Steve Braunias reviews the latest cookbook by Nadia Lim, and declares it a plate of two halves – half-dumb, half-divine.
Bizarre cookbook. A large portion of Fresh Start, Feel Good! by Nadia Lim and her Fresh Start team appears to be the work of a first-class moron. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think: Fresh Start, Feel Good! tackles the eternal problem of how to lose weight, but its advice is generally kind of like totally mindless.
The back cover describes it as “a no-fuss approach”. The problem with appealing to common sense is that it almost always boils down to a sludge of slogans, affirmations, get-well-soon cliches. Lim may as well have titled the book Kia Kaha. No, make that Kia Kaha! On your exclamation marks, get set, go! Fresh Start, Feel Good! prefers to exclaim than to think, shrieking itself silly every few sentences. “There’s never an excuse not to have a good brekkie!” And: “Learn to love healthy fats!” Also: “Make nutritious food yum!”
How is any of that helpful? Losing weight is difficult and complex, although an op will do the trick and so does a long and terrible illness. “I was so lucky to get mono,” Romy (Mira Sorvino) says in the classic Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion. She means glandular fever. “That was the best diet ever.”
For the rest of us, weight loss requires care, time, work, and despair. I weighed myself the other day on the antique scales at PharmCare in New Lynn and clocked in at exactly 11 stone. My fighting weight until I gave up smoking and took up biscuits was a snake-hipped eight and a half to nine stone. I’d settle really happily for 10. I try. I did the 5:2 diet in 2016, and had high hopes but the timing could scarcely have been worse, because that was the year I became the man who ate Lincoln Road. The ratio of 5:2 to 57 food joints serving fried chicken just doesn’t work and as the year progressed I became the fat fuck who waddled Lincoln Road.
Anyway, I can’t see Lim’s lame brevities doing much to bring my weight down. It’s just so lazy, in keeping with the cheap production values – all the food photos are taken on a range of three chopping boards on a marble top bench, and there are only two photoshoots of Lim out and about, one at the beach, the other at a park.
The book begins with an A-Z of weight loss and not a single letter of the alphabet does any hard lifting. Who wrote this stuff? Did it involve a second’s serious research? It’s all waffle, piffle, and bullshit. D is for Dining Out: “Check out the menu online before going out to a restaurant so you know what options you have and you can plan ahead. Snack on vegetable sticks before you go out so you’re not ravenous when you get there.” Dining out has never sounded so joyless and boring.
N is for – yes, really – Number Twos. “Eat a high-fibre diet…Drink plenty of fluids.” No shit, Sherlock. E is for Exercise. “You don’t need to join a gym…Just Google body weight exercises.” Yeah. Just Google and the world will live as one. Q is for Quit Alcohol. “There is now so much evidence supporting the link between alcohol and many cancers that a regular intake is just not worth it.” It might have been worth the effort pointing out the lowest cancer risk per weekly intake is a glass or two of wine every day, and the highest risk is drinking spirits like a motherfucker on the binge.
Don’t drink, don’t order a slap-up meal at a restaurant, don’t go to a gym, and whatever you do, don’t diet. “Ignore fads, diets and marketing hype,” scolds Lim, who exists on marketing hype. Her own book is just the latest product in her My Food Bag food grab.
But she gets results. A page is devoted to glowing testimonials from Fresh Start eaters – Michelle has lost 20kg, Donna 10.5kg, Alex 10kg, Bernadette 12kg, Kylie 14kg. They’re eating fewer calories and cutting back on flour and white sugar. Every recipe in Fresh Start, Feel Good! is under 450 calories.
And so we come to a magic word, lurking in that previous sentence. No, not calories. Recipes. My God! What fantastic recipes! Verily, Fresh Start, Feel Good! is a book of two halves. The advice and the editorial commentary is dumb and dumber but the recipes appear to be the work of a genius.
