On-screen, she’s the queen of food porn. But off-screen Nigella Lawson is much messier, grumpier and shyer, she tells Stephen Jewell.
As I arrive for my appointment with Nigella Lawson, I half expect her to be dressed in her finest, most glamorous evening gown. But when she opens the door of her Battersea office, which doubles as the set for her numerous television shows, she is, on this a sunny autumn morning, clad instead in a long black dress, which she describes as "a kind of nightie, more or less".
As we settle down on a couch just metres from the workbench on which she created such delicious delights as peanut butter cheesecake, roast lamb with rosemary and port and the sensuous Slut's Spaghetti for her new book and 13-part television series - respectively, Kitchen: Recipes From the Heart of the Home and Nigella Kitchen, it appears that I am eating marmalade and toast with the real, down-to-earth Lawson and not the larger-than-life, so-called queen of food porn, who first appeared on our screens in 2000's Nigella Bites.
"Television creates a glamour that doesn't really exist," she says between sips of chamomile tea. "On TV, someone does my hair and my makeup but I'm actually quite messy. I should have got dressed properly; I'm quite bad at that. I sometimes panic that when people meet me they'll be disappointed that I'm not who they think I am but I can't spend every minute of the day worrying about whether I've got high-heeled shoes on or if my hair is brushed. It's quite hard. I feel like everything is a tussle between vanity and my laziness and my laziness usually wins out in the end."
As with the likes of Kylie and Britney, Nigella is so ubiquitous that we feel like we are on first name terms with her. But unlike a well-known performer, she insists that she is not assuming a role. "It's different because people often confuse actors with the characters that they play," she reasons. "I don't play a character; I am me. Obviously a better version of me because you don't tend to see me in too much of a bad temper on television although sometimes with my children, I'll snap at them and say 'stop that!' But mostly you're a better version of yourself and that's the trouble because I'm much more bad-tempered in real life."
She frequently suffers from nerves in front of the cameras. "I don't mind it so much when I'm doing a recipe, it's more when I'm doing any filming with other people," she admits. "Having your photograph taken is bad enough, it's even more embarrassing when people are watching. So sometimes when that happens I develop a slight archness, which is something that I do to get over the embarrassment, and I don't like that in myself. I don't watch any of my programmes because I don't want to get self-conscious about seeing myself but people who know me well watch them."
According to Lawson, she has always been misunderstood. She believes that the title of her breakthrough second book How to Be a Domestic Goddess was deliberately misinterpreted when it first appeared in 2000. "How could you look at it and see those pictures of 1940s housewives with their skirts and think that it was meant to be taken straight?" she says with a laugh. "But on the other hand, I did discover baking and I love it. As many men as women buy my books and I don't think cooking is a female preserve. It has been historically and that's why it's been denigrated. Men don't mind being called chefs because they can boss people about and shout at them. But cooking is much more about how life is."
It seems that Lawson's critics don't realise that her tongue is often planted firmly in her cheek.
"I don't say this against journalists because I was a journalist and had I been writing a column when Domestic Goddess came out, I probably would have done the same thing," she says.
"Sometimes one allows oneself to willfully misunderstand something in order to sell more copies. You don't do it on purpose but you see a way in, to say what you want to say. I've got a slightly ironic frame of mind and it's hard to convey that if someone doesn't know how you think. The people who know me through my books have a clearer view of me even though I'm exactly the same person on television. Television does something to you and I just hope people understand that."
The daughter of former Conservative Chancellor Nigel Lawson, Nigella worked as a food columnist and restaurant critic for newspapers like The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph. She became known for writing about dining in "a sensual, touch-it, feel-it way".
The idea for her first book How To Eat occurred to her at a dinner party in which the host was reduced to tears by a creme caramel that refused to set. Packed full of handy preparation advice and time-saving tips, How To Eat has sold over 300,000 copies since it was published in 1998. Not bad for someone who still considers herself an amateur enthusiast.
"I don't like to be called a chef and I'm not really a cook," she says.
"My daughter always gets cross when people refer to me as cook. She says 'I don't understand. You're not a cook, you're a food writer'. I tell her 'it doesn't matter, darling. I love cooking so I don't mind'. It's not an insult to be called a cook but I often worry that it makes people think I'm more proficient than I am. It's like the antithesis of what I do."
Unlike male contemporaries such as Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver, Lawson has no formal training and has never run restaurants.
"One of the nice things about not being a chef, apart from the fact that I couldn't do the hours, is that I don't have to claim to be original and I can use other people's recipes," she says.
"I usually adapt them but I always say who they've come from. I have a nightmare that one of the recipes in the new book was inspired by Nigel Slater but I can't find it anywhere. But if I do, I'll phone him up and apologise for not crediting him."
She has more in common with the Tender author and other journalists-turned-food-scribes like River Cottage founder Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.
"I want to belong to any club that has Nigel in it because I love what he does," she says.
"His food is fantastic and his writing is glorious. It's a very different thing to what someone like Jamie Oliver does. He's great but he wouldn't call himself a writer."
