty years I’ve worked with Jonathan – it’s like being married.”

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t cook at the end of the day. I know many people who can’t be bothered to cook something for themselves, and that saddens me a little

He doesn’t yet know what his next book will be about, but, unlike many writers, that doesn’t bother him. “Historically, and for no particular reason, I’ve always started a book on Christmas afternoon. I don’t know why and I don’t know when this started.” Right now, he says he is enjoying “this blissful moment when I can do anything”.

Anything, for now, includes planning his annual month-long early-spring trip to Japan. “They don’t know me there from a bar of soap, and I love it – total anonymity.” He travels alone, describing it as “a very important part of my year” and a time when “I just recharge my batteries”.

His interest in gardening continues to occupy his time, and to feed into his food writing, although he says he finds it “quite frustrating” and has had as many failures as successes. “I am one of those gardeners that either pampers something to death or I just neglect it and expect it to survive.”

One thing is a constant, though. “I make myself something to eat every day, whether or not anyone else is around. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t cook something to eat at the end of the day. I know many people who can’t be bothered to cook something for themselves, and that saddens me a little, because I get almost as much joy from feeding myself as I do feeding others. Though little can compare with making someone something nice to eat.”

TWO OF NIGEL SLATER’S NEW RECIPES

Nigel Slater’s fennel, peas, halloumi. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin
Nigel Slater’s fennel, peas, halloumi. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin

FENNEL, PEAS, HALLOUMI
Fresh green flavours for a golden autumn day.

Serves 2
fennel 300g
olive oil 3 tablespoons
halloumi 250g

For the dressing
frozen peas 250g
basil leaves 30g
mint leaves 20g
olive oil 150ml

Trim and thinly slice the fennel, no thicker than a €1 coin. Warm the 3 tablespoons of oil in your largest frying pan, place the fennel in the pan in a single layer, then season lightly and cook until the fennel is light gold on the underside. Turn each piece over and continue cooking until soft and translucent.

Slice the halloumi into pieces slightly thicker than the fennel and place them in the pan, tucking them in wherever there is a gap, overlapping where there isn’t. Let the cheese toast and turn patchily gold.

Put the frozen peas in a colander and run them under the cold tap for a few minutes till they have defrosted. Let them drain. Whizz the peas, basil and mint leaves and the oil in a food processor till almost smooth – a slightly rough texture is good – then spoon over the cheese and fennel and serve. If you have a few fennel fronds, add them at the very end.

Nigel Slater’s tomato, chillies, udon. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin
Nigel Slater’s tomato, chillies, udon. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin

TOMATO, CHILLIES, UDON
Fruity, frugal and a little fiery

Serves 2
cherry tomatoes 500g
garlic 4 cloves
a large red chilli
groundnut oil 3 tablespoons
udon noodles 250g
rice vinegar 1 tablespoon
mirin 2 teaspoons
coriander leaves a handful

Heat the overhead (or oven) grill to high. Halve the cherry tomatoes, peel and thinly slice the garlic, and cut the chilli into very thin rounds. Put the tomatoes, garlic and chilli into a shallow roasting tin, then toss with the groundnut oil. Let the tomatoes cook under the grill till some of the skins have blackened.

Bring a deep pan of water to the boil and salt it generously. Lower the noodles into the water and let them boil for three or four minutes, or according to the instructions on the packet. Drain the noodles as soon as they are tender.

Crush the tomatoes with a fork or vegetable masher, then stir in the rice vinegar, mirin and coriander, toss with the noodles and serve in shallow bowls.

Letting the tomato skins blacken under the grill lends a smoky note to the sauce. I sometimes stir a little chilli paste into this too, usually the tearfully hot Korean gochujang.

These recipes are from Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter, by Nigel Slater, published by 4th Estate Books, with photographs by Jonathan Lovekin. You can read another of his recipes on irishtimes.com from Monday to Friday next week as part of Food Month