How Nigella Lawson Became The Celeb Chef She Is Today

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Nigella Lawson has built an empire around being a domestic goddess. Known for her highly readable cookbooks and her equally watchable cooking shows, Lawson has taken the world by storm, and, as GQ put it, gotten people excited about cooking. For most of her career, Lawson has been famous for her picture-perfect kitchen and her alluring yet relatable persona. But in 2013, Lawson's image faced the risk of changing after a highly publicized court case involving domestic abuse and drug use. Nevertheless, in spite of the scandal, the cook is still going strong. As of 2020, there remains an almost insatiable appetite for her unique brand of cooking. 

As The Guardian noted, after Princess Diana, Lawson is Britain's only "surname unnecessary" celebrity. But has Lawson always been a cooking and writing powerhouse? Of course not! Curious to learn about her journey to the top of her game? Here's the tale of the transformation of Nigella Lawson.

Nigella Lawson was born into a prominent family, but all wasn't as it seemed

Even though Nigella Lawson wasn't born into a family of chefs, she certainly had a leg up from the very beginning. She was born to Nigel Lawson, who was a famous conservative politician, and her mother, Vanessa Salmon, was a famous British socialite and heir to a gigantic catering dynasty. Nigella was one of four siblings, growing up alongside her brother, Dominic, and her two sisters, Thomasina and Horatia.

As The Guardian reported, despite their wealth and fame, her parents didn't exactly lead a relaxed home life. When Lawson described her mother, she stated, "She was one of those people who was full of stress and anxiety. You know, if you knock something over it will be difficult, and I'm clumsy..." 

Lawson then revealed to The Guardian that her childhood was pretty unhappy, however, she didn't detail exactly why. "I don't think any of us [siblings] would regard it as a childhood we would want to return to," she said, diplomatically.

Nigella Lawson rejected her mother's fear of certain foods

While some chefs take their inspiration from their parents' love of food, for Nigella Lawson it was a very different story. As AnOther explained in a piece about Lawson's mother, Vanessa Salmon, Lawson didn't exactly grow up in a household that fostered a love of food. In fact, Salmon struggled with various eating disorders throughout her life and even admitted to being afraid of certain foods.

Watching her mother's rejection of foods inspired Lawson to do the opposite. She told The Guardian, "My attitude towards food is such a repudiation of her, a triumph over her, thinking, 'I'm not going to play that game. I'm not going to be that thin.'" It sounds like even though Salmon wasn't a good example, she ended up shaping Lawson's approach to food, which would later become the basis of the chef's successful career.

Nigella Lawson was a shy child — and hasn't completely overcome it

You may not think it, but Nigella Lawson was actually very shy as a child. While this personality trait may seem incongruous with her outgoing TV persona, Lawson has admitted that her shyness still affects her as an adult. In an article for the BBC, Lawson explained, "I don't think being shy and being on television are opposites actually." She went on to explain how she's managed to overcome her shyness through her work, but she can still find it a little daunting to meet new people. As she explained, "When I have a purpose I can do it."

And it turns out that Lawson's childhood shyness might have actually led to the personality we know and love today. As "an incredibly shy child," as Lawson put it to the New Zealand Herald, she ended up coming across as "quite camp." She added that her personality was "not an act" but rather a way to deal with her shyness.

Nigella Lawson spent time in Italy as a teen and found inspiration for her future

When Nigella Lawson was 19, she and her family spent a year in Italy. She explained to Grub Street just how informative her time in Italy was, both for her approach to food and for her sense of culture. Lawson, who was very shy at the time, had to become more independent during the trip. "My personality changed somewhat," she said. "When I spoke Italian, I became more voluble and less reserved." Apparently, this new-found confidence stuck with her when she returned to England. She went on to explain how her "sense of becoming a person is inextricably linked with Italy, and becoming Italian. Or attempting to."

It's clear that the food in Italy inspired her, too. In her Italian cookbook, "Nigellissima, Le Mie Ricette Ispirate all'Italia," Lawson got the chance to explore her fascination with Italian food. As she told Fine Dining Lovers, "Italian food has always been a huge influence." She added, "...In this book I found myself writing about the influence Italy has had on my cooking, as an English cook. For me Italy — and Italian food — have both been the most enduring inspirations of my life, and my cooking."

