Hands on approach (+recipe)

By Stephen Jewell

Nigel Slater. Photo / Supplied
Nigel Slater. Photo / Supplied

While some celebrity chefs release several cookbooks a year, it has taken Nigel Slater nearly half a decade to follow up his superb The Kitchen Diaries with the equally magnificent gardening/food tome, Tender.

Unlike the celebrity chefs, the softly spoken north Londoner has never sought the limelight and you will never find him in the gossip pages.

Instead he is content to let his writing - and his delicious recipes - do all the talking. "I'm quite a slow writer," he admits. "But then I don't know how many books by one person somebody wants. I've always thought that three or four years between cookbooks is about right. I would worry if I collected a particular author, as you could end up with an entire shelf of their books within five or six years."

Slater, 51, is one of Britain's few famous food experts who doesn't run his own eatery, cooking school or have a signature range of knives and saucepans. "It's that thing where you become a brand. You've got your name on products, restaurants, books and what-have-you.

I've never had any inclination to do that. I've had lots of offers to do that but I don't even really do television series tie-in books. I suppose it's because I like to do things myself. I'm hopeless at delegating. I just tend to get on with it myself. I'm not a control freak but I wouldn't really want a business that involves lots of people. I'm much happier pottering along, doing everything myself." Slater refers to himself simply as "a cook".

Unlike most of his peers who started off in the restaurant trade before branching out into books, Slater's roots were in journalism.

For five years he was a food writer for Marie Claire, publishing his first book, The Marie Claire Cookbook, in 1992. He then moved to the Observer, where he pens a weekly column in addition to contributing to their popular monthly Food Magazine. He has also hosted a handful of television programmes, including last year's Taste of My Life, for which he quizzed celebrities about their favourite dishes.

"I don't think of myself as being particularly cheffy," he says. "I don't know how it happened but I've ended up as being just a writer. It could be because the only cooking I do is domestic cooking in the home. That's probably why I spend more time writing than anything else."

Tender is along similar lines to Slater's most recent television series, Simple Suppers, which demonstrated how interesting meals can be made from random ingredients from your garden, fridge or pantry. "The book was started a long time before the TV show was even thought of," he says. "I've constantly been making notes for Tender ever since The Kitchen Diaries came out about four years ago.

The people who proposed the idea of the series to me didn't even know that Tender existed, because it was still in its early days. It was pure coincidence that both the TV show and the book are about my garden."

Assembling a comprehensive book like Tender was a labour of love. "There is a difference in the way my books and all those other books are put together," he says. "My books are completely me, as I write every word, shop for all the ingredients, cook all the food, style the photography and have a hand in the design and the production. That kind of hands-on approach takes an awful lot of time, whereas if you're the sort of person who has a team of people that can even ghostwrite the thing let alone test all the recipes, you probably can churn out a book out much more quickly."

Although he reminisced about his formative childhood experiences in his 2005 award-winning memoir Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger, Slater has been reluctant to reveal too much of himself in his work. "That was a very personal book so I think I've given enough in that sense," he says. "I would never do that kind of 'Nigel at home in the house kind of thing'.

Like other people, I have a natural curiosity about an author, whether they've written a cookbook or a novel. It's nice to let people know a little bit about yourself but there's a line that you can cross where you can end up giving out too much information."

However, Tender is Slater's most intimate collection yet as he explores the impact that transforming the back garden of his Islington home into a vegetable patch has had on his life. "This is the first time that I've put a photograph of my house in one of my books," he says. "It's very much about what I do outside of the kitchen. But then you can either do a book that's completely impersonal with just recipes or you can just go for it and let your everyday life come through even if it does become quite personal."

Slater has grown his own vegetables and herbs ever since he was a child living in rural Worcestershire. "I was brought up in the countryside, where there were no friends to play with," he recalls. "When I was 11 years old and onwards, there was just me and the fields and the woods and no other kids for miles. I tended to amuse myself and my father gave me a little bit of garden to play with. It sort of went from there and I've never really let go of that gardening thing. Even when I was a student in my first tiny bedsit in London, I had some tomatoes on the windowsill."

Slater moved into his Highbury home, just down the road from Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, nearly 10 years ago.

However, he didn't venture into his backyard for the first six months. "I couldn't face it. It was quite a big project because although it's not a big garden, I'd only ever pottered in gardens before," he recalls.

