The Untold Truth of Nigella Lawson

Nigella Lawson is a cookbook author, television personality, and British celebrity who has spent decades in the spotlight. Yet even those with such public personas have a few secrets and unexplored histories to examine. 

Lawson has dealt with a lot over the course of her life. From a contentious relationship with her mother growing up, to then watching her mom, sister, and husband all pass away from cancer, to a highly public divorce, Lawson has somehow been able to overcome adversity and continue on with her thriving career. Even when her name was splashed across the tabloids, she still managed to emerge from scandal and persevere. 

She's written more than a handful of cookbooks, has countless television appearances to her name, and is one of Britain's most beloved food personalities. 

So, how did a little girl who hated mealtime end up becoming an expert on home cooking and domesticity? Read on to find out more about her remarkable journey.

She's a feminist

Nigella Lawson is one of the most notable female cooks in food television, and she's made sure to use her platform to talk about why cooking can be a feminist act. 

When asked by one publication, "Are you a feminist?" she answered, "I feel the answer to be so self-evidently a 'yes,' I am almost baffled by the question." In her writing, she's talked about how home cooking has traditionally been considered "women's work," and that because male chefs were the ones actually getting paid for their work in the kitchen, women started to feel that "denigrating cooking and insisting on how hopeless you were at it were ways of establishing distance from the role of domestic drudge."

However, these days she sees cooking as a very independent and creative act, and thinks that belittling something for being traditional "women's work" is itself anti-feminist.

She also has seen herself as a spokesperson of sorts who lets women know "You are entitled to eat." According to Lawson, for a long time women "had been trained to be the providers of food but not the consumers of food." Letting women know that they can enjoy food, too, is an essential part of her feminism.

She was good friends with Anthony Bourdain

Their personalities might seem pretty different, but it turns out Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain were good friends. 

They worked together on the food competition show The Taste, but their friendship started a decade earlier when they met at a dinner party. Then, when Bourdain signed on to the show, he said he'd only do it if Lawson could be a co-host too. Their friendship developed while filming, and after Lawson's divorce was finalized, Bourdain said, "Nigella has blossomed." 

Bourdain was also vocal on Twitter when Lawson was denied entry to the United States based on an earlier court case confession that she had used pot and cocaine in the past. Bourdain Tweeted, "I am absolutely mortified with embarrassment over the cruelty and hypocrisy of US actions re: #Nigella travel. Unbelievable." The Taste was cancelled after three seasons, but Bourdain and Lawson continued their friendship.

Upon Bourdain's death, Lawson stated on Twitter, "Heartbroken to hear about Tony Bourdain's death. Unbearable for his family and girlfriend. Am going off twitter for a while." 

She was caught in the middle of a messy lawsuit

In 2013, two former employees of Lawson and her (now ex-) husband Charles Saatchi were sued for allegedly defrauding the couple of more than £300,000. In the process of their defense, Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo turned the tables and aired much of Lawson and Saatchi's dirty laundry, including allegations of drug use (which Lawson later admitted to). Apparently, the Grillos had racked up hundreds of thousands of pounds on the couple's credit cards, but according to the sisters, Lawson knew about it and let it slide in return for the sisters' silence regarding her drug use — as long as they didn't tell Saatchi, they could keep using the cards, or so their story went. 

They also revealed details about Lawson and Saatchi's relationship, which had recently ended in divorce, and Lawson herself said that she suffered from acts of "intimate terrorism" committed by Saatchi. 

In the end, the jury found the Grillo sisters not guilty of fraud, but the personal information about Lawson and Saatchi remain in the public record. 

Her mother, younger sister, and husband died of cancer

She may appear perfectly composed on television, but beneath Lawson's polished exterior is great sorrow. Most infamously, her first husband, the journalist John Diamond, died of oral cancer in 2001 after a four-year illness. 

She was left with two small children, Cosima and Bruno, but luckily was able to persevere in her career. 

She also lost her younger sister Thomasina to breast cancer, and her mother died of liver cancer when Lawson was just 25. Perhaps more tragic is the fact that Lawson shared in 2012 that her relationship with her mother was anything but peaceful. 

According to Lawson, her mother "just didn't like me," and would lash out verbally and physically when she became mad. She was also depressive, telling Lawson on her deathbed that she could kill herself if she wanted to now that Lawson and her siblings were grown. 

Lawson, however, has been able to overcome her childhood hardships and grief. She's even said that when she wrote her first book she had her sister Thomasina in mind, but that "I was also writing for myself, as cooking and enjoying food is a way of accepting and celebrating being alive, which can be hard when those you love have died."

Chef Anna Del Conte changed her life

Not everyone has heard of Italian chef Anna Del Conte, but the influence of her books on Lawson and other notable names in food can't be understated. Some credit her with introducing Italian cooking to Britain, a land where at one point mushy spaghetti bolognese (or spag bol) was about as authentic as you could hope for. 

