Nigel Slater sits down, flaps his napkin on his lap and runs a practised eye down the menu. "Hmm. Caramelised strawberries? There's a worry," he says, noting the bizarre stuffing for a saddle of rabbit. "Oh dear. And there are pistachios and grapes in there, too. But, you know, it is probably divine."
He is just trying to be kind. It seems unlikely that he really means it. He carries on down the list.
"Fruit and vegetable curry with thyme, basil and lime rice. That sounds a bit . . . "
"What do you mean?"
The last bit. The lime rice. It sounds like something you would do.
"Does it?" he says, looking surprised, perhaps forgetting that there is a recipe for lime leaf rice on page 239 of his Appetite cookery book, published in 2000. "You need little more than four or five leaves to scent a small pan of rice," he wrote. "Tuck the whole leaves in before you pour the water on, pulling them out before you eat."
In its own little way, it is a typical Nigel Slater recipe in that it maps out the shortest possible route to a simple and robust deliciousness. It's hardly even a recipe. Just really a good idea, like so many of his guidelines - pasta with roast garlic and cream; broccoli with ginger; scallops chucked in a bubbling foam of butter. Just pour yourself a glass of wine and get on with it. For more than 10 years, in both his books and his weekly column for the Observer, Nigel's recipe headlines have said it all: "A whole baked fish for midweek"; "A steak supper"; "Some clean-tasting greens". And always, whatever he is cooking, his inner mantra is as follows: eat this and you will feel better. Just the way he does. "I make what I call real food, food with a proper heart and soul that tastes good, rather than something that is trying to impress" is how he describes it.
For his restaurant lunch today, he has decided upon spicy lemon beef salad with Vietnamese coleslaw, followed by a chicken curry. He hesitates before accepting a glass of Champagne, but does so in the end and our drinks arrive in those flutes with hollow stems, the bubbles surging all the way down to the base.
"Ooh! How on earth would you get a tea towel down there to dry them properly?" he clucks, in a festive moment of domestic campery.
TOAST SHIMMERS WITH SADNESS AND CHOCOLATES...
Today, he is dressed very carefully in Converse sneakers, a mixture of Helmut Lang and Prada, and a wee pair of Ralph Lauren socks. Some sort of boyish attempt - perhaps a licked palm pressed on the crown of the head? - has been made to tame his hair and he looks freshly polished and sweet. Although polite and friendly, he is clearly struggling with the oppressive attentions of the waiters, so thrilled to have Food God Nige in their midst that they are overreacting. Just a bit. "My wife is pregnant! I am going to name my child after you!" shrieks one, as he pours some water.
`Well. How nice. Um. Thank you," says Nigel, as his eyes blink rapidly behind his spectacles. When we are alone again, he says: "Being recognised is one of the things I haven't got used to yet. I can't cope with it. I walk down the street and people come up to me and they say the loveliest things, I can't tell you. But I have a real problem with it and I do regret . . . this kind of attention. I am shy and I don't like fuss very much."
But your new book . . .
. . . will bring you even more attention.
"I know. I get the odd twinge of `What have I done?', but it's too late now. And maybe that's good," he says.
Nigel Slater's surprising autobiography, Toast, shimmers with sadness and chocolates. Young Nigel was a lonely, unpopular little boy, further capsized by his mother's death when he was nine. He adored his mother, even though she burnt his toast so regularly that he thought butter always had black bits in it. Never mind. "It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you," he writes.
His businessman father failed to notice his son much, except to discourage any kind of Nancy-boy cooking and to dish out the occasional thrashing. This kind of familial warfare was, perhaps, not uncommon in middle-class Wolverhampton and elsewhere in Britain during the early 1960s, but Slater did seem to have a particularly hard time. His father used to hold his son on the floor and force-feed him the eggs and milk that he refused to eat. He was beaten for spilling juice on the carpet. In one of the desperate days following his mother's death, Nigel came home from school and cooked his father a supper of smoked haddock rubbed with butter and a shake of black pepper. He made it perfectly, but his father came home late that night. "It's ruined!" cried the son.
