Mary Wakefield meets Nigella Lawson and finds that she is friendly, confident, beautiful — but nervous with it
In a window-seat at the far end of the bar in the Rib Room of the Carlton Tower Hotel, Nigella Lawson, dressed in black, sits waiting for me. The lighting is mellow, the seats leather and her eyes modestly downcast. If she were auditioning for the part of Anna Karenina, there would be no contest. It seems a great waste that instead of Vronsky, she gets me, struggling to free myself from my anorak.
We shake hands over the salted cashew nuts and get off to a rocky start. ‘I’m not quite sure why I’m doing this interview,’ she says.
If I wasn’t already so fascinated I might be a little hurt, but Nigella, close-up, is riveting. I know she’s 43 — the cuttings say so, and on television, in her kitchen, this isn’t impossible to believe: she’s bosomy and knowing with a hint of the Wife of Bath about the mouth. In the flesh, she looks 25. I was expecting wrinkles, oven-burns, perhaps even a glob of whipped cream stuck to her chin. Instead Nigella is flawless and poreless with a clear, earnest, public-school voice. It’s difficult, then, to know what manner to adopt. Are we two girls having a drink or should I treat her with the deference due to one so famous that she is known nationwide by just her Christian name?
I try friendly first: You were invited to cook lunch for George Bush, during his visit. How exciting! What was he like?
‘Who knows, these are not real encounters.’ Nigella shrugs. ‘I just said hello to him.’ Is he attractive? I ask. ‘He’s very hearty. Not my type but then I didn’t expect to find him madly attractive. I don’t go for cowboys.’ Oh come on, you must have been a bit pleased to meet him. ‘Well — I liked the secret service guys. This huge black guy came thundering up to me and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, you have a thread” and removed a piece of fluff from my arm. That was quite thrilling.’ She laughs. But George Bush, I persist, although I can see that I’m being a bore. He’s the most powerful person in the world. Weren’t you curious? Nigella looks over my left shoulder, out into the empty bar. ‘Actually I thought about turning it down.’
Nigella is not like us. Not just because she is famous, a television presenter (Nigella Bites!), a writer (How to Eat, How to be a Domestic Goddess) and the new wife of the art dealer Charles Saatchi, but because she is tapped into an underground lake of self-confidence shut off from the rest of humanity. When I bring up the accusation, aired at great length in the Mail on Sunday, that although Nigella took the credit, all the work for the presidential lunch was done by a chef called Alison Price, she looks not embarrassed but exasperated. ‘I was only ever asked to devise the menus. I was never going to cook. I am not,’ she says, looking me in the eye, ‘a caterer.’
Despite her self-assurance, Nigella is not cold; she is friendly and focused. But she does not come across as especially relaxed. Her voice is hurried and her hands move constantly, wringing each other and touching her face. We talk about her childhood: ‘I don’t remember a great deal about being a child.’ She pauses, resting her chin on her fist. ‘Well, I suppose I hated it, but then I don’t think the condition of childhood is essentially enjoyable, do you?’
No treehouses then? Gymkhanas? Kite-flying with brother Dominic (editor of the Sunday Telegraph)? ‘I didn’t do anything like that. I was melancholy, I read books. I was quite precocious, though,’ says Nigella, suddenly smiling. ‘I wrote a story when I was nine about two terrapins on the train discussing the meaning of life.’
It is still words, not ingredients, that really interest Nigella. ‘It intrigues me to try to find the language to describe tastes and textures,’ she says. ‘I always thought I wanted to be a novelist. I did write a novel when I was 12! Then I wrote How to Eat