There’s so much sex appeal in this otherwise boring room in Pinewood Studios it could make the walls vibrate. At one end of the table is Ludo Lefebvre – all Gallic smoulder and shrug, arms densely tattooed, like a Maori warrior, from wrist to bicep. At the other, Anthony Bourdain, with a drawl like a Lou Reed sneer; a bit arrogant, with New York manners, but also New York cool. And in between is our Nigella, with her pale radiance and playful wit.
The three have come together for a new TV show, The Taste, which has been described as MasterChef meets The Voice. Lefebvre, a Burgundian transplant to California, is making waves on the food scene in Los Angeles; ex-chef Bourdain became famous with his picaresque exposé of the restaurant world, Kitchen Confidential, but now eats, writes, travels and does TV shows; and Nigella, well, there can hardly be a soul in the UK who doesn’t know who Nigella is and what she does.
In recent months the domestic goddess – a term she coined ironically for her book How to Be a Domestic Goddess ten years ago, but it has proved awfully enduring – has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.
There was that ghastly set of photos taken at Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair last June, of Charles Saatchi with his hand around his wife’s neck. Then his announcement in a newspaper of their divorce, followed by the couple being granted a decree nisi, seven weeks after the incident.
Nigella – who, despite losing her mother, sister and first husband, John Diamond, to cancer, has never wanted to be one of life’s victims – must have watched her transformation into a sort of patron saint of domestic abuse with dismay, as columnists offered their aperçus on the state of the couple’s marriage, and advised a woman they didn’t know how she should conduct her life.
Then, six weeks after this interview, the story took an incredible turn for the worse – with the trial of the Italian Grillo sisters, one of whom had been nanny to Nigella and John’s children, Cosima and Bruno. In their capacity as personal assistants, Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo were alleged to have defrauded Charles and Nigella of £685,000 over a four-year period, charging designer clothes and first-class travel to New York to Saatchi’s company credit cards. The sisters’ defence claimed that Nigella had allowed them to spend the money as long as they didn’t tell her husband about her drug habit. An email from Saatchi was disclosed, saying that the Grillo sisters would get off, on the basis that Nigella had been “so off your head on drugs that you allowed the sisters to spend whatever they liked”. And Nigella had to testify in court – as though she were on trial, rather than the sisters.
Under intense cross-examination over two days – during which she stood whenever she gave evidence – the food writer admitted to taking cocaine at two periods in her life, and smoking cannabis in front of her children, most particularly in the last unhappy year of her marriage.
No one could dispute that she is a real trouper, as well as a hard worker. Indeed, work and cooking for friends and family have been her refuge when times have been tough. Work has created her substantial independent wealth – reportedly £20–25 million, from TV work, book sales and her own branded kitchenware. When it was reported that she was thinking of not leaving her children an inheritance, she wrote on her personal website: “Of course I have no intention of leaving my children destitute and starving – rather, this is a story that came from a comment I made about my belief that you have to work in order to learn the value of money.” Her wealth has also given her the freedom to move on from her marriage without financial wrangling.
The drug-taking allegations surfaced online days after our interview, but if Nigella was anticipating them, there was no evidence of the stress she must have been under. She was her usual friendly, funny and slightly bossy self, teasing the guys and talking with sensuous precision about food.
What was different, however, was the set-up. When we’d done an interview the year before, for her Nigellissima series, she and I had been left to our own devices to talk one-to-one, far away from the hurly-burly of the photoshoot. This time, there was an almost ridiculously large assortment of people sitting in, including publicists from Channel 4 huddled in a corner and her PR adviser, Mark Hutchinson, at the table. (Weeks later, Mr Hutchinson assures me that Nigella will neither be moving to the US nor giving an interview to Oprah.)
All this didn’t make for the easiest of interviews, but it did lead to some unintentionally comical moments. Bourdain, who calls himself Tonee Bordayne, sounds more like a member of The Sopranos than a Frenchified American chef; and Lefebvre speaks English with such a strong French accent, it’s quite hard to understand him. (In the 2012 programme he did for Bourdain’s No Reservation travel series, his speech was even given English subtitles.)
I ask him if he walks at all in LA. “Work, you mean cooking in a restaurant?” Me: “No, walllk.” Nigella acts as interpreter: “Se promener… because no one walks in LA.”
Lefebvre (crossly): “No, no, I don’t walk over there. It’s stupid – they look at you if you walk, ‘What’s wrong with you? You don’t have a car?’ Alors!” He throws up his hands.
Nigella tells me he’s a surfer dude. “I am good on only one side, the other side I’m no good.” A self-effacing grin.
Me: “Do you surf, Nigella?”
“What do you think, Ginny? Do you know, I do feel that if I could crack surfing I would be immensely pleased and feel that I had really developed as a human being. But I fear that is never going to happen.”
Bourdain: “A few more seasons in LA and we’ll have you up on a board!”
It was Bourdain who was first approached by US film production company Kinetic with the concept of a competitive reality cooking show. He and Nigella had met and knew and respected each other’s work. “So very, very early on it was, ‘If Nigella will do it, I’ll do it’,” he says.
“Yes, and without wishing to suck up too much, I said the same,” Nigella says.
It must help their sense of control that both Bourdain and Nigella are executive producers, “so we had a hand in our own destiny,” he says.
I remind her that when I interviewed her last year, she was about to go off to LA to do the show: “Yes, I was and I was incredibly frightened,” she says. Going back to my emails I see that she wrote this: “Don’t know what to say about LA yet – but that it will be an Experience. It felt too interesting to say no, and when I saw Tony B was involved, well, I knew the programme being planned would be interesting. But until I’ve done it, it’s an unknown quantity. But then, that’s what work (and life) is…”
Sitting with all three of them, an obvious questions occurs. May I be blunt? I ask.
