Wolverhampton-born Nigel Slater, cook, author, columnist and broadcaster, returned to the city to be presented with his honorary degree. He tells WLVdialogue about his remarkable career and memories of growing up in the city.
Nigel Slater’s recent BBC show Simple Suppers took everyday ingredients, including leftovers, and turned them into tempting but easy to accomplish meals.
The classic cook’s back to basics approach shows that a great dish doesn’t have to be complicated. While many modern chefs strive to create unusual new flavour combinations, Nigel firmly believes tried and tested always works best.
“I think every recipe has been imagined,” he says. “We are now going back on ourselves. “For me, cookery writing is about what you know and are comfortable with, but putting a slightly different slant on it. I think very traditionally about cooking; I’ve never done the wacky stuff.”
Nigel was brought up in Wolverhampton and was delighted to receive an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University’s School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure in recognition of his many achievements.
Accepting his award at the Grand Theatre, where he fondly remembers watching the annual pantomime as a child, he told graduates: “Don’t limit your horizons.”
He thanked his junior school teacher Philip Staley for inspiring his love of words and said:
“He encouraged me to understand the joy of words on the page, both reading them and, later, writing them.”
Nigel began cooking at an early age and it was his careers teacher who suggested he pursue it as a vocation.
“I remember him looking at my results and saying: ‘Have you ever thought about going into catering?’.”
He adds: “Catering was what you did if you were not very academically well off. The thinking was that you would always have a job and you’ll always eat. It was very different back then.”
He worked in various restaurants from the age of 16 before moving to London, becoming a recipe tester and a cook for food photography.
In 1988, he joined Marie Claire magazine as the food editor and by 1993 he was writing about food in a column for the Observer’s Life magazine. He became the principal writer for the Observer Food Monthly supplement and his first book, Real Fast Food, sold over a million copies.
Yet he insists much of his career has been a “happy accident”.
“It’s the most extraordinary thing,” he says. “It’s so easy to go through life saying you can’t do something, but really you can.
“When you say ‘yes’ to things, life becomes easier. I thought I couldn’t write a book, but I got pushed and we came up with the idea for Real Fast Food.”
He remembers Mr Staley encouraging him to write when he was at Woodfield Avenue Junior School in Wolverhampton.
“He was very important to me because he got me reading and writing. I was practically allergic to poetry before he came along.”
The teacher must have spotted some star potential in Nigel which made him hold on to his work. Just two years ago, he sent his former pupil a package with an essay he had written about a cat and a drawing he had done of his house.
“I was so thrilled to get it; it was a joy to receive,” he says.
Mr Staley was also there for Nigel when, aged just nine, his mother passed away.
“When my mother died, he was the teacher who had to deal with the stuff teachers don’t think they’ll have to deal with when they go into it. His support was incredible.
“I remember turning up for school not in uniform because my dad didn’t know how to do the washing.” Mr Staley just took him to one side and explained that he understood but that it would have to be sorted out soon.
Nigel has written movingly of growing up in Wolverhampton in his frank, bestselling autobiography Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, which focuses on his love of food, his childhood and his family relationships. While he thought his mother disliked cooking, he has since realised it was her illness taking its toll and that she was trying to protect him from the truth.
“Mum was a family cook. I thought she didn’t like cooking but I didn’t know she was very poorly and it was exhausting for her.”
He rarely returns to Wolverhampton but he and his brother came back to the city a few years ago when their last remaining relative there died.
“We went to look at our old house. It was exactly the same, even with the same privet hedge.”
They didn’t feel they could ask to go in but some time later the owners got in touch and invited him to come and look round. He did this as part of a TV show, ‘Eating With...’, tracing his childhood and examining how food changed his life. Relishing the opportunity to revisit his old home, he was astounded that the cupboards his father had made were still there intact, more than 30 years later. The memories came flooding back.
“It was a place that had been very happy but became very sad after my mother died,” he says. “That doesn’t mean my memories of Wolverhampton are sad. As you get older it’s the good bits you remember most; all the bad stuff goes into one lump and doesn’t really matter any more.”
Nigel considers himself lucky to have a career he enjoys so much and still loves writing his Observer column. He said receiving his honorary award was: “the icing on my little cake”.
He modestly maintains that he is an amateur cook but the phenomenal success of his books means his place in the nation’s kitchens should never be underestimated.
As the University’s new semester is underway, some students may be faced with the prospect of cooking for the first time. For them, or anyone who doesn’t know their pots from their pans, Nigel dispenses this advice:“Stick a chicken in the oven. It really can’t go wrong and you can use the leftover bones to make soup afterwards.”
True to the ethos of the simple suppers which are the trademark of this traditional but inspirational cook.
For more information on Nigel’s work visit: www.nigelslater.com