Nigella Lawson studied at Oxford

After spending time in Italy, Nigella Lawson moved to the University of Oxford to study medieval and modern languages. While she most likely got an excellent education at the prestigious university, Lawson says the most important thing she learned during her time there was just how much she loved to cook for others. She recalled to Oxford Mail, "I would go to the Covered Market a lot to buy onions and sausages. I cooked an awful lot. French onion soup was my speciality." She went on to explain that she'd even sneak into her friends' rooms to "steal whatever liquor or bits of cheese they had to go in the onion soup."

For Lawson, her Oxford experience taught her what her true passion was. "That's when I realized I was someone who liked feeding people," she said.

But it wasn't just a love of cooking that she discovered while at Oxford. She also came into her own as a young woman. During her time at the university, she was frequently photographed for society magazines. It's clear that during her university years, she was beginning to show signs of who she'd become — a very photogenic cook!

Nigella Lawson worked as a freelance journalist before her career in food took off

After graduating from Oxford University, Nigella Lawson began working as a journalist. It seems that becoming a TV cook and cookbook writer wasn't even in her plans, considering that her career in journalism was a successful one. Eventually, Lawson became the deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times, after which she decided to become a freelance journalist. In this role she frequently wrote for The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. Lawson also appeared on TV broadcasts as a presenter and reporter, and her work included reporting on Princess Diana's death for Newsnight in 1997.

It wasn't until 1985, when Lawson landed a food column in The Spectator, that her passion for cooking became public and her writing skills started to cross over into the subject of food. She then went on to write another food column for British Vogue in 1998, and by this point, it was becoming clear that food writing was Lawson's specialty.

Nigella Lawson had two children with her first husband, John Diamond

In 1992, Nigella Lawson married fellow journalist John Diamond. At the time, both worked for The Sunday Times. The couple went on to have two children, Bruno and Cosima. For Lawson, like most mothers, having children was a life-changing experience. As she revealed to Radio Times, "People who don't have children imagine that their whole lives would be all right if they had children, but they don't realize that having children gives you lots of problems; one is in constant worry" (via Made for Mums).

By the looks of things, Lawson is quite involved in her children's lives. When Bruno was a teenager, a friend told the Express, "He adores his mummy's cooking and appears quite often in her TV programmes, looking sheepishly out from his mop of hair... virtually licking the plate clean." As for Cosima, she was seen in 2020 having a birthday lunch with her mother, according to the Daily Mail. It seems like the famous chef and her children get along quite well!

Nigella Lawson's big break came with her first book, which led to TV stardom

For the first decade or so of her career, Nigella Lawson was primarily a journalist and a columnist. In 1998, she released her first book, "How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food." At the time, The Guardian noted that it was the kind of cookbook you could read in the bedroom rather than just in the kitchen. In other words, her excellent writing made it special.

After her successful food columns in Vogue and The Spectator and her first book, Lawson began to make appearances on TV. In 1998, for instance, she appeared on the Channel 4 show "Nigel Slater's Real Food." It didn't take long for TV producers to realize that Lawson was great for TV. Two years later, in 2000, she starred in her first cooking show, "Nigella Bites."

While her work on TV is what has really made her famous, it hasn't always been easy for Lawson to work in front of the camera. As she told Good Housekeeping (via People), she has always found filming to be "physically very draining" and even "a bit frightening." But fans need not fear: Even though Lawson finds it difficult at times, it's clear that she's realized TV is something she's good at. As of 2020, she's still filming BBC's "Cook, Eat, Repeat."

Nigella Lawson's first husband died at an early age

In 1997, just as Nigella Lawson's career was taking off, her husband, John Diamond, was diagnosed with throat cancer. What followed was a difficult four years, during which Diamond's tongue was removed and he was fed through a tube. In 2001, he passed away. Throughout their last few years, Diamond and Lawson made the most of their remaining time together, including by frequently throwing large parties for their friends (via The Guardian).