"The idea of digging up the lawn was quite a challenge for a few months. I had to do all sorts of stuff with the soil because it was ground that had never had anything grown on it, so it had to be worked over. I just sat and planned what to do and then I got digging."

As he recounts in Tender, having his own vegetable plot has completely transformed his attitude towards what he puts on his plate. "When I [think] about what to eat, it is the vegetables that I now think of first, while before I would have thought about the meat and the fish," says Slater. "I'm not saying that I would want to give up my meat and fish, I would miss it enormously, but the vegetables have become a bit of a star."

Tender's individual chapters are divided into different vegetable categories such as cabbage, courgettes, pumpkin and potatoes. "It was a little bit of a gamble doing it that way," says Slater. "It's quite a big thing to give the prominence to the vegetables. There's still this very British thing that you can't have a meal without meat or fish.

Certainly my father's generation would never have considered eating a meal that was principally vegetables. They were just fillers on the side. But it's not a vegetarian book either." Slater's lifestyle change was not merely a matter of taste; it was also born out of a burgeoning concern for the environment.

"There's a little bit of guilt every time you eat or buy meat. You can be very careful about the meat you choose. From a green point of view, it is probably best not to eat as much meat as we used to, to cut down a bit. That's what I've been doing, partly for that reason and partly because I just like eating vegetables."

Along with the likes of Rick Stein and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Slater has encouraged the British public to purchase fresh, seasonal vegetables. "I do the majority of my shopping at the stalls at the farmers' markets," he says. "Once you get into the habit of shopping like that, you don't get out of it really. So luckily I don't really get tempted by all the things that you find in the supermarkets. Occasionally I get tempted by that kind of stuff and pick them up but often they are very disappointing."

While he resists buying watery Moroccan strawberries in the height of winter, there are some imported goods that Slater cannot do without. "I occasionally get criticised for talking about mangoes, pineapples and all those kinds of things," he says. "But there are whole cultures that sell that stuff, it's essential for their economies. And I'm not sure if I want to go through my life without eating a mango again. If I can buy something that is locally grown then I will choose that over something that is imported but I don't want to live without lemons or pomegranates."

As expat Kiwi chef Peter Gordon has highlighted, the collective carbon footprint of the various elements that go into some locally produced British goods is sometimes greater than that of its imported equivalents - like Anchor butter. And despite what was claimed in a British butter advertising campaign fronted by John Lydon [formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols], Anchor butter is transported by sea, not air.

"Somebody recently pointed that out to me and I was quite surprised to find that was the case," says Slater. "There's this idea that everything comes here on a dedicated plane but it doesn't always work like that, sometimes it comes on a ship that was coming here anyway." Slater is a big fan of Peter Gordon and his unique fusion style of cooking. "I remember when Peter first started cooking here, as his food was so extraordinary. He changed London restaurants almost overnight. Suddenly everybody wanted to do what he was doing because it was so exciting."

Slater has never visited New Zealand but is keen to try some of the country's produce, like kumara. "I would love to have put more things like that in the book," he says. "Vegetables that I haven't grown that are quite unusual and that people don't really know about. But I had to draw the line somewhere before the book got to 1000 pages.

Certainly you can grow the classic sweet potato here, although I've never done it." Slater originally intended to publish Tender in one complete volume but as the size of the manuscript expanded, he split it in half. The second instalment, dedicated to fruit, will appear late this year. "When it became clear that it had to be two books, I put those chapters to one side until I'd finished the first part so a lot has already been written," he says.

"It's mostly about what I grow, so there won't be any lemons or oranges. It will mostly be the soft fruits and tree fruits that I grow in my garden. Like the first book, it's growing and growing. It started out as a much smaller book but I can't stop writing it." And it won't just be full of desserts. "There are lots of main courses in there as well," says Slater.

"But I'm not overly fond of too many fruits with meat and would never put fruit into a recipe for the sake of it, so it tends to be classic recipes that the fruit is going into. There are a lot of puddings and a lot of baking." Slater doesn't expect you to keep your copy of Tender in pristine condition. "I'm not that precious about books," he laughs.

"I tend to use them. Some people might raise an eyebrow at the state of some of my cookbooks but in a way they're written to be used. But it's like a piece of furniture, it's that first mark on a new book that is a problem but after that you just think, 'oh well'

* Tender (Fourth Estate $59.99)

- NZ Herald

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