Inside every home cook there is a small shrine to Nigella Lawson where we pray for the timely rise of a soufflé, curse the sticking powers of a béchamel and give thanks to the healing powers of slow cooked meats. Many of those same cooks came out in force on Sunday to pay their respects to the first lady of food at the Sydney Opera House, where Lawson sat in conversation with Maeve O'Mara (Food Safari) in front of a packed house hoping to glean some of the secrets to her enormously successful career and almost universal appeal. Ostensibly Lawson is here to spruik her new recipe book, At My Table, while also cramming in a spot of MasterChef filming, a gelato safari in Melbourne, and a stint at the School of Life in Sydney this evening. But while she was at it she also taught us a lot about how to get things done.
1. Do it yourself.
It turns out that Lawson doesn't, in fact, have an army of minions at her disposal. She has two part timers on her staff but she posts her recipes of the day each day, she chooses the crockery for her shoots and she demanded terracotta sprayed page edges on her latest book. "I say I'm hands on. People who get irritated would say I'm a control freak," says Lawson. "I always want a ribbon in my books. A designer asked if I knew it wasn't the bible."
2. Be a mentor
It may be a competitive world in the food media scene, but Lawson wants to champion talent in the next generation of thought leaders and creators. "People get defensive and not very generous with people starting out, but we all get knocked off the perch by someone eventually, and I'd rather be knocked off my perch by a talented person.
3. You have to respect the skills of others
Recently Lawson attended a pottery class with Yotam Ottolenghi. She wanted to make some bowls for her upcoming book. It was... not successful. "The wheel defeated me. People said it was like cooking but when you do something wrong when cooking you can still eat it. Not so much with pottery."
4. Trends, no. Movements, yes.
While Lawson is circumspect on trends in food, she does acknowledge that one can be influenced by the world without necessarily actively engaging in popular movements. She used the example of the growing number and visibility of vegans, and realised that writing a book in this time and place had in fact had an influence on her recipes. Over half of the savoury recipes (cakes mostly always being vegetarian) in her new book are vegetarian and a third are vegan. Lawson might not be into trends but she is certainly aware of how movements influence how people eat.
5. Like your work
Lawson makes no bones about some of the sadder chapters of her personal life, but is no wallower. A "festerer" yes, worrying about choices long after it's effective to do so. But you don't write 11 books, captain 20 years of television and win yourself a place in the hearts and minds of the food-loving public by being lazy. And key to Lawson's motivation is the fact that she likes what she does. It means instead of undertaking that long-promised pantry clear-out as a form of procrastination, she gets the job done instead. Even during a hot stone massage before the talk, Lawson's mind was still working. "While they were putting stones on me I thought about adding porcini with salt in a Nutri-Bullet, mixing it with butter and placing it under a chicken skin. Then I thought, that's too fiddly, so just put it on top and put some sage inside. In an idle moment I can't help thinking about eating."
Want more life tips from the Domestic Goddess? See Nigella Lawson at the School of Life.