Delia Smith at 80: ‘My husband does all the cooking now’
The original domestic goddess is as forthright as ever on subjects like salt, sugar tax and calorie counting, but has has moved on from cooking. She’s too busy finding the meaning of life. Interview by Andrew Billen
Delia Smith, 80, in Yellows Bar & Grill at Norwich City’s Carrow Road ground and, left, in 1970: “I’ve always had a lot of flak. I was the boring cook doing boring stuff”
DAILY MIRROR; ROBERT WILSON FOR THE TIMES MAGAZINE
Friday July 30 2021, 12.00pm, The Times
It is a day of unpalatable tidings. Henry Dimbleby’s report on a new national food strategy has been published and it wants the government to tax salt and sugar and urges us to substitute fermented plant protein for meat on our plates. What, I wonder, will Delia Smith, the most famous and influential British cook since Mrs Beeton, make of all that?
“Not a lot,” she says when we meet at Norwich City Football Club, and soon she is telling me exactly what she thinks of Dimbleby’s recommendations, scolding the myth of “unhealthy” food and declaring the golden age of restaurants long dead. Having newly turned 80, Smith — who in her four decades of TV cookery lessons gave the distinct impression that 10g herb butter would not melt in her mouth before she thrust it up a lemon and tarragon chicken’s bottom — is in no mood to censor herself.
I am nevertheless taken aback 25 minutes into our conversation — before I have even uttered the Delia trigger words “omelette pan”, “cranberries” or “Christmas turkey” — when she says she no longer wants to talk about “the past”, by which she means she does not want to talk about cooking.
Filming Delia Smith’s Summer Collection in the early Nineties
Her recipes, plus videos, are still all there on her website, and Penguin says her book sales have climbed above 21 million. She has not, however, published anything new since 2009 and her last TV series was 11 years ago. Now I learn that she rarely cooks at home either, leaving things to her husband of 50 years, the journalist Michael Wynn-Jones.
Does she criticise what Michael cooks?
“Not if he sticks to the recipe.”
Hers, I assume.
“Yes, but it’s a question of keeping out of the way, because if I’m in the kitchen, I can’t help going and turning the heat down or stirring.”
I sympathise. I hate my wife “helping” when I cook. I turn into a celebrity chef shouting, “Get out of my bloody kitchen.”
“That’s Michael. That’s why I go down to the end of the garden.”
It is what she has been doing in her Suffolk garden that she wants to talk about. She gets to her study there at nine in the morning and knocks off at 5.30 in time for dinner (lunch is an apple). In there, she is thinking and writing about nothing less than the meaning of existence, humanity’s purpose on this planet. Stalling for time, I say that Sir Anthony Hopkins recently said that, at the age of 83, he still did not know “what it was all about”.
“Well,” says Delia Smith OBE, CBE and Companion of Honour, “I think I do know what it is all about.”
Our conversation takes its surprising turn.
As I understood it, she agreed to this rare interview in order to publicise the revamp of Yellows Bar & Grill at Norwich City FC, aka the Canaries, the club of which she and Wynn-Jones became majority shareholders in 1997. When I arrive there, however, I am told she is happiest talking about the paintings on the walls and to start with that. We are introduced and she seems relaxed and happy, although concerned the photoshoot will concentrate too much on her. I think this is modesty rather than vanity, since she looks pretty damn lovely in her peach-coloured blouse and much nearer 60 than 80.
With her husband, Michael Wynn-Jones, and the Championship trophy won by Norwich City in 2019
We move to her favourite table by the window and we talk about Yellows. When she first became a Canaries supporter her impression was that “nobody really bothered” about the catering. The first thing she did was to make it an American-themed restaurant, but Norwich has others so it has become “eclectic”. Burgers and hot dogs co-exist peaceably with lamb koftas and tahini sauce and grilled halloumi with orzo. I say it doesn’t seem much like the home cooking she is famous for championing, but then recall that her catering career started with her washing pots at a restaurant called the Singing Chef in the West End of London.
“Yes,” she says, “I did. But it is home cooking because we do everything on the premises.”
Forgetting that one of the first dishes she learnt there, roast duck with cherry sauce, is up on Delia Online, I ask whether we would enjoy the Singing Chef’s fare today.
“Well, I would! I was very privileged to be around in the Sixties and Seventies when I think restaurants were at their best.”