"No it's not, it's just how I like it," said Dad. When Nigel returned to see if the fish had been eaten, he found his father with his head in his hands at the table, sobbing.
Slater's misery was compounded when his father married the family cleaner, a woman he had always been suspicious of, and they moved to a new house in the Worcestershire countryside. It wasn't exactly happy ever after. Although she was an excellent cook, son and stepmother lived in a state of watchful attrition until the father died when Nigel was 16. Could it have got any worse? Yes. She got all the money. And Nigel Slater thinks that she killed his father with her cooking.
"I don't think it was deliberate," he says today. "I don't think she set out to say: `I am going to kill this man.' Umm. But she did cook an awful lot of sweet, fatty, creamy dishes for a man who loved his food, but was in his mid-60s. Food that he didn't really want and had trouble eating. We had lots of puddings, all these puddings! Oh, I don't know."
He thinks for a moment. "No, I don't think she killed him deliberately - and, unfortunately, I have to say that even if I don't think it. Otherwise, the lawyers would have a fit! A field day!"
But in Toast you do hint that she murdered your father . . .
"Hmm. There is almost a suggestion, yes."
More than anything else, it is food, food, food that dominates Toast, running though the core of the book like the sausage in a roll, like the ripples in a raspberry ice cream, but mostly like the beat, beat, beat of the tom-tom when the jungle shadows fall. In Nigel Slater's world, food is sex, food is death, food is love and food is a succour to loneliness. Food is both happiness and misery, angst and comfort. And sometimes it seems that no amount of dishes or spices or pork roasts or trifles will be enough to sate him, as if all the rubble of dislocated emotions from childhood onwards have been shovelled and sublimated into the process of buying, preparing and consuming food.
In Toast, Slater reaches back to his mother by writing about the things that she cooked for him and the things that she didn't, the ham and cheese they shopped for together, the wonky mincemeat pies they made every Christmas. His stepmother's Victoria sandwich and boiled ham with parsley sauce gets a thorough going over, as do the sweets his father liked to eat and his penchant for mushroom ketchup.
He is brilliant on period food detail, capturing perfectly that world of Tree Top orange squash, Ruffle bars, Aztecs, salad cream, grilled grapefruit and outlandish spaghetti bolognese as Britain tiptoed nervously into a gleaming gourmet future.
NIGEL'S GOT ISSUES...
However, there are hints that Slater has not entirely escaped the repressed pressure of his past. There is quite a lot of sex in the book, experiences with both men and women and even a naughty uncle, but he leaves the question of his own sexuality hanging in the air, like a wind-dried ham. Extraordinary, really, because most of his readers and everyone who knows him will have perhaps assumed that he is homosexual.
"In the book, I have fudged it. It is pretty fuzzy, pretty fuzzy, and I am happy with it being pretty fuzzy. I don't have anything to put in it but fuzzy," he hedges.
Does he have a significant other in his life?
"Oh, no, Jan. Too contemporary," he says, batting the question away with a hand.
He does not regret not marrying or having children, but he refuses to clarify matters any further. Which is fair enough, I suppose, there is absolutely no reason why he should.
"Just put down fuzzy. Fuzzy is fine," he says and so, with you readers as my witness, henceforth I do. But I can't help feeling that Nigel still has a lot of issues. And they are not all copies of Cordon Bleu magazine.
However, the good news is that Toast has provided a therapy all of its own, which is not something Nigel Slater expected. He feels "much better" after writing it and, although the book ends when he is 19, opening up this secret part of his life has given him a kind of release.
"I was embarrassed about it. I didn't want the world to know that the person who brought me up [his stepmother] cooked with her rollers in and a fag hanging out of her mouth. That patch of my life was so unhappy that I wanted to blot it out. Now I feel a lot better just for writing it down. I am not sure I actually needed to publish it. I think I could have written a secret book and kept it in a drawer somewhere and still been happier."