After her husband's death, Lawson continued working. As she told The Telegraph (via Mirror), "I took a fortnight off. But I'm not a great believer in breaks." And it's clear that this is what Diamond would have wanted. In an emotional farewell note, he wrote, "How proud I am of you and what you have become. The great thing about us is that we have made us who we are."

Nigella Lawson's mother and sister also died young

Prior to her husband's tragic death in 2001, Nigella Lawson also lost her mother and sister, Thomasina, to cancer. Lawson's mother was 48 when she died, and her sister was just 32. It's no surprise that these deaths had a huge impact on Lawson. As she explained to Good Housekeeping in 2020, the three tragic deaths she's experienced have shaped her approach to life and continue to do so as she gets older.

"To be completely honest, I've never been able to take for granted that I'd be alive by this age," she revealed."Even if I were the sort of person who planned ahead, I don't think I would have seen myself here... I kind of think you can't do anything about [aging] so why complain?" 

Lawson went into more detail about how witnessing loved ones' deaths has shaped her opinion of aging in an article for Sunday Times Style (via Evening Express). "When you have seen people you love die young, the idea of complaining about getting older is just revolting," she wrote bluntly.

Nigella Lawson divorced her second husband after very public controversy

After her first husband's death in 2001, Nigella Lawson remarried fairly quickly. Her second husband, Charles Saatchi, was a well-known art collector and advertising executive. After almost 10 years of marriage, scandal hit the couple after a photographer captured some shocking images of Saatchi seemingly assaulting Lawson in public. The photographer responsible, who went by the name "John Paul," recalled the event to Vanity Fair: John Paul said he'd spotted the couple sitting outside a restaurant, celebrating Saatchi's 70th birthday. "I saw her lurch violently backwards," the photographer told Vanity Fair, explaining that Saatchi had grabbed her by the neck for around 30 seconds. "Then he did it a second time, and it was so violent," John Paul added.

Of course, the incriminating photos led to a major tabloid scandal, and, eventually, to a full-blown court case. The court case was filled with scandalous details, including accusations of embezzlement and drug use. Saatchi originally claimed that the photos merely showed a "playful tiff." However, in 2013, shortly after the scandal, Lawson and Saatchi divorced.

Since becoming a tabloid story, Nigella Lawson has a new press policy

Having her personal life strewn across the tabloids, while photographers followed her family, couldn't have been easy for Nigella Lawson, who has always been shy and private. In fact, the press attention proved to be so difficult, she developed a new policy of only discussing her professional life in interviews. We can see why she'd want to keep her private life a little more under wraps after that experience!

In an interview for The Irish Times, Lawson did open up a little, explaining the impact the tabloid scandal had on her. "Becoming a tabloid story, and everything I went through then, shame, various things, in a way gave me a form of trauma of its own. And I don't think I've addressed that enough to talk about it," she explained. It's clear the intrusive publicity took its toll on the star — we can't blame her for her new set of rules when it comes to the press!

Nigella has acquired almost royal status

In spite of her difficult personal life and her brush with tabloid infamy, Nigella Lawson has continued to steadily build her empire through the years. In fact, throughout her career, she has reportedly sold at least 3 million books around the world, while her net worth sits somewhere around $15 million. She has also appeared on well-known TV shows like "Top Chef" and "Iron Chef America," while continuing to release cooking shows, cooking specials, and food series on an almost yearly basis. It's clear that Lawson hasn't let anything get in the way of growing her career (via Lifetime).

Even Lawson acknowledges how far she's come. In a 2019 interview for The Irish Times, she looked back at her early days and the release of her first book. She admitted that everything had changed for her. In fact, her celebrity is comparable to that of a royal. As Diana Henry, a British food writer, put it, "In the UK I often think, not with pleasure, that she has Princess Diana-like status as a celebrity. She is that well known, she is that well-liked." 

As The Irish Times explained, Lawson's fame also comes with drawbacks, including being scrutinized by the public. But overall, Lawson is, at this point, an undeniable legend!

Spending 2020 alone helped Nigella Lawson with her anxiety

For most of us, 2020 was a bizarre, and even a scary year. For Nigella Lawson, the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to take a step back from her busy schedule and re-evaluate, which was an especially big change, as she embarked on lockdown alone. "I suppose that survival thing kicked in, and it felt important to think about food because it became clear that it gave structure, sustenance, and pleasure," she mused to The Guardian. As she became used to her new structure, she began to enjoy the break. "I'm very happy not having to fill up my life going to things," she said.