“That surprises you?”
It really surprises me. I thought, postwar until the Eighties, we had the worst restaurants in the world.
“No, it was very exciting. I mean, it was a very exciting time in London. You had the whole Soho thing. You had Italian, Greek. Such wonderful restaurants! Spanish. Anything. It was a wonderful time. Then suddenly we moved into the Eighties and everybody was thinking about calories and this, that and the other. So we had this great French chef [Michel Guérard] and he did something called cuisine minceur [lean cuisine]. It’s how to cook without cream, without butter, without flour, and then it started to get incredibly precious.”
Restaurants, she says, served up “theatre on a plate”: sprinkles, drizzles, foam.
“For a great celebration you want something absolutely amazing, and there is space for that. There is. It’s just that once they start doing it in pubs, it doesn’t work. I used to go on pilgrimages to France just to go to a restaurant when I was young, in the Sixties, when you had proper French cuisine.”
Is it no longer proper in France?
“No. I think they’ve gone the way of everywhere else. I think it survives in Italy, on the whole, as long as you don’t take a Michelin guide with you. You still have trattorias. If it says ‘trattoria’, you know you’re not going to get all that rubbish.”
It is quite well known that Smith begins each day with an hour’s prayer and then goes to Mass, so I am not sure if she will have caught up with the morning’s Dimbleby food news. When I raise it, however, it is obvious she has been listening to the Today programme.
“I think putting tax on sugar and putting tax on salt is wrong because both are natural foods. What I would whack the tax on is chocolate bars and, you know, crisps, salted peanuts, things that have too much salt. Actually, I don’t think they do. I don’t think crisps and peanuts are the problem. I think the problem with salt and the problem with sugar is food that comes from a factory.”
“But I also have my own philosophy, which I will never change, and that is that sugar is a natural food but it’s refined, so you have to keep it to the minimum. If you took a piece of sugar cane, it would take you a week to get through it.”
What about adding salt when you boil potatoes?
“Oh God, you can’t cook potatoes without any salt. No way. The health problem with salt is it exacerbates high blood pressure. So if you’ve got high blood pressure, you shouldn’t have too much salt.”
Does she suffer from that?
Despite the salt on her potatoes. Has she made many shepherd’s pies with fermented plant protein yet?’
She wrote a veg book but she is a fan of meat, isn’t she?
“No, I didn’t write a veg book. I put a collection of vegetarian recipes into a book because I’ve always done vegetarian. Right from day one I did vegetarian recipes, because I like food without meat myself, but we’ve lost sight of what balance is. I used to have a lot of doctors after me, you know. If I put butter on the chicken they’d all be ringing me up and saying it’s unhealthy. But I’m not having it every day. I’m not even having it every week. I have it once a month.
“I’ll tell you something else, which I do go on about, but there’s no such thing as unhealthy food. It doesn’t exist. The only thing that’s unhealthy is the excess of something. Even processed food; if you have a ready meal once a week, that’s not going to hurt you.”
“There’s no such thing as unhealthy food. A ready meal once a week is not going to hurt you”
ROBERT WILSON FOR THE TIMES MAGAZINE
All she wanted to do over all those series of hers — from her first slots on regional television in the Seventies through the Nineties heyday of How to Cook, when she literally demonstrated how to boil an egg, to 2010’s Delia Through the Decades — was, she says, to teach. It was not showbusiness, and not meant to be.
“But it was very rewarding and very exciting. What I wanted to do, Andrew, was stop people having to go out in the cold to night school and learn how to cook. They could learn in their own homes. That was the ambition, but people still don’t know how to cook, so I wasn’t that successful.”
Come on! Things improved a lot, especially dinner parties.
“At the time. Now I get kids coming up to me at football matches saying, ‘My mum always cooks your food.’ ”
So why did she stop?
“Because I had said everything I wanted to say. When I started there weren’t many people doing it, and when I stopped there were hundreds of food programmes on television. And I wanted to do something else anyway.”
The something else is a book — and not one on cooking. Quietly announced earlier this month, You Matter will be published next March by Mensch, a small privately owned publisher with its sales, rights and distribution handled by Bloomsbury.
So what is it all about, Delia?