Is it a vengeful book? He says no, but to this day he refuses to have copper pans in his house because his stepmother liked them so much, and he can be scathing about her. He clearly felt that she wasn't quite as posh as his own family and he notes her lower-class use of Camay soap and the phrase "creamed potato". After his father died, she moved back to Wolverhampton, bought herself a "nice, big" house and the pair never spoke again. Referred to by a pseudonym in the book, she, too, is now dead.
Certainly, a lot of death for a young man to surf through, but, in some ways, this also set Slater free. He did not feel abandoned, he had always felt alone, now he enjoyed his independence and the opportunity to travel around the country, working in hotels and restaurants, learning everything he could about his one true passion - cooking and serving food.
Typically, of course, he didn't really blend anywhere. At John Tovey's Miller Howe Hotel in the Lake District, Slater felt that "you only really fit in if you were born around Kendal" and found the going even rougher as a pastry chef at the Box Tree restaurant, then run by Malcolm Reid and Colin Long, in Ilkley.
"I cannot tell you how much I hated it. I hated it so much I truly used to go home and cry. The original owners, Malcolm and Colin, were a pair of complete and utter bitches. Absolute bitches. And I was hopeless at being part of a team. It was a bit like going back to school there. It was a bit: `Oh God, do we have to have Slater on our side, sir?' "
He ran away to Cornwall and worked for a season in a b & b, before working in a Justin de Blank delicatessen in central London. Everything was baked fresh every day and Slater loved it. He started testing recipes for A La Carte magazine and then graduated to his own column in Marie Claire. He really fought for that column, ringing up the publishers on almost a daily basis. For an egg-hating little weed, he clearly had well-seasoned reserves of ambition and toughness that powered him through this difficult stage of his life.
"No," he says, although I don't believe him for a second. "It all just kind of happened for me. I have been very lucky."
After this, the food writer Matthew Fort recommended him to the Observer and, from that point onwards, Slater's career soared. His penchant for big, crusty, real food was a hit with the Sunday liberals and he remains unique among cookery writers of his stature in that all the recipes are cooked by him and photographed in his own pots and pans in his own home. He uses no props and he does his own washing-up. "I know where every knife and spatula is and that way I can cook quickly," he says.
Today, Slater lives in some splendour in a Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse in Islington, London, stripped inside to a white minimalist interior, complete with a pounds 70,000 kitchen designed by John Pawson. He is unsure how many bedrooms he has - "Six?" he wonders - but he loves the peace and serenity provided by his three cats and his own cool, pale home. "I am afraid," he says, finishing his curry, "that I have dedicated this book to my cats."
He goes swimming every day, he gets massages, he loves holidays, he is good to himself. After trying and failing to make a viable television career for himself - "I wanted to do a programme where the food was the star and I was in the background" - it must have been galling to watch while other celebrity chefs - Jamie Oliver and his great friend Nigella Lawson, for example - became huge television favourites and multi-millionaires, while he was left hovering at the back burner, dreaming up new pie fillings and warming winter soups. He did make one series on terrestrial television, but after being described by one critic as looking like a pervert who had an unhealthy relationship with food, Slater scuttled back to the anonymity of his column and the UK Food Channel. Although hurt at the time, he can laugh about it now.
`Ilike the idea that someone took the time to think about me in my bedroom with a tub of mascarpone or whatever he was thinking. I got a real buzz out of that. I thought: `He is sick not me.' "
After conceding that Nigella and Jamie perform "brilliantly, beautifully" in a way that he never could - or would want to - our lunch is over and our time together is nearly at an end.
Shortly, Nigel Slater will return to the bleak beauty of his kitchen, to the cupboards and packets and pots and pans in which he takes such comfort. No doubt he will make something to eat, an idea for his column perhaps. A supper for the friends who don't come around as often as he would like them to. And, at some point later today, at the exact moment when the aroma of sweetly baking cakes or herb-spiked meats fills the rooms, the orphaned, lonely boy who was brought up on sausages, Angel Delight and not very much love, will have turned his house into a home. Again.
© jan moir 2007
- Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger' by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate). This interview took place in September 2003. The Kitchen Diaries (Fourth Estate) was published in 2005.