In another interview for the Evening Standard, Lawson explained: "I have learned to relish solitude, which was prescient, it turned out... Lockdown showed how much I enjoy cooking for myself." By the sounds of things, lockdown reminded Lawson just how much she loves to cook — even if no one's watching!

Nigella sometimes uses her namesake spice in her recipes

There are some speculations about the origins of Nigella Lawson's name, including that her father, Nigel Lawson, chose it since it's similar to his own. However, in an interview with The Guardian, Lawson shared that her grandmother chose it. Curiously, the name has the distinction of being part of the scientific term for black cumin (Nigella sativa). The seed comes from a beautiful flowering plant and tastes similar to cumin seeds or oregano. It seems fitting that while sharing her name with a spice, Lawson has built a career around food.

Not surprisingly, Lawson has incorporated the ingredient into several dishes, such as by adding nigella seeds to her flatbread. Lawson called the creation Nigellan flatbread to be playful and apologized for the "culinary egomania" upon posting the recipe on Twitter. Her feta and avocado salad recipe also calls for a sprinkling of the tasty seeds. Meanwhile, to play off the nigella seed flavor profile, she uses them along with cumin seeds in her recipe for lamb ribs.

Lawson is a Marmite fan and uses it in spaghetti

Most people who have tried Marmite either love it or hate it. Since it is usually only available in specialty stores in the U.S., there's a chance you haven't yet tasted it. Marmite has a very strong flavor since it's made from concentrated yeast from the beer-brewing process. It also contains salt, celery, and spices and is fortified with high concentrations of vitamins (via BBC). The end result is a salty, pungent, umami spread that is best used in small quantities.

In the summer of 2022, Lawson announced on Twitter that her recipe of the day was spaghetti with Marmite. She said it was as simple as adding butter, Parmesan cheese, and Marmite to spaghetti. Of course, she went a step beyond and used truffle-flavored Marmite to give it an added layer of flavor. Lawson's spaghetti with Marmite recipe specifies how much of the stuff to use, but she says you can adjust based on your taste. She also suggests substituting Vegemite if you can't find Marmite.

Lawson certainly wasn't the first to invent the idea of adding Marmite to spaghetti. She wrote on Twitter that she got the idea from food writer Anna del Conte, but del Conte didn't invent it either. Everyone's been accidentally inventing it in their kitchens for years. Rebecca Harries replied to Lawson on Twitter, sharing that it was one of her favorite dishes and describing it as "the perfect 'emergency' lunch or post-run dinner."

She was named Author of the Year at the 2001 British Book Awards

The British Book Awards (or Nibbies) delivers various literary prizes each year. In 2001, Lawson won the Author of the Year award for her book "How to Be a Domestic Goddess." Her writing prowess even beat out contenders like J.K. Rowling for the honor (via The Guardian).

The idea behind the book was to make baking less stressful and more carefree. Despite Lawson's many books and shows, she writes, "You know, I'm not a cook-to-impress kind of girl." She approaches all of her recipes in a casual way, showing the reader that there's no need to spend hours and use fussy techniques to produce excellent baked goods. For example, in an editorial review on Amazon, Rebecca Wright describes a cookie recipe as being "American-style," which means they're "just dropped onto the baking sheet free-form." Compared with an arduous process of rolling out dough and using cookie cutters, this simple method is welcome.

No matter what you make from the book, you'll understand why a food writer won the British Author of the Year Award. Lawson talks to the reader and guides them through each process, convincing them they're capable of baking anything just as easily as she can. One Amazon review says it best: "The text is warm, friendly, and inviting, and reading the book leaves you completely charmed."

She launched her own line of kitchenware

Lawson launched a kitchenware line called Living Kitchen in 2003 (via Cooking Channel). Not only were the items beautiful with a timeless look, but they were extremely practical too. She collaborated with designer Sebastian Conran and produced over 100 pieces for the collection.

