Let me start by saying that, in many ways, I am a disciple of Nigel Slater. His first few books form the cornerstone, I am certain, of many a Guardian-reading, provenance-tracking home cook’s repertoire just as they do for mine. His early Observer columns and books pitched an inclusive style of robust, approachable cookery that felt genuinely liberating. Superficially similar to Jamie Oliver’s ‘Just bosh a pukka handful of well lush coriander in’ bollocks, Slater’s approach was more pragmatic, preferring to let the cook find their own taste. His ‘real fast food’ ideas pre-dated and outclassed Jamie’s well-marketed (but, for me, overly complex) 30/15 Minute Meals. Nigel Slater led me out of the wilderness of student cookery and into the bold, complex, exciting world of grown-up food. It’s just, well…
In 1998, Channel 4 – sensing his appeal to their then-audience – gave Slater his first TV show, Real Food. It still knocks about on the specialist cookery channels from time to time, offering a glimpse into the past. Nigel cuts a portly and uncomfortable figure in front of the camera; shirt never tucked in, glasses round and spoddy, hair furring his head like moss on a menhir. He shambles around his IKEA-showhome kitchen waxing lyrical about parsnips and the like, and then from time to time his buddies show up. Peter Gordon is my favourite, mumbling coyly about fusion cookery. A bossy Nigella Lawson makes her TV debut, looking unkempt and somehow older than she does now, almost 15 years later. Only Alastair Little and Rowley Leigh come across well, seeming like a great bunch of lads. I’d quite like to see Little and Leigh in a sitcom, a sort of affable cross between Bottom and The Good Life.
There was something unsettling about his show, even then, some hint at what he was to become. The director obviously has to shoulder some responsibility for this. Or, come to think of it, perhaps the use of sexytime jazz when Slater describes mashing pliable, innocent garlic into a salty paste or dipping a gently-boiled Jersey potato through the yielding flesh of a baked Camembert could be an intentional, desperate warning? His descriptions pass beyond even Nigella’s increasingly strained, knowing innuendo and into the arena of erotic desire. Whether this was just an innocent lust for food or something more troubling is, of course, something on which I can only speculate wildly and libellously. Either way, the television world, shaken by the image of a butternut squash as an object of lust, kept him off our screens until 2007.
Nigel’s low-key return to television, A Taste of My Life, in which celebrities would sit in a darkened room and discuss food that was in some way significant in their personal history, showcased a new and increasingly important aspect of Slater’s cooking philosophy – the idea that certain types of food are innately important to one’s character. While the guests were encouraged to attempt a bit of cookery here and there, it often felt more like a sinister psychotherapy session, with Nigel an uncomfortable, stilted interviewer seemingly unable to attribute personal character to anything other than comestibles. Sure, it would have been great for him to get Proust in to chat about madeleines, but he didn’t; he got John Barrowman talking about banana cake. Which is, to be fair, a deeply erotic premise. I still can’t buy into Nigel’s obsession with foods of his youth, though, even if it is a preoccupation shared by Heston Blumenthal. Tastes are set when you are young, I get that, but nostalgia for the food eaten in your childhood shouldn’t be so fetishised especially as, by its very nature, it is a deeply personal thing not everyone shares. What looked from a distance like a restless inventiveness is starting to take shape as a quest to recreate lost foods for an adult audience. The culinary equivalent of wearing a onesie (in the case of Heston, a onesie that looks like a space-tiger made of tiramisu-scented gas, but still).
His books, just so you get a complete picture here, veered the same way. I’ve stopped reading them by now, but every so often my wife will read out a particularly oleaginous passage. From what I gather, he didn’t much like his step-mother. You know what, Nige, mate, that’s fine, just… leave it out of the cookbooks, ok? You don’t cook eggs because of the ones you were given in childhood? Whatever, no need to make such a bloody performance. Simply omit egg recipes from your books and literally no-one will notice.
Clearly A Taste of My Life was well-received enough to qualify Nigel for a series in which he actually did some cookery, rather than agree limply with a celebrity on the promotional trail who honestly couldn’t give an oven-baked fuck about food. Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers took us back into the kitchen, for which we should have been grateful. Look, now, at the new, improved Nigel Slater. Gone is the 90s beard and close-cut hair, the slobbish physique and anonymous clothes. In their place is a man with tumbling curtains of hair framing his rumpled face and wannabe-iconic rectangular hipster-specs. His clothes, while maybe not suiting a man in his 50s, are at least put-together looking. The name was no accident, either, ‘supper’ being one of Slater’s favourite words. Consciously so, I suspect, because it is a class signifier, evoking the upper middle’s supper clubs and the country suppers of the Chipping Norton Set. Nigel aligning himself with food above the tastes of the common man may not be an explicitly stated aim of his later years, but the implication is there.
The main difference, however, between the host of Nigel Slater’s Real Food and Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers is weight, and the lack thereof. For a man whose solution to so many culinary problems was ‘add butter, or cream, or both’, he wears his skin lightly on his bones. Observe the way he eats – often getting his tongue to the food before his teeth, he bites and chews slowly, deliberately, looking for all the world like a boiled tortoise finding a suspicious lettuce leaf. It resembles a not-dieting-but-totally-dieting technique, in which the dieter is encouraged to enjoy each mouthful to the absolute maximum in the hope that the body will be fooled into believing it has eaten enough within just a few bites. Maybe. I’m not here to judge him on his weight, this isn’t the Daily Mail – but for a man with a professed adoration of food to have such a hard time eating it, well, it raises questions as to his suitability as a guide to gastronomic excellence. After all, the aforementioned Mail’s near-constant scrutiny of Nigella’s dress size is merely their attempt to gauge how well the whole food = happiness = weight equation is working out. Not well, for the case in hand.
