How did your childhood experiences growing up in your mother¹s kitchen help develop your own food philosophy? How would you describe your style?
Well, my mother believed in child labor, so from when I was about 5, my mother would prop a rickety chair up against the cooking range and I'd stir pots and pans over a viciously hot stove as directed. You'd probably get taken into social services for doing that now! But the thing is, this way I learned how to cook by instinct. My mother was a very good cook, who never bothered with recipes, just got on with it; I was 15 before I even knew cookbooks existed. This hugely shaped how I feel about cooking. These days, everyone places so much emphasis on virtuoso skills, but what you need is confidence, and that comes from competence. The more you cook, the better you become at it, and what's more, you learn what methods suit you best, and – most important of all – you can learn to trust your palate. That, really, for me is what cooking is about.
What inspired you to join The Taste?
I can't explain: it just felt right. I was frightened to do it, but more frightened of not doing it. That may not sound positive, but I mean it to be. The minute the producers explained the idea of the show to me, I felt I had to be brave and throw myself into it. And I'm so glad I did. It was a great experience.
You've been described as the queen of home cooking and cookbooks, what do you think is special about home cooks?
In a sense, I don't claim that home cooks are special, but that is our virtue. Chefs are special: they are dynamic, creative, explosive. We home cooks have a different kind of motivation for cooking. We're no angels, but I do think there is a basic personality split between the chef and the home cook. The chef tends to be conflict-driven; the home cook conflict-averse. We may fail utterly but I think at our heart is a desire to use food to soothe and create harmony, rather than to excite and bring drama. I have nothing against chefs. As the saying goes, a lot of my best friends are chefs, but I do think it is of the utmost importance not to belittle the home cook. As much as I admire chefs, I would hate to have to duplicate the same recipes day in day out, laboring over a hot stove to make sure everything comes out exact and uniform. Chefs live off the adrenaline of stress and pressure, but I want to enjoy myself in the kitchen, without stress. I love to improvise, to be spontaneous, and actually I am happiest just feeding my family, my friends, and myself. And, at the risk of sounding pretentious (I certainly don't mean to be), I do think home food is real food. Wherever we're from, we all cook in our homes and pass that down the generations. That is the real history of food, and consequently our real history, too.
How did that background influence your approach on The Taste?
Well, I have to admit that I did feel rather intimidated at first, but then I thought – is fear such a bad thing? This programme is called The Taste after all, not “The Technique.” Of course, I admire skills, but for me, food is about what it tastes like, and I wanted to bring the less-jaded palate of the home cook to bear while judging. Professionals can admire novelty over comfort: not me!
You've hosted other TV shows before, what was special about this one? Any challenges?
This was certainly different from anything I've ever done, which is partly why I did it. In some respects it was easier, as there were four of us on the panel sharing the responsibility, rather than just me alone with a camera. In some respects it was harder. It was very far removed from the role I am used to and comfortable with. I would not have entertained the notion of doing any other reality show because I don't believe that cooking is a competitive sport, but I felt (and was proved right) that the emphasis was so much on quality and integrity that the show was a genuinely stimulating experience for mentors and competitors alike.
The greatest challenge was that I was surrounded by testosterone-fuelled competitiveness and a lot of macho fighting talk. Some of it amused me highly, but sometimes it did actually intimidate me. But that's my fault. I don't blame the boys. Indeed, I adore them!
Did being English give you a different point of view? Do you notice any differences between English and American cooks and kitchens?
Because Ludo is from Burgundy (in France), we formed a kind of European alliance. Not that we agreed on everything, but our European experience of food and eating made me less isolated. I don't believe there is fundamentally a difference between the US and UK kitchens – good food is good food wherever you eat it. But of course, food plays a huge cultural role. Foods that appeal to us because we grew up with them can fail to charm those who don't have that taste-nostalgia. I think maybe the American palate tends towards a preference for the sweet, though having said that, no one has less of a sweet tooth than Anthony Bourdain!
Is there anyone who gave you a chance in your career, whom you've considered a mentor?
I lurched into this path by accident, but I try and learn from everyone.
What's the best cooking advice you¹ve ever received? The best you¹ve ever given?
My mother told me never to try and impress people, just try and give them pleasure! What I tell cooks is that the best way to learn is to cook for yourself. If you cook for yourself, you don't worry about your mistakes, you learn from them and that is what makes you a good cook.
What was the most valuable advice you gave while working on the show, and to whom?
There's only one bit of advice I gave time and time again, and that is: while you're cooking, taste, taste, and then taste again. And then keep tasting.
Were there any hilarious or outrageous moments on the set of The Taste?
Anthony Bourdain and I had a 'trailer-off' when we decided to pimp-out our trailers. Anthony chose a trailer trash theme; I went disco queen. I could show you the pictures, and you could judge for yourself who won!
What do you cook at home to relax?
I find baking enormously relaxing. There's something about the transformational aspect of baking – turning eggs, sugar, flour, and butter into something utterly different is magical and confers a kind of miraculous grace upon the kitchen and the cook. I love that. But nothing makes me feel cozier at home than having a chicken roasting in the oven.
Is there anything tools or ingredients you can¹t live without in your home kitchen?
I would hate to be without my mezzaluna, which is the Italian word for 'half-moon' and is a curved blade with 2 handles that I use to chop anything and everything. People think that it is some sort of fancy tool for experts, but actually it is perfect for kitchen klutzes like me. If you have your hands wrapped around each handle, you cannot cut yourself!
What did you take away from the show? Will it change how you cook or instruct others?
I was hugely inspired by the love of food that I was surrounded by. It was exhibited obsessively by both mentors and competitors, and it reinforced my belief that however basic or elevated the cook, what always remains key is the joy and pleasure to be had from good food. I'm not sure I will ever change the way I cook, but I think I will learn to be more of a teacher. I certainly want to, as it became clear to me that the more you teach, the more you learn. Sounds cheesy, but I tend to be someone who is hesitant about imposing my will, and I have vowed to be that person no longer – though in the gentlest way possible!
What's next for you after The Taste?
I have never planned anything in my life so far, so can't start now. Anyway, I'm hoping more of The Taste.
This interview was conducted by Williams-Sonoma. Visit their site to get all the cookware used on The Taste. (http://www.williams-sonoma.com/)