Lawson said that the brand included products that she felt were missing from the usual kitchenware lines (via Mighty Ape). For Lawson that meant "mixing bowls in an ovoid shape [...] or cappuccino cups with a saucer big enough for biscuits." She skipped the chrome look and opted for "domestic and soothing colors and materials." Light blue dominated many of the items that weren't black or white. The products were made with classic materials like wood and ceramic stoneware with rounded sides for a softer look. Lawson said she wanted to create products that would "infuse me with a good mood," adding that they should have an aesthetic value whether or not you use them every day.

Unfortunately, the Living Kitchen items are no longer for sale. These days, you'll only find them second-hand from places like Etsy and eBay. However, there's still a YouTube video floating around that gives an idea of the style.

She admitted to using drugs

In 2013, Lawson's assistants, sisters Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, were accused of using company credit cards to buy everything from designer fashion to expensive first-class flights (via The Guardian). According to information divulged in court, Lawson may have allowed them to run up charges topping £300,000 (about 468,000 USD) to keep her drug habit a secret from her husband, Charles Saatchi. 

Lawson admitted in court that she first took cocaine with her late husband, John Diamond, when he was dying from cancer (via BBC). She didn't use cocaine again until her husband Charles Saatchi (whom she later divorced) started abusing her. She said that a friend offered it to her and she took it because she was feeling "isolated and in fear" and "just unhappy."

According to The Guardian, the U.S. initially barred her entry after admitting her cocaine use, prohibiting her from boarding a flight to Los Angeles. While some people are barred for a year after using drugs, Lawson's ban was only four months long. A spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy said that she was allowed to return to the country earlier because her travel was work-related and entailed speedier processing times.

Lawson was offered an OBE award from Queen Elizabeth

The Order of the British Empire (OBE) is a U.K. award of achievement and service that the Queen or King of England presents (via BBC). It's a ranking similar to becoming a knight or dame, only it is awarded to someone who has contributed to society through their profession rather than with a specific task. The OBE is the second-highest ranking award, only below Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). So, it's actually a higher award than being knighted.

Lawson was offered the OBE award in 2001, the year after she won the British Book Award for being the Author of the Year. Looking back, she was still quite a newbie to food writing and being a television personality. However, it was from modesty that she rejected the award. In an interview with she shared, "I'm not saving lives and I'm not doing anything other than something I absolutely love."

She's not the first one to refuse the award. The BBC reports that Roald Dahl didn't accept it either and Alfred Hitchcock rejected the CBE award. However, Hitchcock finally accepted knighthood six months before he died. Perhaps two decades later, Lawson would be willing to accept the award if offered, but there's still a chance she'd have the same response as earlier in her career.

She learned about her ancestry on a TV show

Lawson's family is well-known; after all, her father Nigel Lawson was the Chancellor of the Exchequer for Margaret Thatcher. Her mother, Vanessa Salmon, was born into the Lyons Coffee House dynasty (via BBC). Being Jewish, Lawson knew that her maternal family roots must have originated outside of England. So, she used her appearance on the TV show "Who Do You Think You Are?" to get more insight into her family's past.

Lawson's maternal grandfather, Felix Salmon, was a member of the famine-relief catering corps and possibly helped free a concentration camp in Belson, Germany, during World War II. Her great-great-grandfather, Barnett Salmon was a traveling salesman. It was thanks to his profitable tobacco business that he was able to create Lyons. Barnett's wife was Helena Gluckstein, and her parents came to England from Amsterdam and Germany, becoming British citizens in 1861. 

Lawson continued to explore her family tree and discovered that her great-great-great grandmother's last name Sammes was of Dutch Israeli origin, suggesting that she was of European Ashkenazi descent (via "Who Do You Think You Are" Magazine). The name relates to being a synagogue caretaker, and it appears that Lawson's ancestors cared for the Ashkenazi Great Synagogue of Amsterdam, going back to the early 1700s. Meanwhile, the Sammes patriarch fled to England to avoid serving a sentence after being convicted of stealing lottery tickets. Of course, the family changed its last name with the move, from Sammes to Joseph.

She's opened up about her weight loss

Between 2017 and 2019, Lawson reportedly dropped from a size 16 to a size 12 by exercising and eating healthier, according to Entertainment Daily. Lawson told Good Housekeeping that the key was to find balance with food habits, noting that people shouldn't diet constantly but also shouldn't feast all day every day.

