Right this second, somewhere in Highbury, there’s a man getting up close and very personal with a marrow. He’s passing it from hand to hand, impressed by the sheer heft of the specimen he’s come across. Bringing it towards his face he begins to inhale deeply, the very essence of the oversized vegetable flowing directly into his bloodstream. A broad grin creaks its way across his face.
That man is Nigel Slater, the undisputed king of British cooking.
Slater, a sort of anti-Heston in terms of his devotion to subtlety and simplicity, stands alone in the televisual landscape. Not as homely as the Hairy Bikers, nor as boorish as John Torode, our Nige doesn’t easily slide into Saturday Kitchen chumminess in the way that other chefs might. He’s too timid to be squeezed into a rugby shirt and thrust into the beating heart of the Omelette Challenge. Similarly, not even Jorge Luis Borges’ himself had the imaginative ability to convincingly conjure up the image of Nigel putting the finishing touches to a gammon, peach, and lentil salad in the Sunday Brunch breakfast bar while Tim Lovejoy and guest host June from Gogglebox quiz him about Top of the Lake and whether he remembers to drive on the right side of the road when he caravans on the continent.
Since debuting on our screens in 1998’s Channel 4-screened Nigel Slater’s Real Food, this quiet—and quietly sensual—man has casually climbed his way to the top of the culinary pole, helped by a charming screen presence, a sense of natural ease in front of the stove, and essential cookbooks like Eat, Appetite, and the luminous, peerless, life-changing Kitchen Diaries series.
A large part of Slater’s appeal lies in him being a prime example of the divide between the ‘cook’ and the ‘chef’. The chef, in the popular imagination at least, is the swaggering bollock stomping through kitchens, his bloodied whites billowing in the sweary-breeze. He – and the telly ‘chef’ is pretty much only ever a he – manages his kitchen with brute force. He is Vince McMahon, Andy McNabb and Brian Pumper rolled into a big bollocking machine armed with a set of knives and a perverse desire to only ever be referred to as “CHEF, YES CHEF.”
Think about Nigel Slater, with his soothing voice, nice hair, and his thick jumpers. Do you visualise a walking erection bellowing in a child’s face about underdone kohlrabi? No, didn’t think so. That’s because Nigel is very much a cook. Simply put, he’s a man who adores food in a way that doesn’t reduce it to baseless chest-beating competition— he cooks with his heart, not his cock.
You need more than niceness, that most arbitrary of value judgements, to be a TV top dog though. Tom Kerridge is nice. Madhur Jaffrey is nice. Plain white rice is nice enough too, but you’d never want to consume it night in, night out, would you? What, then, sets the speccy sod apart from the rest of the pack? There answer is simple: underneath that tasteful turtleneck lies the beating heart of a man who loves food a little too much.
Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that Mr Slater has ever done anything untoward involving melons, spelt, or a net of easy-peelers, but he definitely has an air of carnality about him. Watching him stroll through his lovely North London house, caressing freshly beheaded bunches of herbs, is like watching the start of one of those plot-centric soft-focus porn films, only the shagging is replaced with Slater getting hot and bothered in front of a steaming pot of beef broth, his nostrils flaring as he strives to take in as much of the scent as possible, like a tender lover on a summer’s morning. The money shot comes when Nigel finally plates up the kind of dish that you know you could actually cook for yourself if you bothered to give it a go. He lets us indulge in our own culinary narcissism; watching Nigel Slater cook lamb filled sweet potatoes is a bit like wanking over your own sex tape. But with a presumably tastier outcome.
That passion is invigorating—it's like watching a strangely sexy librarian fingering his way through the dewy decimal system, stopping occasionally to bury his head deep inside the pages of an improbably dense account of Polynesian trading laws. Nigel licks spoons, sucks fingers, peers over the round frames of his signature set of spectacles and smirks, his face a portrait of unbridled pleasure. Can you imagine Rick Stein doing those things? Or Galton Blackiston? Has Marcus Wareing ever come close to looking like he enjoys life in any way at all? No, no, and no again.
Other, lesser, chefs turn cooking into a torturous battle-of-wits, as though the fate of the country rests on their ability to prepare a tagine. Frenetic close-ups snap back-and-forth between chef, tagine, the beads of sweat forming on their brow, the stirring of the vegetables, the yanking of the oven door and the urgent thrusting of the dish, the unnecessary exhale of relief. It’s cooking-as-bomb-defusal. It’s stressful and it’s loveless.
Nigel Slater is a sort of pervy greengrocer you never knew you needed in your life, and he makes cooking seem like the most enjoyable thing in the world. That, surely, is the highest accolade you can award to anyone who makes a living from being able to speak at the same time as pushing courgettes around a pan. God bless him.