A Toast to Nigel Slater

By Cathrin Schaer

A movie about celebrated food writer Nigel Slater's childhood looks at the connection between food and emotion.

Nigel Slater's award-winning memoir, Toast, has been made into a feature film about the famous food writer's childhood. Photo / Supplied
Nigel Slater's award-winning memoir, Toast, has been made into a feature film about the famous food writer's childhood. Photo / Supplied

If your lover likes to throw together a stir-fry on the spur of the moment, does this mean they're wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am in bed? If they're inclined to get all creative with that fry-up, tossing strange herbs and unusual spices into the mix, does this mean they want to engage in odd erotic antics? Because after all, there is a connection between food and sensuality.

British food writer and culinary celebrity Nigel Slater once said that "people who are good cooks are often good in bed". And Slater, who doesn't give a lot of interviews, at the time of writing is helping to promote a film about his childhood. Called Toast it's based on his award-winning 2005 memoirs with the same name and it delves deep into the links between love and edibles. So, yes, who better to ask about the connection between sex and food?

"Did I say that?," a bemused Slater retorts, looking just a tiny bit uncomfortable as he leans back on plush upholstery in one of Berlin's finest hotels, the Adlon Kempinski.

Toast is being screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and this meeting is taking place in the lobby bar, which, in the original hotel, was frequented by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin. "Actually," he says, "you're the second person to have asked me that today."

Slater is tired. He caught an early flight from London yesterday to make it to Berlin for the film's screening and last night he confesses to gatecrashing the party for The King's Speech - one of the stars of that film, Helena Bonham Carter, also stars in Toast.

And even though, at this very moment, he cannot remember exactly when he made that comment about food and bed, Slater's standing by it. "I do think there's a sensitivity connection. Food is a very sensual thing anyway. But I also think there's a certain sensitivity required, that whole thing about the feel of the food in your hand, the way it feels in your mouth. It's soft and warm and it makes you feel good," he laughs a little, at his own risque descriptions. "So yes," he concludes, "I do think food is a very sensual thing and there is a sexual component. I'd love to think that if you're a good cook, you're good in bed but I don't know if that's always true. Dream on, Nigel!" Slater laughs again, before adding that, "I think there are plenty of terrible cooks who are probably good shags too."

Slater knows all this because he has - both unintentionally and on purpose - been looking into the connection between food and emotion for years. A meal has always been so much more for him - which is partially what Toast is about. The much-awarded food writer, who has been the British Observer newspaper's food writer since 1993, has two magazine columns, several television series and more than a dozen books to his credit, lost his mother when he was nine. His father, apparently a cold, very proper and occasionally violent man, remarried and Slater and his new stepmother appear to have battled it out in the kitchen for the man of the house's affection.

Which brings us back to sex and, in a roundabout way, to marshmallows. According to Slater, a marshmallow is "the nearest food to kissing someone". In his memoirs, it was his father, struggling after Slater's mother's death from asthmatic complications, who places a marshmallow on his son's pillow. In the movie, it is Slater himself who places a marshmallow next to his deceased mother's portrait. "You sometimes have to tweak things for the story," Slater notes. "But I think the connection is still there."

Speaking of tweaking, when the film was released in Britain there was some controversy around exactly how evil Slater's stepmother was. In the film, she's played by Bonham Carter as a slovenly minx, a rather common woman who always had a fag in her mouth and who left her own family to join Slater's dad. It is even implied that his father's untimely death from a heart attack was brought about because his stepmother over-fed Slater senior.

Slater's step-sisters, who are much older than him and with whom he had almost no contact for many years, complained to The Daily Mail newspaper that the film portrayed their "dear mother as a tart", saying "if she'd been alive to see the book and the film, it would have killed her".

Asked about this today in Berlin, Slater isn't particularly apologetic. "It's not a documentary," he replies. "In a film, you heighten a character to make them more interesting. Of course, her hair wasn't that blonde and her heels weren't that high. But she did used to swear more," Slater muses.

"After seeing the film a number of people have told me they have sympathy for her [the stepmother character]. So I feel it's a fair portrayal."