“Any blunt questions…” Nigella says. “Go on.”
Well, I’m not sure that I can see any of you guys sitting down and watching this genre of programme yourselves. Am I right?
Nigella: “I watch The Great British Bake Off”. She puts her hand up (we are speaking on the day of the final): “Don’t tell me what’s happening now because I am recording it!”
“I’ve been on [US cable show] Top Chef for years and Ludo’s been on it, and I watch it still,” says Bourdain.
“Here’s the criteria for me as to whether I want to watch a competitive cooking show or not… who are the guest judges? Is this novelty casting or are these respected people in their field who really have something to say?”
You have to have a gimmick, don’t you? In The Taste, the judging hangs on a single spoonful of food. It’s not about the presentation, and the identity of the participants isn’t known at the point of tasting. “What I liked, not being terribly confrontational as a person,” Nigella says, “is that because you taste everything blind, you’re never making any judgements on a person and you’re just talking about the food. So much of reality TV is the theatre of humiliation or in some sense the culture of the breast-heaving back story, so to have a food competition that is actually about the food is… rather pleasant.”
I had seen a clip from the American series and was intrigued when one of the chefs said that “Uni [pronounced ‘ooni’] is sex”. Could someone please explain?
“Sea urchin,” says Nigella. “We call it sea urchin in this country.”
Is it really that fabulous? Bourdain and Nigella swoon together.
Bourdain: “Oh maaaaaaaaan…”
Nigella (sighs): “It’s divine, it really is… smoky, briny…” Lefebvre: “It’s fuuhhhn. It’s so much eee-o-deeene. ’Ow you say, ‘eee-o- deeene’?”
Nigella: “Iodine.” She continues: “It has a very voluptuous texture. It’s like a mixture of the earth and the sea… its smell is what Martin Amis would call ‘creature-ly’.”
Well, here is a bit of a declaration of interest. I couldn’t say that I am a friend of Nigella’s, but we are definitely friendly.
We first came across each other, as colleagues on The Times, almost 20 years ago. And Nigella once gave me a great scoop – when she told me to ask the novelist Jeanette Winterson about her years as a “lesbian prostitute” (Winterson later told me that the ladies from the Home Counties would “pay” her in Le Creuset casseroles!). Nigella and I have mutual friends and have bumped into one another, over the decades, at parties or events.
In the early days, she was more awkward socially than she is now. Her television and book-writing career has given her a lot more outward self-confidence. I have always found her warm and generous and a lot of fun.
She is self-deprecating and sends herself up, and her heightened sense of camp – John Diamond would always say his wife was a gay man in a woman’s body – yoked to her strong sense of feminism and fairness, is a delightful combination.
The past year must have been an absolute ordeal, with the airing of allegations such as the household spending £25,000 on flowers, the children being given up to £80 a day in pocket money and that she let them smoke dope.
Her TV persona, I think, has been a bit of a refuge for her – so it has been unfortunate to have her home life, her role as a mother, boss and wife, all forensically examined.
But for many people, the idea that Nigella tried cocaine and smoked dope will not mean she has fallen off her pedestal, because they wouldn’t expect a real woman – not a goddess, domestic or otherwise – to be perfect. Even an off-the-cuff remark by David Cameron earned a rebuke from the trial judge.
There has been a lot of speculation about how much the furore will affect Nigella’s career – particularly in the short term, with this new TV series. But even as the trial was going on, ABC in the States was happily screening trailers for the second season of The Taste. The US tends to be more conservative about these matters – but then, Bourdain is a self-confessed former junkie and here he is in the Simon Cowell role on The Taste, on a mainstream network.
It’s strange to think that when The Domestic Goddess book came out, with its pretty cupcake on the cover, there was an outcry from feminists that baking was somehow submitting to the patriarchy. And now, of course the cupcake has taken over the world – and The Great British Bake Off creates headlines and attracts millions of viewers. Is this, in part, the legacy of Lawson? Was she just ahead of her time?
I ask Nigella what she thinks is the difference between professional chefs and cooks like her.
“What I would say – and this is not about the food, it is about the personality – is that, as a general rule, chefs are conflict-driven, they are perfectionist, they are risk-takers. Whereas home cooks tend to be conflict-averse – well, I am – not necessarily risk-takers, and we seek to use food to bring harmony – for whatever reason.”
One of the more poignant details that emerged in court was that during her marriage to Saatchi Nigella had only held a dinner party once every two years at the Eaton Square house – “I was not happy about that” – because he preferred to take people out to dinner at Scott’s.
I ask each of the three, if they were a spoon, what spoon would they be. This is the sort of question the guys love, judging by the alacrity of their response. Bourdain jumps in: I’d be a marrow spoon, for sure.”
Lefebvre: “A soup spoon. Non, a sauce spoon. It ees more flat.”
Bourdain: “Wow!” What’s a sauce spoon in French?
Lefebvre (enunciating it carefully): “Sa-u-ce spooooon – but it is a very specific sauce spoon.”
Bourdain: “Can it be any kitchen appliance at all? I want to be a duck press!”
Lefebvre: “You are jokin’!”
Er, Nigella? “You can’t ask us that, this is Private Eye – Me and my Spoon!”
Well, what a perfect Nigella ending. Savvy, knowing, answering on her own terms, making sure she is in control, all with a soupçon of charm and a dash of wit… she is nobody’s fool.
The Taste starts tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4