Just after Christmas I studied the cookbooks in the kitchen and made a list of recipes I’d like to try out. There are eight in Real Cooking by Nigel Slater (I love his sentence on a mushroom saute: “This is one of those things that beg to be eaten from plain white plates”), 10 from Scrumptious by Chelsea Winter (duckfat potatoes!), and 16 from Jamie’s Dinners (his macaroni cheese is possibly, just possibly, better than the Watties frozen box). The number I want to make from Fresh Start, Feel Good! is 25.
The breakfast recipes included simple things with only a few ingredients, such as avocado and hard-boiled egg on toast with curried salt seasoning. There was a righteous vegetarian dish of broccoli, capsicum and feta omelette, and a delicately assembled ham and parmesan dish with scrambled eggs and a handful of baby spinach leaves. Lim is crazy about eggs and fair call to her. I just wish she had more recipes for hot food at breakfast. You can’t really improve on cornflakes or last night’s pizza as a cold food at breakfast and Lim proves the point by wasting her time, and pages, with bowls filled with that ingredient which has removed pleasure and taste from kitchens across the land – chia seeds. Ugh.
Her soups, salads and lunch boxes were more complex but I figure you can do without things like Asian Dressing, whatever that is, and “finely julienned” fresh ginger. Its absence wouldn’t hurt Lim’s chicken and cabbage salad with soy, roasted sesame seeds, and cashew nuts. That’d be awesome right now, in summer; for winter, there’s a barnstorming recipe for red lentil, chickpea and tomato soup with chili flakes. Make enough and you could happily scoff on that for three nights – just add fresh spinach, plain yoghurt, some nice dark bread.
The stand-out meal in that section was her fritartlets. You’d expect a pun as bad as that in Chelsea Winter’s cookbook but this is a subtle, clever recipe, with bacon or salmon made with eggs, feta, and cherry tomatoes. Lim also lists pumpkin. She’s crazy about pumpkin but who can be bothered with that swollen ball of orange? So much work for so much mush.
The best of her fast dinners are something called Aztec steak with sweetcorn, nasi goreng (with the fried egg on top – ugh, forget it), Moroccan lamb salad with roast carrots, parmesan-crumbed chicken, and a Thai green chicken curry (with cauliflower rice – ugh, forget it).
The final hot-food section – comfort food – has one hit after another, mainly to do with chicken. Almond-crumbed chicken nuggets. Chicken and bean chilli. Creamy chicken and thyme pie with parmesan topping. There’s also creamy mushroom steak (“A lovely piece of steak deserves a good creamy mushroom sauce” – so true) and an interesting curried smoked fish. Her macaroni cheese is too clever for its own good – who wants to muck around with cauliflower cheese sauce, really? – but if you take out the cauliflower, and the dreaded pumpkin, it might possibly, just possibly, be half as good as the Watties frozen box.
So much pumpkin! What was all that about? Padding, I suppose; same with all that cauliflower. Neither deserve a place at the table. I expected Lim to pile on fads such as pesto, quinoa, kale, medjool dates and Harissa paste, and there they were, stinking out the joint. But generally it’s a pretty sensible selection of supermarket supplies – dried herbs, soya sauce, stock, honey, that sort of thing. The one food she uses the most in Fresh Start, Feel Good! is something I’ve never cooked on account of the fact I’ve never even seen it – chicken mince. Where do you buy chicken mince? There’s a $10 packet of it online at Countdown but it doesn’t look like it’s free range so forget it.
The book fizzles out towards the end. All the good ideas for really tasty meals go out the window as the book obeys the pious need to make weight-loss desserts. They won’t make you fat and they won’t make you happy. There are some humdrum smoothie recipes, and fruity things which rival Little Bird for sweetlessness.
Ignore all that, and the page of platitudes which divide each section (“Chew each mouthful at least 20 times. Soon it will become second nature!” No it won’t! Go away!). There’s a lot of good eating to be had from Lim’s test kitchen. I’ll have this book in the kitchen for years. It’s going to be as useful and delicious as The Ultimate Collection by Alison Holst.
Fresh Start, Feel Good! by Nadia Lim (Nude Food, $39.99) is available from Unity Books.