What would you do if you had the chance to spend an evening with Nigella Lawson? Yes, a lot of us are probably thinking that.
Her tumbling dark hair, those red lips, her penchant for licking chocolate-y things off her fingers at midnight, illuminated by nothing other than the fridge light. And that voice - it’s deep and sultry, even over the phone from London. When she talks about “giving pleasure to people” through the act of cooking for them, I almost faint.
But luckily I’m standing by my fridge, and grip the handle firmly as we chat about her upcoming tour, An Evening with Nigella Lawson, which hits Canberra on February 4 next year.
“I have never been to Canberra,” she says, despite being a regular visitor to Australia these days for such things as MasterChef. She loves it here, she says, admitting that one of her signature recipes, Spaghetti with Marmite, tastes much better if it’s made with Vegemite.
“But I’ve heard such great things about [Canberra], particularly the food scene. I’m very excited, trying to work out where I can eat, what I can fit it. It should be fun.”
I try and think of some places to recommend to her. Pilot is flying high, and I think she’d love Morning Glory’s take on eggs and soldiers. Would she like the dark and moody ambience of a place like Tilley's, with its history and all, or somewhere young and brash like Eightysix?
Or perhaps my place … there’s an idea. I’d love to cook for Nigella - who wouldn’t? And she is, after all, the champion of home cooking.
“To a great extent the show is about being a home cook and why home cooking matters and why you don't need to be a professional chef to be allowed into a kitchen or for your food to matter,” she says.
“I think restaurants are great and we all go to them when we want to be inspired, or you’re celebrating a special occasion.
“But when you think about the food that matters to you, it's always nearly home food.”
She says home cooks have been disparaged a lot over the years and that’s upset her.
“One of my motivations from the very beginning was, in a way, to defend the home cook and to talk about what real cooking is.
“It doesn't have the theatre of the restaurant ... there's enough drama in life, you don't need it in the kitchen.”
I open the fridge door, wondering what I would cook for her. It’s terribly bare, I tell her. Leftovers of last night’s roast chicken, some feta cheese, a bag of salad, a few cherry tomatoes. Does she ever look at the fridge and despair?
“You know when I go and see my friends I always walk in, and without them even noticing, go and open their fridge and look inside,” she laughs. Oh lordy, what would she think of me?
“I find that the most inspiring [way] to cook, you can always cobble something together.
“It’s a bit like writing on a deadline. You have to write, therefore you do.
“I always liked a last-minute commission when I was a journalist. In a way you didn't have time to worry, you just had to write it.
“In the same way when you open your fridge, you just have to cook something, you're not going to complicate things. You have to work off your wits.”
She says the show is very much like that. She talks for a bit about her life, about the notion of food as a “repository of memory”, about why food matters to us all. And then she throws it open to audience questions - and you can submit your questions via nigellaliveonstage.com.
“This show I'm doing is very much like that - nothing is prepared, I don't know what I'm going to be asked, and it goes from there.
“I prefer it that way, I might um and ah, falter a bit, but I'm talking from the heart and about what I believe in.
“A 'performance' seems to be inauthentic. If I was a performer maybe that would be fine and I'd come on tap dancing or something, but I can't do that.”
Instead, be prepared to join her for something she likens to a big dinner party - “a gathering of people, sharing stories and finding out what we have in common. It really does have the warmth of an evening at home”.
Her first cookbook, How to Eat, was published 20 years ago. It’s still on high rotation in my kitchen, the kind of book that captures mood and circumstance as much as it does flavours.
“I don’t think my philosophy has changed at all,” she says. She loves looking back at the old books and seeing her life reflected in them, how old the children were, where was she living, what was she cooking.
“How to Eat summed up my philosophy; there are recipes in it I still cook now. The only difference is I wouldn't do a low-fat chapter if I was doing that book now, but I do still like those recipes. [God bless her.]
“There’s one where you'd think it came from some hipster gastro pub, kale with chorizo and poached egg, which, when I wrote it, I was bemoaning the fact you couldn't really get kale and it wasn't fashionable, and look where we are now.”
I think about the number of Nigella recipes I cook - there’s a container of her homemade instant pancake mix in my pantry, her vanilla shortbreads, a chicken and pea traybake, Christmas rocky road - and I understand even more so now, after a gloriously self-indulgent 15 minutes with her on the phone, that Nigella just gets it. Gets us.
“The idea with cooking isn't to find something as complicated as possible,” she says.
“These days, more and more, there’s this crippling need to impress, this idea that when you cook you're doing it so people can judge you.
“It’s totally wrong … you have to think about cooking in a different way, enjoy the process of pottering about and being in your kitchen, about having people gathered around your table.
“And always, always, be thinking about giving pleasure to people rather than seeking to impress them.”
Pick me up off the floor.
An Evening with Nigella Lawson is touring nationally from January 27. The Royal Theatre, Canberra, on Monday February 4, 2019. Tickets from $86.70.