Nigella Bites

Britain's Cooking Goddess' Program Spicier Than Any Other

In Britain, TV cooking shows are hits, and the chefs are stars.

But only one is a domestic goddess: Her name is Nigella Lawson. She's a hip and saucy chef who puts a pinch of sex into her recipes. She even described her own cooking show as 'gastro-porn.' But she also has a relaxed and unpretentious approach to cooking. She breaks all the rules, and focuses on the food instead of the recipe. Working mothers idolize her, and men are just crazy about her. Charlie Rose reports.

Nigella doesn't mind when the camera focuses on her. She flirts with it. Her TV program is steamier, saucier and spicier than any other cooking show you've ever seen.

There is nothing subtle about the way she gets millions of Britons to watch her simmer each week. To Nigella, seduction is just a way to bring the viewers into her kitchen.

"Food has to appeal. It has to, if you want, arouse appetite," she says. "I mean, I don't mind if I'm accused of a, you know, culinary come-on."

But Lawson is much more than just a pretty face. She is glamorous, intelligent, savvy, and a fantastic cook, with a distinguished pedigree. Her father, Nigel Lawson, was one of the most powerful men in Margaret Thatcher's conservative government. Her mother, Vanessa, was a wealthy socialite and heiress.

"It was an interesting home. There were a lot of interesting people and a lot of talk, a lot of food, a lot of talk," she says.

She went to Oxford and became a writer and editor at The London Times. She and her husband, columnist John Diamond, were part of the glitterati.

She agreed to spend a day with Rose, and show him what she shows her audience each week: how to purchase, prepare and consume good food. The first stop was a shop where they know Nigella well, and where she got the main ingredient for dinner – a free range chicken.

She proudly admits her main qualification for cooking is eating. And her philosophy is simple: maximum pleasure with minimum effort. She invites viewers to pull up a chair in what until recently was her real-life kitchen. Her kids, Cosima and Bruno, are often underfoot.

Cooking is very much a hands-on experience on Nigella's show. She uses no fancy kitchen utensils, and her dishes require none of the elaborate preparation called for by most TV chefs. The point is to get the job done as quickly and easily as possible. If that means taking a culinary short-cut, too bad for the purists. In one show, she used canned cream of corn.

Done with shopping, Nigella and Rose went to the kitchen where she films the show.

For her, the kitchen is a place to have fun. "And not only fun, but companionship and warmth," she says. "And I think ,you know, like a lot of people, the kitchen is a room where I sort of like to sit around talking to my friends. I mean, I do get pleasure from every single aspect. Well, maybe not the washing up," she says.

Nigella may feel comfortable here, but Rose needed explicit instructions on how to clean a chicken and peel cloves.

Dinner with Nigella turned out to be a simple affair. The dish was called "one-pan chicken," because you use one pan.

Nigella may exude sensuality, but she also speaks directly to women, working, middle-class women, who buy her books to learn how to squeeze some home cooking into a hectic, busy life filled with family and career. When in it comes to Nigella, men want to be around her, but women want to be her.

"I'm not seen by women to be dangerous or threatening in every way," she says, noting that at book signings women often ask her to sign the book to their husbands.

Public relations advisers finely hone this image, but it is also shaped by the losses that have marred Nigella's otherwise picture-book life. Nigella's mother died of cancer at 48. Her sister, Thomasina, fell victim to the same disease eight years later.

By then, Nigella had met and married Diamond. The couple had two children, and Nigella had begun writing her first cookbook. But as her career was taking off, her husband was diagnosed with cancer, too.

He struggled with cancer for four years, while a BBC television crew documented the most intimate details of his decline, and the treatments that failed to stem the disease. In March 2001, Diamond died, leaving Nigella a widow, a single mother, a career woman, and a different person.

"From being someone who was quite contained and certainly not talkative, really, I became a big talker, because I had to," she says.

By then, Nigella had become a celebrity. Her cooking show was a sensation and her outfit stole the spotlight when she showed up to claim an award for one of her cookbooks. Now, her name is mentioned constantly in the press, and her Web site offers a selection of up-to-date photos.

Still, she says, she feels ambivalent about her success. "I'm trying, really, I suppose, to put food in the context of life, just be a normal person cooking," she says.

She doesn't want to be considered a celebrity chef. "Maybe I just can't get to grips with the fact that I'm doing food rather than what is considered a more serious thing," she says.

Serious or not, the attention is not always welcomed. Critics claimed that her recipes didn't turn out as they were supposed to, and London's tabloids gossip about her affair with Charles Saatchi, the recently-divorced super-rich advertising guru.

She and her children now share an apartment with Saatchi in London's fashionable Eaton Square. Although some consider them a London power couple, Nigella says they don't really go out much.

Nigella is now flirting with the American market. Her show is on the Style Network and she writes a regular food column for The New York Times. She also has a new book in the stores.

One of her strongest selling points is that she's nothing like that other doyenne of domesticity, Martha Stewart. She agrees.

"I am so the opposite of what she's about, because I'm not about the quest to perfect your life and to make everything in it beautiful and shiny. You know, I'm a bit more 'Aw, come on. We'll just do it this way, you know? Let's do it in a half an hour,'" she says.

Nigella often seems to be in a rush. Her daily schedule is hectic, and she's the first to admit she worries about her waistline. She says she minds, but "I don't mind enough. I mean, if I really minded, I'd be thin."

Nigella's cooking show usually ends with a few friends dropping by to enjoy the meal she's made. So we asked her to invite some of them to join us for dinner. I sat next to Nigella's sister, Horatia.

This group of guests, "the girls," come over often. "They're horrible to me, but somehow I must be a masochist because I keep on, actually, I don't ask them back. They just turn up anyway," she says with a laugh.

Why is the show so successful, Rose asked the guests.

"I think because you can't fake it. If you really do have a love of cooking, and you love to create, which you do and have done forever, long before this show was on, then that comes across," said one of the guests. She asked Rose if he had cooked the meal.

"Oh, I did. I contributed," Rose said.

"It's really horrible," Maria responded, to general laughter.

  • David Kohn

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