I was the first to arrive and waited, peering through the windows to catch a glimpse like a groupie. Slightly nervous and a bit giddy, I was finally meeting someone I’ve admired for years: Nigella Lawson.
My friend Tara arrived soon after, running down the sidewalk toward me, eyes rolling around like two olives bobbling in a jar. She had hurried over after her work day at The New School of Cooking, hoping there would be snacks served at the reception. (Of course, the irony that my friend who works at a cooking school arrives hungry to a culinary interview event, but this is what happens in busy modern life.) We stood in line, waiting for the doors to open to the theater. The neon marquee lights were being fiddled with--- on and off went the colored bulbs. A man stood attentively, attempting to correct the lighting. The ticket stand was eventually set up and ready for admittance. While waiting, I took note of Nigella's fans. They were much like myself: absolutely fascinated with food and the BBC culinary star Nigella Lawson.
Simply Nigella cookbooks were loaded up from the hatch of a Toyota Corolla, stacked in a tower upon a dolly, wheeled to the entrance, then unpacked and placed upon a display table in the foyer. Where was Nigella? I knew she was somewhere in the building. My stomach was, at this point, full of butterflies, not food.
An array of dishes from the Simply Nigella cookbook were presented once inside (thankfully, as we were quite hungry). A bowl of sweet potato and chickpea dip garnished with pomegranate seeds beckoned, there was a bowl of luxurious cauliflower cashew curry, both served with an array of crackers, and a platter of dangerously decadent Nutella brownie bites, too easy to eat up by the handful.
As I looked up, there was Nigella. She wore an elegant black top and pants ensemble with a white blazer, makeup in muted neutrals accentuating her radiant face. Nigella's casual style felt approachable, rather than the sexy hourglass dresses she wore on ABC's The Taste, though she's gorgeous no matter what she wears. Aside from her timeless beauty, the woman has serious brains and knows how to cook, especially on camera. That's not easy.
My friend and I stood in line with the crowd for Nigella’s autograph, clutching our cookbooks and stuffing our faces with Nutella brownies, alternating hands to manage both. I had hoped I didn’t have a smear of chocolate on my chin, but I’m sure Nigella would've appreciated that anyway.
Her eyes glittered as she remarked that I was quite glamorous, yet all I could respond with was a shy thank you in mutual admiration. She smiled and stood close to me while our photo was taken. I wondered if I had Nutella brownie coating my teeth. I rushed back to my seat like a little girl who just met her favorite Disney princess onstage. A sip of wine later, I was back to my adult status, ready to sit back and listen to what she had to say about cooking, food and anything else.
As a food writer and home cook, I’m delighted and encouraged by her. She's beautiful, expressive, engaging, and she loves cooking and eating. But quite honestly, she's got a certain mystique that makes her on camera presence sizzle like hot prosciutto in a pan. Plus she manages all of her own social media (mainly Twitter and Instagram, as she says she just can't get into Facebook). She's fabulously smart, well spoken, a mother of two children, Cosima and Bruno. Her cooking shows and cookbooks are a long list of triumphs, beginning with her first cookbook, How to Eat. Over 5 million copies of Nigella's cookbooks have sold worldwide. What an amazing lady.
In her first cookbook introduction, she writes: "There is a reason why this book is called How to Eat rather than How to Cook. It’s a simple one: although it’s possible to love eating without being able to cook, I don't believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating."
And we love eating.
Nigella's gift of creating recipes for people who love to eat are made for family and friends to share. The recipes are not fanciful or fiddly in the least; just cozy and simple food. Relax and enjoy the pleasures of the kitchen, rather than troubling over the good, the bad and the gluten-free.
While she's had a rough time going through a brutal divorce, Nigella is neither ruined nor devastated. She is gracefully rebuilding her life. During the Live Talks interview, she only hinted at her reasons for de-stressing by saying that she required food to help her stay strong, and the cookbook represented this moment of renewal.
"The food in this book is what I've been cooking for myself and, although the impetus was certainly to seek out food that made me feel physically strong, I have always believed that food you cook for yourself is essentially good for you. This is not just because real ingredients are better for you than fake foods, but because the act of cooking for yourself is in itself a supremely positive act, an act of kindness."
Simply Nigella is the perfect title for this new cookbook (and her new show on BBC 2). We remain enchanted by her wonderful way of describing food with titillating alliterations, as she tempts us with her delicious dishes. She's calmly preparing a meal, even when she only has half an hour to throw together a last minute dinner for twelve.
Nigella has shown us how to make entertaining easier than ever, not to stress or worry about making things from scratch, just grab this and that, put it together, et voila, dinner is on the table. Now, relax and have a good chat with your friends.
"What and how we cook can make our lives easier, make us feel better and more alive."