Lawson calls Del Conte's Entertaining all'Italiana "my favourite and the book that made me into a food writer." She also notes that it's because of Del Conte that Lawson's own cooking tends to have a bit of an Italian flair. 

In fact, Lawson considers Del Conte to be so influential to modern English cuisine that she decided to make a documentary about the chef. Nigella: The Cook Who Changed Our Lives, explores Del Conte's origins in Milan, gives a peek at the evolution of British cuisine over the past half-century, and features well-known chefs and food personalities talking about the ways in which Del Conte personally influenced them.

She didn't love food as a child

When thinking of someone who is as immersed in the food world as Nigella Lawson, it's easy to imagine that she grew up cherishing every mouthful of food placed before her. The real truth is, however, that as a child Lawson loathed eating.

She remembers sitting at the table, being told she must eat everything on her plate. If she didn't finish her meal? It was served to her, cold and congealed, at the next meal. 

Things started looking up once she was old enough to be allowed to sit with the adults during dinner, but she says that even then "this was a different universe, and one my older self would have fitted into so much better than the child I was." Though her family talked about the joy of food, and though her mother was a more adventurous cook than most, experimenting with real Italian cuisine using olive oil bought at the pharmacy, it wasn't until she got older that she started to appreciate the continental cuisine her mother specialized in making. 

She taught herself to cook

Though Lawson was expected to help in the kitchen from a young age, whisking oil into eggs to make mayonnaise and sitting next to the stove to stir dinner, it wasn't until she went to boarding school that she started to really study recipes and cook herself. 

She says that the food at her school was so bad, she "became a bit obsessed with reading about food and reading recipes." After high school, she took a gap year in Italy. That's where her love affair with cooking really took off. She enjoyed making meals for her friends at University, and then moved into food journalism. She wrote restaurant reviews for the publication The Spectator, and then moved into cookbook writing with her first book in 1998. 

Today, Lawson insists that in spite of her huge success she's still a cook, not a chef. Self-taught and imperfect, maybe, but she also emphasizes that those who cook at home are just as worthy as those who make meals professionally in a restaurant kitchen. 

Her favorite kitchen tools are a microplane and mezzaluna

All cooks have a few tools up their sleeve that they just couldn't do without. For Lawson, it's her Microplane and mezzaluna

Microplanes are sharp, fine, rasp-style graters. They can be used for grating cheese, zesting citrus, shaving chocolate, and a whole host of other essential kitchen tasks. Microplane is a brand name, but there are similar graters on the market under different names. 

A mezzaluna is a curved Italian blade used for finely chopping herbs, nuts, and fillings. It's often one sharp curved blade that has a knob on each end, so the person using it can chop using a rocking motion. There are even special concave cutting boards and bowls that can be used with the mezzaluna, so that the ingredients being chopped don't fly all over the place. There are double bladed versions, too. Lawson has mentioned that she doesn't have good knife skills, and a tool like the mezzaluna makes tedious chopping go by much more quickly.

Considering the Italian influences in her cuisine, it makes sense that Lawson would find herself grating lemon zest and chopping large quantities of fresh herbs on a regular basis. Having these two tools in her arsenal definitely makes such tasks easier. 

She wasn't always a baker

Though she's just as famed for desserts like Italian Christmas pudding cake and chocolate raspberry pavlova as she is for her savory entrees, it turns out Nigella Lawson didn't actually consider herself a baker until she was well into her career as a food journalist and budding cookbook author. 

Her first book, How to Eat, mainly focused on cooking those savory dishes, but her second book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, is "really the story of my sudden conversion to baking," according to Lawson

She subtitled the book "Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking," and it focused on making simple baked goods like cake from scratch, relishing the meditative qualities of mixing ingredients until they're ready to be transformed in the oven. This was somewhat revolutionary back when the book was published in the year 2000, something she says is hard for people to understand "now that Britain is convulsed by baking mania."

She's written 11 books

Nigella Lawson has had a robust career in television for more than a decade, hosting several of her own shows (including Nigella: At My Table, Simply Nigella, and Nigellissima) and appearing on programs like Master Chef Australia, The Taste, and The Chew

But first and foremost, she's a writer; in fact, she's penned 11 books and one mini book. 

It started with her first book, How to Eat, which she wrote while she was a food critic. She had attended a dinner party at a friend's house, only to hear that friend dissolve into sobs in the kitchen while preparing an overly complex meal. Lawson was inspired, and wanted to show people how relatively easy it was to cook delicious, unpretentious food at home. 

It was also innovative — a mother of two, a home cook and not a professional chef, breaking into the food scene with her first book. 

"For those of us who love How to Eat above all other food books," writes Bee Wilson, "what it offered was that original voice, which worked its way into your head and made you feel braver in the kitchen. It was the voice of a woman who did not feel the need to hide or disguise her own appetites, as so many of us are taught to do." 

Lawson followed How to Eat with How to be A Domestic Goddess, and since has penned nine more full cookbooks, the most recent being 2017's At My Table