I am sitting with Nigel Slater in The Other Naughty Piglet, a bustling London restaurant packed with early evening diners.
We’re enjoying a tapas meal that includes linguine with cured egg yolk, and roast cod with buttermilk and shredded mushrooms. It’s the kind of delicious, creative cooking you might associate with one of the nation’s most recognisable (and best loved) food writers and broadcasters.
Though he’s certainly not a snob when it comes to food. “The other night I ate some cold pizza, and it wasn’t even good pizza, but it was so delicious,” he says. “I don’t drink a lot but I’d had a bit to drink and it was just enough that meant cold pizza was good.” The foodie revelations don’t stop there. “A couple of times a year I have a Big Mac... It’s the right food at the right moment,” he says.
Food is at the heart of Slater’s life. He’s been food columnist for The Observer for the past 26 years and his TV programmes, such as Simple Cooking and Dish of the Day, as well as his best-selling books – his latest, Greenfeast, came out in May – have made him a household name.
His moving memoir, Toast, has also been adapted for the stage and is enjoying a successful West End run at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Other Palace, downstairs from the restaurant where we’re eating.
The play recreates suburban England in the 1960s, with Slater’s childhood told through the tastes and smells he, and many in the audience, grew up with. It’s written by Henry Filloux-Bennett, the new chief executive at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, where the play will be heading next month before going to York’s Theatre Royal later this autumn.
Toast is all about Slater falling in love with food before he embarked on a career as a chef. As it turned out, though, it was a short-lived career. “I ended up writing about it because the thing I set my heart on, which was being a chef and which I’d trained to do, I realised I wasn’t very good at,” he says. “I felt uncomfortable and I hated dressing up every day in ridiculous chef’s whites and hated having only Mondays off, and I thought ‘this isn’t for me.’”
It was while training as a pastry chef at The Box Tree in Ilkley back in the 70s that he decided he no longer wanted to work in a professional kitchen. He’d gone because he was, as he puts it, “chasing stars” (Michelin ones that is). “It was a fabulous restaurant. At the time it was probably the most famous restaurant outside London. There was Le Gavroche, The Waterside Inn at Bray and there was The Box Tree, and I thought it was going to be all sweetness and people making nice little things to eat, but it was a harsh kitchen.”
Slater is quick to point out that it was a kitchen of its time and isn’t like that today, but after three months he quit. “It was the restaurant that made me decide I didn’t want to be a chef. I literally ran away from it. I was due at work at two o’clock in the afternoon and at eight o’clock that morning I was already on a train secretly with my suitcase going down to Cornwall.”
He ended up working front of house at a restaurant and it was there that his career took an unexpected turn. “One day one of our customers asked me if I knew anyone who could help her test recipes for a magazine she was launching and I told her I didn’t but said I could test recipes. So she gave me a load to test and I wrote my notes down and she liked them and asked if I would write some recipes for her, and that’s how it started.”
Slater was born in 1958 and grew up in the Midlands and was drawn towards cooking from an early age. “There was a point in my life where I realised that yes, I liked eating, and yes, food is a way of saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I care about you,’ but also food is a hook – I watched my stepmother [Joan] catch my father like a fish through food – and also it can be used as a weapon with the fights between Joan and myself.”
He says the food scene in Britain today is unrecognisable from when he was growing up. “If I think of the food of my childhood and the food in Toast, even 20 years ago it was pretty mundane and pretty dull, but now, at last, we can have pretty much whatever we want.
“When I was a child I don’t think I could ever imagine how exciting food could be in this country. It’s so international and inclusive, you can taste anything from anywhere.”
On his website, Slater describes himself as a “cook who writes”. His recipes are unfussy and his simple, yet evocative books are beautifully written.
If he became a writer by chance then his move into TV was another happy accident. “I never really meant to do television. I always said I wasn’t going to do it and then I got talked into it by the head of Channel 4,” he says.
“The people who do it well, like Nigella [Lawson] and Nadiya Hussain, they do it so beautifully it’s very difficult to do it as well as they do it, and I felt I wanted to tell a bigger story than just cooking. I wanted there to be a reason and a story there and that’s why I do what I do and why we devise these difficult programmes because I want them to tell a story.”
One of the most fascinating was his brilliant Middle East mini-series where he cooked and ate with families from Lebanon, Turkey and Iran. “The minute you get out a camera and you’re with a film crew in Iran you attract a lot of attention and there are some people who don’t want you there, and some of our filming was a little bit covert. But the people we were filming with, who invited us into their homes, I can’t tell you the generosity and hospitality they showed us. We were able to tell a story that nobody had really got to do before because food opens doors, it really does.”
The three-part series proved particularly popular with his fans. “I got off a plane at Heathrow a few months ago and I came out with my suitcase and a woman suddenly dropped her case and came running over and hugged me and said, ‘thank you for doing that programme on Iran, thank you so much.’ It seemed to really touch people.”
Is he still as passionate about food today as he was as a young teenager trying to create the perfect lemon meringue pie? “Probably even more so. Partly because food is more interesting now but also I think time spent eating is time spent well. You’re either looking after yourself, or you’re looking after someone else and you’re sharing food. I love sharing food with people.”
Food has the ability to bring people together – perhaps even our fractious politicians. “When I look at some of the summits and important meetings going on, I often think ‘someone should bring out some crumpets...’”
Toast is on at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, from August 19 to 24, and York Theatre Royal, from November 18 to 23.