Nigel Slater: the best Brit you’ve never heard of
Nigel Slater – the celebrity cook (and yes, that's cook, not chef) – is Britain's best-kept secret soon to be shared with the United States.
I want Nigel Slater to be knighted. He is hands down the best thing to come out of Britain since the Beatles. (Actually, Nigel Slater is about a million times better than the Beatles but you people seem inordinately fond of those boys from Liverpool – and they were knighted, or at least one of them was.)
Anyway, cue the uncomprehending stares because, at least if you’re American, you probably have no idea who I’m talking about. Heathens, all of you!
Nigel Slater is who you’d get if you combined Alice Waters with Mark Bittman: a garden-to-table advocate whose goal in life is to make people love fresh produce and cooking because they are – gasp – fabulous and fun and do not have to be fussy in the slightest. Slater lauds fresh ingredients as the foundation for simple food without being Slow-Food militant.
By his own account, Slater is a cook who writes. (Emphasis on the word cook – not chef.) He has been the food columnist for the Observer for 18 years and is presenter of BBC1's "Simple Suppers." He is the author of seven fantastic books on food, basically none of which have been published in the United States (crime). But rejoice, humanity, Ten Speed Press is about to blow the lid off with the publication of "Tender," Slater’s magnum opus.
The premise of "Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch" is simple, and well summed up by the book’s subtitle. The book is organized by vegetable (alphabetically) and offers notes, insights, recipes, and usage guides for each.
But because Slater writes about food in a way that no one else does, "Tender" is so much more than the sum of its parts (or vegetables). Slater integrates food writing and recipes so thoroughly (as opposed to ghettoizing each in its own chapter or section) that his prose takes the form of something utterly unique. His writing feels fresh, deceptively simple, and immensely satisfying. And lest I overlook his recipes, they are some of the best I’ve had the pleasure to cook from. (I would go on holy crusade for his fava bean frittata, cauliflower soup, and spinach and mushroom gratin.)
"Tender" is also visually stunning. With its thick matte paper, full-bleed photographs, and perfect layout, it is every bit as much a tactile experience as it is a literary one.
If 600-plus pages of home-grown, cooked, and eaten goodness aren’t enough for you (and they won’t be; trust me), "Tender" is actually broken up into two volumes, the second of which – “a cook’s guide to the fruit garden” – is every bit as delectable as the first (released in the U.K. September 2010; as-of-yet unannounced in the U.S.). Also, Slater’s "Kitchen Diaries" is one of my all-time favorite books on food (and probably on anything). It basically chronicles a year in Slater’s head, kitchen, and garden. They are both worth tracking down (sometimes Booksmith and Omnivore Books, both in San Francisco carry them; otherwise try bookdepository.com, they’ll ship from the U.K. for free).
Nigel Slater’s books belong on the nightstand as much as they do the kitchen counter. And now that he is finally being published on this side of the pond, I suspect they’ll soon be found on both.
Rachel Meier regularly blogs on books for the Monitor.