“Well, it’s been a long time coming. How can I explain it? I just think we need now to step back a bit from the chaos and just get to know ourselves inwardly more than we have done. I think everybody is unique, everybody has a special place, everyone is a child of the universe, if you like, and I think the answer to the problems we all face is that we underestimate ourselves.
“We underestimate what human life means, what it is. It’s absolutely amazing, and what we achieve is amazing, but we still underestimate ourselves individually. One psychologist calls it ‘self-actualisation’ — I haven’t used this expression — but it says what it is: understanding the fullness of human life.”
I think of her formidable mother, Etty, who died last year aged 100. Not one to spread praise thickly, she once said on a documentary that she could not believe “this little baby” of hers had done so much. But I fear I trivialise. As she tries to explain her theories, Smith cites in support not Etty Smith but Victor Frankl (the Auschwitz survivor who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a Darwinist priest who believed in a planetary sphere of influence called the “noosphere”), Shakespeare (“To thine own self be true”) and Abraham Maslow (the “self-actualisation” guy).
“Human life. What is it? Why is it? We’ve got this immense universe. It takes I don’t know how many billions of years for light to reach this tiny little planet, yet it has human life – the only life we know about in the universe. Not only does it have human life, but everything in the universe is there to bring that life about and sustain it.”
This seems to be a version of the William Paley “proof by design” argument from the 18th century. A watch is designed by a designer so the universe, which is infinitely more complicated, must have a designer too. Here, however, Smith is out to prove the existence not so much of God as purpose.
Smith in 1984 with some of her recent books
“What I’m saying is that we need to look at ourselves to search for meaning. The only way we can find meaning is to really look at who we are. Find it in oneself.”
“What I’m encouraging people to do is just to step out of the noise for a little while.”
And practise mindfulness or meditation?
“I don’t like labels like that. I mean, mindfulness costs money. If you join a mindfulness thing, you pay. Meditation is a word I can’t use because it intimidates people. You think if people meditate it’s something esoteric, otherworldly.
“This is the best way, I think, to describe it. You’ve just met me. If you really wanted to know me, the only way would be to spend time with me, otherwise you wouldn’t know me. All I’m saying is, human beings need to spend time with themselves to know themselves.
“There’s an inside life and there’s an outside life. That’s the best way to say it. And many people go through the whole of life without ever addressing the inside.”
Now this does sound familiar. Smith was brought up in Bexleyheath in Kent as a baptised member of the Church of England. At the age of 22 she converted to Catholicism. In 1988 Smith wrote a book on prayer, A Journey into God. I cannot say I got on with it very well, but it received testimonials from Derek Worlock, the Archbishop of Liverpool, Rabbi Lionel Blue of Thought for the Day and, oddly perhaps, the film critic Barry Norman. In it she wrote that she contemplated dropping the word “prayer” from the book and replacing it with “relationship”. It sounds as if this stillness she speaks of now is a version of prayer, except it forges a relationship with yourself rather than God.
“I wouldn’t call it prayer now. I would just say I have an hour every day to reflect, to be still, letting your mind go where it wants to go. It might be, ‘What am I going to have for breakfast?’ ”
Interesting. The book was quite stern about distractions and asks the prayerful to focus on biblical texts.
“Yes. I’ve matured.”
She still believes in God though?
“I do, definitely, yes.”
Smith was a friend of Sister Wendy Beckett, the almost-hermit who had a sideline as a TV arts documentary presenter, right up to her death three years ago. “I learnt a lot from Wendy,” she says.
Does she still go to Mass every day?
“Well, no, because you can’t go to Mass every day now. There aren’t enough priests. But I want to get off that. I feel if people were self-actualised or they understood meaning and purpose in their own lives, then the world would be a better place. If people can find the fullness of life within themselves they may find they believe in God at the end of it, and they may not.”
I ask how long it took her to write You Matter. “Five years to write the book. But my whole life…” she replies. I am intrigued. Even before she became a celebrity, she mixed in raffish Soho circles. She was a journalist when journalism was a racier trade than it is now. She likes, obviously, her football. She has been busy. When did the contemplation start?
“It goes back to my mother putting me to bed too early when I was very young, five or six years old. I knew I was going to bed too early because I could hear the kids playing outside. I think parents did that then. I mean, nowadays you see kids up at nine o’clock at night, but I think because I went to bed at six o’clock and I wasn’t sleepy, I had reflective time. All through my life I needed reflective time.”