The Telegraph revealed that a big part of Lawson's weight-loss success was improving her snacking habits after having bunion surgery. "I couldn't walk to the fridge afterwards and, actually, it's quite a good diet; not because I stopped eating but because you can say to someone, 'Can you get me a slice of cake?,' but it's kind of embarrassing to say, 'And now could you get me a second slice?'" Ultimately, this set her up to eat more mindfully even after she was able to get to the fridge alone.

Entertainment Daily says that her favored exercise routine includes Iyengar yoga, which is a slow practice that focuses on posture. Since Lawson enjoys yoga, she's been able to continue without abandoning it.

She never thought she'd live to age 60

Lawson turned 60 on January 6, 2020. However, the television chef and food writer never expected to reach this decade of life. It's not so much that she is a pessimist, but in an interview with Good Housekeeping, she shared that far too many people around her died at an early age. 

Her first husband, John Diamond, died of throat cancer in 2001 at age 47, which was bad enough (via Daily Mail). But, genetics concerned her the most. In the two decades before watching her late husband die, members of her immediate family died young. In 1984, her mother, Vanessa Salmon, died from liver cancer at age 48. Eight years later in 1993, her sister died from breast cancer at age 32. It was certainly a relief when Lawson found herself in her 50s and then in her 60s without cancer stealing her youth and life.

Lawson says that having so many people close to her die at such an early age has changed the way she thinks about aging. Seeing firsthand that the alternative to aging is dying, she told Good Housekeeping, "It feels wrong when you've been surrounded by people who have died young to say 'My hair's awful, I've got to get my roots done' or 'My hands look like lizards.' So I don't dwell on it. As long as you're healthy, that really is the most important thing."

She's often involved with multiple television series at the same time

Once Lawson began appearing on TV cooking shows, her fans couldn't get enough of her. IMDb shows that she's been constantly involved in cooking shows since "Nigella Bites" first aired in 2000. And quite regularly, she's working on more than one show at once. Over the course of her first series from 2000 to 2007, she also released "Forever Summer With Nigella," "Nigella," "Nigella Feasts," "Nigella's Christmas Kitchen," and "Nigella Express." In fact, both "Nigella Feasts" and "Nigella Express" ran for multiple years.

Whereas Lawson was doing two to three shows per year between 2005 and 2010, 2011 found her doing a whopping four shows: "Nigella Feasts," "Nigella Express," "Nigella Kitchen," and an appearance as a judge on "Master Chef Australia." In her 50s and 60s, she has slowed down to a more manageable schedule of only one or two shows per year, like "Nigellissima," "Simply Nigella," and "Cook Eat Repeat."

Getting a taste of judging for "Master Chef" has led her to participate in more reality cooking shows in the last few years. In addition to spending more time on "Master Chef Australia," she has also appeared in "The Taste" and "My Kitchen Rules."

Lawson's cookbooks are best read from cover to cover

Lawson began her career as a book reviewer, restaurant critic, and freelance journalist (via Food Network). Not surprisingly, a highly-readable cookbook helped launch her career as a food celebrity. She doesn't like to be referred to as a "celebrity chef" since she's not a trained chef. 

However, you can certainly call her a celebrity food writer. Lawson wrote a total of 13 cookbooks between 1998 and 2020, with titles including "How to Be a Domestic Goddess," "Nigella Bites," "Nigella Express," "Simply Nigella," and most recently, "Cook Eat Repeat." According to GoodReads, the one with the largest reach is "How to Be a Domestic Goddess."

Part of the appeal of her cookbooks is that she explains cooking in a simple way with recipes that don't require complicated preparation. After reading "How to Be a Domestic Goddess," an Amazon reviewer shared, "Baking always seemed kind of terrifying to me. [...] What this book does is demystify all of that and teaches you, in a very calm and friendly way." Another draw of her cookbooks is that you can read them from cover to cover. She has plenty of introductory information and each recipe starts with an explanatory note. One GoodReads reviewer remarks, "It's the sort of cookbook you cook from, read in bed, and refer to constantly!"