Originally conceived as a social history of the kitchen, Lawson has been planning Kitchen for nearly a decade.
"I realised that I needed to relate it to myself more so I cut a lot of that kind of stuff out," she recalls.
"What really interests me is not the interior design of a kitchen but how you live in a kitchen and how it works. That's why I mention all my clutter. I've ended up with so much stuff that I've bought on eBay or things that the children leave on the fridge. In the end, that's what the kitchen becomes. It doesn't matter if you've got a teeny galley kitchen, you can still cook and talk to people standing up when they come for tea or coffee. It's about what a kitchen represents."
Kitchen combines the quick accessibility of 2007's Nigella Express with the more time-consuming elaborate recipes of How to Eat and Domestic Goddess.
"It's got a bit of everything," she says. "As you add to your repertoire, you think about things in a slightly different way. But I just do what I do; I cook what I cook and I write what I write. I don't think about what I should write in terms of 'where is there a gap in the market?' Obviously you respond to the times in which you write. Express was very much of its time and using leftovers and cheaper, old-fashioned cuts of meat are appropriate for the current financial climate. I didn't intend it to be like that but you can't help but respond to the times in which you live."
Nigella Express was followed by 2008's festive book Nigella's Christmas, which she says was "a romp. It didn't take very long to write as I had all the recipes because I've been cooking at Christmas for a very long time".
Kitchen's development is much harder to quantify.
"It's always difficult to say how long it takes to do a book because the cooking is interwoven with everything else I do in my life," she says.
"I'm often a third of the way through before I actually decide on doing a book. Then I focus on it and spend an awful lot of time not writing it. I always put it off and then the deadline moves closer and closer. But when I do write it, because I'm a journalist by experience, I file like a journalist, sending it in chapter by chapter."
Along with many other popular food writers, Lawson was lambasted in a report last year by a panel of nutritionists and dieticians, who claimed that their recipes contained unacceptably high levels of unhealthy saturated fat. However, Lawson maintains the majority of foodstuffs are fine in moderation.
"I'm not in a position to lecture anyone because it's not an area that I have any proficiency in," she says.
"However, I do think it's more about how you mix things. I couldn't live without vegetables and love to eat and drink pretty much everything except soya milk. But sometimes you just want a fantastic bit of crusty bread and butter. I know that bread-makers are popular in New Zealand and I had one briefly. The great danger with them is you just eat a lot of bread."
But does she rely too much on dairy products like butter, cheese and double cream?
"When you have something like that it will often say you have to put in a quarter of a cup of cream but it feeds six people," says Lawson. "You're having such a small amount and you're not going to cook it that often. Sometimes the cream is optional but it just gives it a different finish. I love buttermilk and coconut milk in things like soup and it's interesting how it's become infused. And I like playing with traditional recipes like my mushy peas, where I use a bit of Thai green curry paste. If you then add some coconut milk, you get a lovely pea soup."
While she is in favour of sustainable farming, Lawson doesn't believe we should feel guilty for occasionally purchasing imported produce.
"It's difficult because we live in a world in which we have to trade," she says. "What feels ridiculous is when you read about something that has gone on a circular trip, which seems unnecessary. It's like dieting; we can't live a perfect life whatever that is. My idea of recycling is using the same ingredients for several meals. That's one of the reasons why cooking feels so good; it makes you feel like you're closer to the earth."
As our hour-long conversation draws to a close, Lawson gives me a copy of her mentor Anna Del Conte's memoir Risotto with Nettles.
"I met her shortly after my own mother died when I was 25," she recalls, referring to her mother Vanessa Salmon, who passed away at 48 years old in 1985 after suffering from liver cancer.
"I've taken a lot from Anna. She's been very important in my life. She's like my food mother. I came across her after reading her book, Entertaining all'Italiana. What I learnt from her, and which I still find useful, is how to construct menus. People think that I don't do that but I did it very much when I did How To Eat. I love her style of writing. She's more of a food historian in the Jane Grigson way, but she's Italian."
It was through Del Conte that she discovered Kitchen's most contentious recipe, spaghetti with marmite.
"She made that for her children," says Lawson.
"I've used a lot of her recipes and she often says to me 'stop crediting me, darling'."
Lawson's mother also plays a part in Kitchen, which features her "Praised Chicken", a classic staple that she has made regularly in the years since her death.
"Poaching and braising is so fantastic because it cooks so fast and tastes so great but it doesn't look like it's meant to," she says.
"I love eating that old-fashioned kind of food. It's a nice feeling, passing food on that way and, of course, I've made changes without thinking because practices change."
Leeks in white sauce is another family favourite.
"My daughter still calls it Pie Insides even though she's now 16," laughs Lawson.
"Those kinds of recipes go out of fashion and nowadays they say you should just steam leeks or cook them in a bit of olive oil. They say 'why are you adding milk?' but in a few years time they'll probably say everyone needs the calcium. And how much is anyone going to eat? You just have a spoonful on your plate. You can't just banish everything from the past."
* Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home ($75, Random) goes on sale this week. Nigella Kitchen screens weekly on Prime from Tuesday, October 26.