Given that, why give him a show about sweets? The recent Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets was billed as a history of sweets and chocolates in Britain, and there was a bit about that. The Rowntree/Nestlé publicity archives were a glimpse into a fun show revelling in confectionery nostalgia. That fun show was not this show. It was doomed from the start, I suppose, the premise requiring someone who could break into childish glee at the sight of a quarter of kola kubes, not a man who doesn’t so much smile as frown upwardly and say ‘Look at that…’ when presented with a liquorice torpedo.
For most of the hour, what Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets was about was Nigel Slater. With the air of a man possessing the belief that he invented the very concept of enjoying sweets as a child, he took us on a personal tour of his life. He ended up chauffeured in a replica of his father’s car to his childhood home, which was no longer in his family. He sat on a stranger’s bed in a room that was once his own, reminiscing sadly about how he believed pink marshmallows left by his bedside to be kisses from his father, if only by proxy. It was a deeply odd moment of television. With anyone else it might have been an affecting scene, but the presence of Nigel simply made it uncomfortable, and the manner in which he described the pillowy pinkness of the marshmallow added a dimension of uncalled-for ickiness.
You see, we’re back to the literal food porn. He is quoted as saying ‘Food is, for me, for everybody, a very sexual thing’. I think I can confidently state that food is not, for me, for everybody else, as sexual as it is for Nigel. His slowness, his reverence before food, his creaking sensuality suggestive of a more than usually literal interpretation of the phrase ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ – it all comes to a head in the current series, Nigel Slater’s Dish of the Day.
The camera tracks Slater through his newly-renovated, frankly gorgeous kitchen and garden, frequently losing focus or darting behind a shrub. The technique is intended to be arty yet comes across part documentary, part slasher flick. The overall impression is that the camera crew may not be so much filming Nigel for a TV show as observing him. Gathering evidence, perhaps. It certainly feels that way when he is shown, say, reaching for a bunch of carrots in a greengrocer’s, slipping a hand up and around them in a manner as appropriate as Freddie Starr giving a schoolgirl a reassuring pat on the knee. In the most recent episode, he gave a pork ragout a look of such tender loving that one can only imagine he was nuts deep in the bowl what happened when the cameras stopped rolling.
Along with ‘supper’, Nigel’s other favourite words are ‘simple’ and ‘humble’ – these are not meant literally, merely as framing devices for a style of cooking built for leisure and a lack of want. Episodes of Dish of the Day will often put an accent on frugality and to this end he will, for example, make the outrageous claim that he is simply using up some old leftovers when he removes from his fridge a chunk of artisan cheese bigger than most of us will see in a lifetime, wrapped in anonymous waxed paper. Brand names are never seen in Slater’s kitchen; even his sunflower oil comes from unlabelled, chunky glass bottles. He must spend a ton of time decanting stuff once the Tesco man has left. In more than one of his books, he describes his garden as ‘tiny’, but shots of it indicate a more apt description of a city garden that size would be ‘massive’. We have a small garden, Nigel, why not come and have a look? You’ll find it doesn’t have space for hedge borders around our herb plots, nor a gate leading on to a second area containing our fucking orchard.
As part of the ‘life in a week’ structure of Dish of the Day, we join Nigel on his weekly shop, him strutting self-consciously to the exclusive purveyors of fancy foodstuffs in his la-di-dah local area – or maybe not so local, given that at one point he was in A Gold’s in Spitalfields, a good few bus rides away from his place in Islington. Here he will have a natural, unforced chat in the breezy manner he honed to perfection in A Taste of My Life – so rather like watching a half-wound gramophone performing badly in a Voight-Kampff test, then.
Later in the same episode, he invites himself to the shop assistant’s house and cooks dinner in their actually tiny kitchen, usually announcing that he loves to poke around people’s kitchen cupboards. God, the dread of that would finish me off, and I would have been scrubbing the shelves and purging the half-used packets of pasta and baking powder weeks in advance. Do we need this OUT OF DATE bottle of Dolmio? What about these tins of Heinz Big Soup? REALLY? NIGEL SLATER WILL BE HERE SOON! I’d burn the kitchen down and Nigel and I would have to cook in a hotel.
Because people with privilege rarely realise it, and it’s even rarer to recognise that the lack of it in others is not a failing. Nigel is and, for all his protestations of being just like you and me, always has been relatively privileged. He believes what he does is sharing; sharing recipes and enthusiasm. He has said this in the show and in his books, but this is another posture. As his suppers are anything but humble, so his idea of sharing is little more than salesmanship. His shows are now boutique delicatessens in televisual form, unapproachable and austere. Gone is the Nigel Slater happy to be forging a media career, yapping through Real Food almost at speed about the indulgent pleasures of food. Now he glides about his beautiful kitchen rustling up aspirational snacks from untouchable ingredients, implicitly insisting on the quality of the food above all else. This might be OK if he was fun to watch – Nigella is even more privileged but allows herself and her audience to be trashy, lazy and indulgent, Heston is beyond impractical for the home but who in God’s name would even try his recipes? And for all that Jamie might lean for his own presentation on his prowess as a chef, he at least understands that people just want a recipe that will work and doesn’t cost too much. Nigel understood that once, publishing books and making TV shows that were economical, light and useful. Now his output is monolithic, self-absorbed and, yes, more than a little bit creepy. Where did it all go wrong for our once-glorious leader?