Monday, October 10, 2011

Interview with Nigel Slater

Nigel Slater is a cook and food writer from England who has written extensively for magazines and newspapers and is author of nine cookbooks. The film based on his autobiography Toast is being released in theaters in the US this month. It features a very strong cast which includes Helena Bonham Carter as his stepmother.

In anticipation of the film, I got a chance to speak with him about his autobiography, the film, his passion for gardening (the subject of his most recent book Tender) and the food writers who influenced him the most when he was growing up.

Your autobiography Toast was intimately revealing. What inspired you to write it?
I wrote the book because I wanted to record the food of the 60's and 70's, the food I ate at home, not "cheffy" food. It turned out each food had a story, it was a collection of diary entries. As a child I knew there was exciting cooking out there, but I wasn't having it. Because academically I didn't do very well, it seemed to work well to go into cooking college and it was there I discovered the pleasures of cooking and eating, that food is a good and happy thing. Sadly that discovery wasn't until I was in my dark teens. It's the germ of a love story. Young Nigel became a different person.

I was and still am a very private person, I'd never talked much about my private life. I do not know why I let it get so intimate. I stopped writing at one point and thought no one would be interested. But it was an extraordinary thing to do and it turns out a lot people do relate to it. I've protected myself by stopping the book at age 18.

Would you ever consider writing a sequel?
I don't think I would do a sequel because it would include people who are alive.

How were you involved in the making of the movie?
I wasn't going to be involved at all, but when I met the director, I realized I was going to be drawn in whether I liked it or not. I didn't get involved in the screenplay but I did go up on set and seemed to show up on the most emotional scenes. When you hear it through headphones it's so loud it really hit home. The mother dying scene was very emotional.

Which affected you more, the book or the film?
I shed tears over both the film and the book, I'm very much a book person, it's difficult to say which is more cathartic, and I realize there were things I never did. The book was most cathartic but the film was the icing on the cake.

Under the covers at night you read cookbooks by flashlight. Which cookbook authors and food writers influenced you most?
Early on I was influenced by Margaret Costa. It was sort of bistro cooking which represented something very rich. A lot of people don't know her. I certainly read, but didn't warm to Elizabeth David. I read Jane Grigson too, though some of her recipes seem a little dated today. I also enjoyed Constance Spry, she started the Cordon Bleu, her writing has an elegance to it. The first TV cook I saw was Graham Kerr who changed everything in England.

Lemon meringue pie features prominently in the book and the movie. Can you tell me more about it?
The best lemon meringue pie I ever had was my stepmother's and I never got her recipe. It's the elusive recipe that I value above all others. I've never been able to duplicate it.

In the film the food was highlighted, the colors were almost washed out and then the food was colored so it sang out. It made the food to be the star of the film. That made me very happy.

In the book you form a friendship with the gardener, did that inspire your love of gardening and the book Tender?
There was something about growing things, with the gardener, but in later years I also gardened with my father. I grew carrots and I got this gardening bug. You never forget the first time a seed you plant grows. I knew one day I wanted a garden. When I bought my house in London I turned down buying several places because there was no patch for a garden. Gardening is connected to happy and carefree moments for me. When I'm in the garden I'm disconnected, I don't even take my mobile (cell phone).

Will there be a sequel to Tender?
Yes, it will be a book on fruit.

SPOILER ALERT! Skip this if you have not read the book or don't want to know how the movie ends...

At the end of the movie you leave your stepmother and never see her again. Is that the way it really happened?
I lived with my stepmother for a few weeks and I knew she wasn't going to stay in the house. I'd escaped from the Midlands and that's where she wanted to return, it's where her family was. The idea of London was exciting. I'm amazed that I had the strength to leave. I realized that there was no hope for that relationship. In retrospect I would have loved to put things right with her.

For more on the film visit the Toast Facebook page or follow on Twitter @Toastfilm