There are self-confident people who bounce through life without that need, who get through life just by living it. Smith has plenty of confidence — the confidence to write this book is proof of that — yet it seems she has had to work on it. She tells me, for instance, that committing herself 20 years ago to daily self-reflection after reading the insights of an Indian sufi made her not “happier” but “less insecure”. Delia, never a tremor in her pan hand on television, insecure?
“But I was. If you talk to my husband he’ll tell you: very, very insecure. But a lot of people are. I saw an article about Paul McCartney who said, ‘I still don’t think I’ve achieved.’ People don’t.”
What was she insecure about?
“It’s just believing in yourself. I would always get affirmation from everybody: ‘Do you think I should do this, or not?’ I’m not making the decision; I’m getting a steer on it. Do you know what I mean? And I failed miserably at school. That made me insecure.”
Was she unhappy growing up?
“No, I had good parents.”
Her father, Harold, a wartime RAF radio operator in the Middle East, did not, she says, see her until she was four. Eleven years later, now a manager of a small ironmonger’s shop, he left the family. In a passage in A Journey into God seeking out God’s paternal qualities, she admits “there can be a problem here if my own personal experience of a father’s love is flawed and inadequate”.
How did her parents’ separation affect her?
“It’s devastating, and don’t anyone ever say kids can bounce back. They do not bounce back. It’s devastating. And why wouldn’t it be?”
I say it took my wife years to get over her parents’ divorce.
“The trauma your wife went through — I certainly went through the same. And maybe that does kind of trip you. But my father was a good man, not like some are. What happened happened, and it’s happening every day, everywhere. But still, I agree with your wife — it’s always there.”
She met her own good man in 1969 when she was writing her first recipes for the short-lived (but rather good) Daily Mirror colour magazine. Wynn-Jones added the punctuation. The couple had no children but their partnership has included not only their decades on the Canaries’ board, but years in which Wynn-Jones ran Sainsbury’s magazine and Smith was a consultant to the supermarket. He was the first to read each chapter of You Matter.
Did he say, “I understand what you’re saying here”?
“No, he just said, ‘Yes, good.’ That was it. He didn’t elaborate.”
I understand he does not believe in God.
“I mean, there are three levels, aren’t there? You can believe in God and not have a religion. You can believe in life and not believe in God — but God doesn’t mind as long as you believe in life. Or you can be an atheist, and an atheist is naive.”
Is that what she calls her husband?
“No, he’s not an atheist. He’s an agnostic.”
Many would say that believers are the naive ones.
“I would say an atheist is. How do you know there isn’t a God?”
But how do you know there is?
“Well, I don’t know, but to say there definitely isn’t is more naive than saying, ‘I think there is.’ ”
Does she have these big conversations with her husband — about the inside life, the outside life, the point of it all?
Towards the end of our interview and before our Yellows lunch — very nice, thank you — a living illustration of Smith’s inside/outside life comes to our table to be introduced. He is Milot Rashica, the football club’s new signing from the German side Werder Bremen. She is excited to meet him, as I suppose you would be seeing how your own money is being spent.
Over lunch we are joined by Smith’s assistant and fellow cook Lindsey Greensted Benech, who seems to have lived every day of the book’s long gestation.
“It’s massive,” says Smith, “and I don’t know yet whether I pulled it off or not. But you have to have that in your mind. I was turned down by six publishers and I said to Lindsey and to Michael, ‘If it doesn’t get published, I still have to do it.’ ”
We can be wary of celebrities who step beyond the borders of their fame. Fans who have called her, jokingly but with some reverence, “Saint Delia” will say she is no Saint Thomas Aquinas. Will those who follow her fastidiously exact recipes be able — in both senses — to follow her advice on the spiritual? Does she worry about the book’s reception?
“Someone said to me, ‘Look, you’ll get a lot of flak,’ but I’ve always had a lot of flak, you know? I was the boring cookery writer. I was the boring person doing boring stuff. One person said that British cooking would survive not because of Delia but in spite of her. I had a lot of critics. If you go to a football club and you get relegated, you get stoned out of town.”
Well, I am not going to throw the first stone today. I think she’s brave and well intentioned and engaging. Maybe she is even on to something. So I’ll keep my solemn promise to her. I am not going to call this grandest of projects Delia’s recipe for life.