Nigella inspires us to eat out of our fridge in nothing but a nightie. She instructs us to keep plenty of things handy in the freezer. She tells us to give it a squeeze, dollop it on, slurp it up, give it a gush, squidge it with your fingers. There is endless pleasure to be had in cooking and eating, as she's been known in her cooking videos to lustfully exclaim just look at those plump beauties when preparing a fruit dessert. She wants us to slather on some more cream and spread it 'round luxuriously. Yes, as Nigella is known for her sensual descriptives and suggestive sound bites--- it is clear she is a lover of food and pleasure.
In her new cookbook, Simply Nigella, everything is stress-free and simple.
Russ Parsons, writer and columnist for TheLos Angeles Times Food Section, interviewed Nigella onstage at the Live Talks LA event, and asked many intelligent questions of the domestic goddess--- aside from the less serious inquiry his friends on Facebook asked about her skincare regimen. (She washes her face with a muslin cloth every evening and applies SPF50 face cream to protect her porcelain visage, just in case you too were wondering.)
Then Russ brought up the question of the holidays, "where people barely know where their stoves are, and then suddenly they want to start churning out twelve dishes from The French Laundry Cookbook." He asked Nigella about her own approach during the holiday season.
“I do a list, take a clipboard to make myself feel more in control, and I write a list of everything I want to cook, and then make myself a cup of tea. Then I go back to the list, and cross off a bunch of things off.”
In the grand ambition of entertaining, most people go overboard and make too much food. Nigella believes in no-stress simplicity, involving her friends and family in setting the table for a simple yet festive meal rather than overwhelming her guests with hors d’oeuvres, fanciful dishes and elaborately 'gourmet' holiday recipes. Don't bother so much, please.
She recommends holiday traditions be kept to enjoyment rather than making a big fuss. Make foodto please to the senses, but nothing more than necessary so you don't miss out on your company.
“I don’t do starters when I have people over. I do have something to feed people, drinks and such, or I manage to dragoon someone into passing some food around, a dip or some crudités, it wouldn’t even matter if it was to pass around some nuts, frankly.”
Nigella suggests keeping things in the freezer to warm up and serve. She likes Brazilian cheese bread to serve warm as a welcoming comfort for her guests. Then she puts someone in charge of the drinks. Sounds so easy, I'm thinking about stuffing my freezer with Brazilian cheese bread for such occasions.
“It’s very relaxing if there’s a DIY element to eating. I don’t mean it in a mess, it can be beautiful. I put out canisters of cutlery out on the table, and then have someone set the knives and forks out, it gives people interplay. I find formality stops people from having fun.”
On the importance of gathering people together, the food is secondary. Holidays are about ritual.
“If the best thing that can be said about the evening was that the food was good, then I feel it’s not a very successful evening. Here’s one thing, if I can say the food was good, but I had a great time, I laughed, I felt very close to everyone who was there. [That's a successful party.] The holidays are about ritual and repetition and you really don’t need to be doing anything new--- at all.”
Hear that? Don't try to make recipes out of the French Laundry Cookbook. Make a few things from Nigella's Feel Good Food instead. Adapt the recipes, make your own up from the inspiration.
The interview event was refreshing, thoughtful and soul nourishing. I was pleased to take everything in without one glance at my iPhone to tweet, tag or Instagram something as per usual media events.
Live Talks LA events are a great way to get back-to-basics human conversation in your life, because in this push button era, everything can be viewed in an instant. But what cannot be downloaded is the experience of a conversation. No matter what, there’s nothing like a live, in-person interview.
That following Saturday afternoon I brought my youngest daughter to Williams Sonoma in Beverly Hills to meet Nigella. My seven year old daughter enjoys Nigella's cooking videos on YouTube, yet she was a bit shy to approach for her autograph.
At home, we made flourless peanut butter chocolate chip cookies from the cookbook, as well as a few other sweets, like chocolate chip cookie dough pots. Inspired for Thanksgiving, I'll be making Nigella's sweet potato chickpea dip and smoky salted caramel sauce to drizzle on no-churn brandied pumpkin pie ice cream. And seriously, Nutella brownies are the main reason why I love Nigella and her recipes even more. How can you resist eating melt-in-your-mouth chocolate hazelnut spread filled brownies right from the oven? Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food is here for the holidays.
Thank you for the inspiration, Nigella! It was a pleasure to meet you.
Live Talks LA offers a series of onstage conversations featuring writers, actors, musicians, humorists, artists, chefs, scientists and thought leaders. The Los Angeles-based organization fills our eyes and ears with a food and wine series on their roster, featuring culinary celebrities like Emeril Lagasse, Roy Choi, and just a week ago, the domestic goddess Nigella Lawson.
A sincere thank you to Live Talks LA founder Ted Habte-Gabr for the invitation to attend Nigella Lawson's interview. Photo sources other than my own: Live Talks LA, BBC, and Nigella Lawson's Instagram.