He also adds the newspaper story featuring his estranged stepsisters had implied his father had known the stepmother while his own mum was still alive. "So she was with my father while my mother lay dying? I'm sorry, I don't know about that. That was quite a shock to me," he says, somewhat pained. "But I also feel they possibly didn't mean it to come out like that. It may have been the way the story was written."

Unlike many of his culinary contemporaries, Slater has been relatively low-key in terms of media exposure. He freely admits that talking about his private life takes him out of his "comfort zone" but that he feels promoting this film is worth it. Not that he is disparaging of other, better known kitchen table luminaries.

"People like Jamie Oliver, they are high-profile and they do things to raise that profile. They work at their brand and that's great because it gives people pleasure, it inspires people. And I can't pretend I haven't got a brand, I know I have. And I have had plenty of opportunities to do Nigel Slater saucepans and so on. But I've said no to that. It might sound contrived but I don't feel comfortable with it. I tend to fly under the radar more." Slater contends.

He explains that he has great agents but that they know how far he will go and what he won't do. Judging by the character in the film, by the firm attitude he has toward marketing himself and even by the wily way he steers this interview back toward the film he is promoting, beneath Slater's genial, sociable exterior, lies not just a talent but also a steely will.

Slater has said before that his success is partially attributable to being in the right place at the right time. But it must have been more than that. When his father died, a teenaged Slater flew from his now-even-unhappier family life and moved to the big city where he started working in various upmarket, professional kitchens. A regular customer at a London cafe he was working in was setting up a magazine and asked him to check some recipes - which is how his writing career began. However, he is not what you would call your traditional celebrity chef. He prefers to cook alone (as opposed to a big, busy restaurant kitchen) and his writing and recipes are often praised for their down-to-earth qualities. As one American interviewer commented: "His cookbooks are straightforward and unpretentious. Slater believes in pared-down, flavourful recipes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, and in his way, he has rescued British cuisine from its notoriously bad reputation."

Slater likes the idea that he might have had some influence on the way people eat. For one thing, working on a film in which everyone was obsessed with food, the director S.J. Clarkson, went so far as to bake for her crew. "And Helena [Bonham Carter] made lemon meringue pie," Slater says. "We also taught her to use a Hoover," he jokes.

But of course, Slater has also had impact on a nation of chip-munching pint-drinkers. "I'd like to think I have encouraged people not to be so uptight, to have a go and not to be so scared. If you're hungry and there's food in the fridge, you'll sort it out," he says. After all, another of this cook's most memorable quotes, which British newspapers have chosen to re-publish goes like this: "Sometimes I think 'f*** it' and just make myself a bowl of plain steamed rice".

When you come from New Zealand, it's hard to imagine anyone taking offence at such a down-to-earth attitude, or even, an innovative mixture of ingredients. But if you've lived in Britain you know that, despite any modern denials, a class system still affects the way people treat each other there. And the same stuffy conservatism has had an ongoing impact on the way Britons treat their dinners. There are still some folk who get upset if one dares to ladle soup out of a bowl the wrong way; they're likely to be the one to reject "foreign muck" at tea times.

Interestingly, Slater thinks that food fiddlers from New Zealand and Australia have also played a part in helping their former colonisers chill out at mealtimes. "We take on a lot of cooks from abroad [in Britain]. It used to be Americans but at the moment the London restaurant scene is filled with Australians and New Zealanders," Slater says. "And," he continues, "I think we really get something from that, I think they [the travelling cooks] leave something behind. They're very fusion-oriented and they've encouraged us to eat a little more lightly and little fresher.

"Peter Gordon actually did one of two dishes that I would take to a desert island: this wonderful chilli and scallop dish that he does with creme fraiche.

"Food used to be something to be uptight about but we've loosened up and British food has become more sensual, we have lost a lot of our inhibitions," Slater continues. "We've started to realise that the rules are there for breaking and that it is not wrong to find pleasure in food.

"Did you know," he says, lowering his voice in a mock whisper, "that I was brought up not to talk about food at the table?"

Happily for the rest of us, this is clearly no longer a problem.

* Toast the movie is due for release in New Zealand later this year.

- NZ Herald

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