Filming his first new TV series for three years – part cookery show, part travelogue, part cultural exchange – in Iran, Turkey and Lebanon was a shock to Nigel Slater’s system.
“I’m used to pouring myself a beer at the end of a day’s work, or sharing a bottle of wine with a friend, and suddenly it couldn’t be done,” says Slater. “Of course there is alcohol in those countries, but we were never offered it and we never attempted to find it. Even though I was almost on my knees, absolutely gasping for a drink at the end of the day.”
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Nigel Slater’s Middle East is quite a departure for the preternaturally youthful 61-year-old, and not just because it was booze-free. It is also his first overseas show. Hitherto, the dishes he prepares for his recipe books, for the intimate and evocative Observer column he has penned for 25 years, and for most of his TV shows, are all done in the kitchen of his immaculate, minimalist Georgian house in north London. “I have always been inquisitive about how other people cook and how they live and what part food plays in their lives,” he says, “but it’s always been centred in Britain, and I was keen to maybe move it on a bit. I was talking to my business partner James Thompson and he said, ‘Do you know what, I can get us into Iran…’”
In Iran, Slater visited Tehran, the Alborz mountains and the Caspian Sea. He cooked dizi, a lamb stew with pickled lime, in the home of a taxi driver, and sampled kaleh patcheh, a broth made of sheeps’ heads and feet, in a working-class café. His visit to the secretive state occupies the last of the show’s three episodes (this week takes him to Lebanon) and it’s the place that impressed him most. “The food I was eating was very traditional and a lot of it had been cooked for a long time,” he says. “I thought it would be spicier, and hadn’t expected everything to be so subtle – not simple, it’s quite complex.”
He says he was humbled by the friendliness of the people he met in all three countries. “There was such a generosity of spirit about sharing their kitchens. The people of a country are very often not the government. Behind the headlines, they do the same things we do. It’s all about our similarities rather than our differences. The intimacy of sharing the making of a meal with people blew me away.”
Here we come to the paradox of Slater. He claims to be “galvanised by shyness” but he is a natural communicator on telly and in print. “If you asked me to stand up in a room full of people, even friends, and say something, I would be in a complete fizz about it,” he explains. “But stick me in front of a camera and I absolutely don’t mind at all. I forget it’s on.” He is an intensely private individual who shares glimpses of his life and home in his columns and his beautifully curated Instagram feed.
He won’t say if he is in a relationship (“I never go there… I need a little bit of something that’s mine”) but in 2003 he published Toast, a richly evocative memoir of his childhood and teenage years in Wolverhampton and Worcestershire. In it, he explored the harrowing loss of his mother Kathleen, who died of asthma when he was nine, shortly after they’d had an argument, and his hatred of his bullying businessman father Tony and his stepmother Dorothy, who had been the family’s cleaner. He also laid bare his adolescent yearnings for both girls and boys.
“I slightly regret over-sharing,” he laughs, awkwardly. About your family or your sexuality? “Um, I dunno. I’m probably a bit more guarded than I used to be. You can talk about other people’s lives a bit too much, and I think maybe I did that.”
When Toast was made into a TV film, with Helena Bonham Carter playing his stepmother, Dorothy’s daughters – Slater’s stepsisters – complained the portrayal was unfair. And his childhood animosity towards her seems now to have mellowed. “Knowing what I know now, at this ripe old age, I would have behaved very differently with my stepmother,” he says.
“I would have realised she was in a very difficult position, and my father was in a very difficult position, too. But, you know, I had been a very protected little middle-class boy and suddenly I was thrown into this turmoil, and into a world that had changed enormously for me, and I just was out of my comfort zone and not old and wise enough to realise it was difficult for other people as well. Certainly, I would handle that whole situation differently now. I hope I would be a lot more compassionate.”
In May, Toast will be adapted as an “experiential” stage play at the Lowry Theatre in Manchester: the audience will be fed jam tarts and bread-and-butter pudding and the smells of boiled ham and cabbage will be wafted through the auditorium.
“It’s very exciting,” says Slater, on whom the smells and taste of the past have a positively Proustian effect, but he has no plans for a further volume of autobiography. “It wouldn’t have a backstory that I consider essential. I witter on every week in my kitchen confessional: people know what I’m cooking, who I’m feeding, what’s happening in the garden. Do I really need to put that in a book? No. So there won’t be a second slice.”
When Slater was 16 his father died. He left home armed with a diploma in catering from Worcester Technical College, and spent 12 years in various kitchens, B&Bs and other hospitality jobs. One day he was working in a café opposite Selfridge’s in London and a regular customer asked him to test recipes for the newly launched Homes and Gardens magazine, then to write some of his own. He became the food writer for Marie Claire in 1988 and for The Observer in 1993, from the start producing what he calls “rough-edged home cooking, things that are nice to eat. It’s not about trying to impress people, it’s not technically perfect, overtested or honed to death.” His first book, Real Fast Food, was published in 1992 and he was already a TV regular when Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers came along in 2009.
He says he never had a game plan, and seems something of an outsider, a home cook in an industry full of celebrity chefs. He has turned down offers to open his own restaurant. “What I do has my name on it,” he says. “The problem with having a restaurant and a weekly column and writing books and doing television is I know it can’t be done. Those people who spread themselves too thinly – of course they are not doing everything themselves. I like the honesty of knowing something is mine.”
He doesn’t watch Bake Off or recipe shows: “I’ll probably get spanked for saying that, but my life is recipes. At the end of the day, I don’t want to sit down and watch other people cooking. I’m not interested in other people’s ideas because it muddies the water.” Nigella Lawson, who got her first break in TV through Slater, is the only chef he admits to admiring. “She loves food and she loves eating,” he says. “You can see it in her body language and the way she cooks.”
He doesn’t do soundbites. When I ask if he agrees with chef Angela Hartnett’s recent assertion that Britain still isn’t a foodie culture, he says, “Gosh, I don’t know. Someone’s buying all those cookbooks and those huge bunches of coriander in the shops, and watching all those TV programmes.” As you’d expect from a man who has sung the simple pleasures of sweets, biscuits and toast, he is more robust on the clean eating phenomenon. “To demonise one particular type of food I think is ridiculous. But what we eat is changing, slowly. We are becoming much more vegetable-centric, putting less focus on meat, and we are much more concerned where our food is coming from.”
I ask what he does for fun apart from cook for others and he says he walks a lot (he doesn’t drive), visits galleries and loves browsing in bookshops (for novels, not cookbooks). He goes to the gym, but doesn’t think about his weight: “Mum was very slim and until the end of his life my dad was, too. My brother, who is 70, is incredibly skinny, so I think it’s partly genes, but also I don’t think about it. When I look at somebody their body is the last thing I notice.”
And he claims he could give up in an instant the fame and the trappings that his career have brought him. “If you took me out of my home now and put me in a croft in the Hebrides, I would be just as happy, as long as I’ve got somewhere to cook and eat and people to cook for,” he says.
Age does not bother him, either. “The only thing is, when you get to my age, you are aware the clock is ticking. So I’m not going to waste my time on something that is negative, or even on a good thing if I don’t have patience with it. I move on very quickly because you don’t know how long you have. My dad died at 62, and I have no idea how long I have left on this planet. All I know is I’m in a very good place, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
Nigel Slater’s Middle East is on Friday 2nd February at 9pm on BBC2