Nadia Lim taught Sam Brooks to cook. He talks to the beloved celebrity chef about her new cookbook, and filming an entire TV show in lockdown.
Lockdown brought us together as a nation. Together with our team of five million, together with our families and flatmates, but most importantly? Together with our ovens. As supermarkets were raided by panic-buyers who suddenly decided what they needed was flour, a nation was coming to the realisation they might have to start cooking for themselves.
Someone who was pretty used to cooking for herself was celebrity chef Nadia Lim. Just a few days into lockdown, she posted a three-step chicken soup, alongside the hashtags #lockdownrecipes, #getcooking, #stayathome, #bekind, #getcooking, #lookafteryourself and #lookafterothers (those are some very March 2020 hashtags). Three weeks later, Lim launched her cooking show, Nadia’s Comfort Kitchen, a show intended for a nation of people who were fast running out of ingredients to cook their favourite dishes and just needed to throw something together. Just last week, she released the print version of the cookbook that came out of that cooking show (donating all $405,000 of the profits to Women’s Refuge and Youthline).
Two things are clear here:
- Nadia Lim had an extremely productive lockdown.
- New Zealand is really lucky that Nadia Lim had an extremely productive lockdown.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have this, you can use…” could well be the catch phrase of Nadia Lim’s Comfort Kitchen (which you can currently watch on TVNZ on Demand). It’s perhaps the most chill cooking show out there, not just because of Lim’s laissez-faire attitude towards substitutions, but because of her camera-ready charisma. Half of that probably comes from the intimacy of it – the entire thing was shot by her husband, Carlos – and it has the kind of handheld-but-steady closeness you expect more from an Instagram story than a TV show.
Nadia Lim comes with a hefty dose of that quality everybody and their influencer friend strives for but so rarely achieves: authenticity. During the show, you believe she actually cooks the recipes she says she does. You also believe the show is a means to an end – it’s a very effective way to communicate the philosophies she’s been pushing with My Food Bag for the past eight years – healthy food, made easy, made comfortably. There’s also the fact that while she’s definitely camera-ready, she’s not camera-trained in the same way the likes of Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver are. A few slips make it quite clear that while she’s talking to us, a captive audience, she’s very much aware of the oddness of having to talk to an audience of strangers while her husband holds the camera and her two children, River and Bodhi, scurry around.
Lim needs little introduction. Since winning MasterChef way back in 2011, she’s fronted New Zealand with Nadia Lim, been a judge on My Kitchen Rules New Zealand, and appeared on Dancing with the Stars. Nadia’s Comfort Kitchen is her ninth cookbook in just as many years. Let’s face it: she’s probably our most well-known food personality, give or take the Big Fresh vegetables.
When I talked to Lim on the phone, I got legitimately emotional at the start of our call, as though I had something to prove. Like a child who just learned how to tie his shoelaces after years of wearing velcro shoes. And to be fair, I kind of did.
Because, full confession: I started cooking properly because of My Food Bag. Or, to be more accurate, I started cooking because of a global pandemic that confined me to my house and a choice of three microwave meals a day or… actually learning how to cook. I took the latter choice, because there’s only so much money I could justify spending on $6-a-pop frozen mac and cheeses. I had no idea how to start, or which of many “food in a box in your house” services to pick from. Then I remembered: oh shit, I really like Nadia Lim (despite having written middling reviews of her Dancing with the Stars performance).
That’s another key to Nadia Lim and her success: people really, really like her. There’s a reason she has more than 100,000 Instagram followers. She’s charismatic, she seems down-to-earth, like she’s a good person who believes what she preaches, and she manages to be the front of a company she founded without seeming like a mogul. When I ask fellow DWTS competitor Laura Daniel what she’s like, I get an effusive response: “I got to see first hand how hard she works on all her projects. Not only was she thrusting herself out of her comfort zone by learning how to dance, she was also writing a cookbook and constantly running off to meetings all whilst breastfeeding a four-month-old. On top of all that, I can hand on heart say she is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
Even people who have never met her rave about her – just dropping her name in conversation elicits a hushed “Oh, I love her” or a “God, she’s saved my life”. She stands alongside Matilda Rice as our most beloved reality show contestants, but one thing sets her apart: she’s bloody feeding people. The quickest way to a (Instagram) heart is through someone’s stomach.
Case in point: in the space of a few weeks, I went from having to be told how to turn on the oven in my house, to cooking at least four dishes a week for both me and my flatmate. This past week I’ve made: a chicken korma curry, za’atar salmon with roast cauliflower, Japanese beef steak with super greens and a leek gratin. At the start of March, I couldn’t have boiled water. By the end of lockdown, I found myself so narcissistically in love with my own cooking that I wouldn’t consider letting someone else feed me.
Back to the phone call. Lim wasn’t just genuinely invested in me cooking, but in the nation’s quick, enforced shift to making their own food. The chef said, “It was one of the silver linings of lockdown. It was amazing to see how much people were in the kitchen, way more than what they were used to. I heard from a lot of people that would say, ‘I never used to cook. Cooking wasn’t my thing. I didn’t know how to cook, and now I’ve started and love it.’ A lot of people have found this new joy, this new hobby.”
Both the series and cookbook are aimed at these newfound cooks (or really, anybody with a low-to-medium cooking ability and repertoire). The recipes are all very easy to make, with simple ingredients you might have either panic-bought and have no idea what to do with, or had at the back of the pantry from months ago. If you don’t have a banana, maybe you can puree an apple! No eggs? No problem!
While the profits of the printed book go towards charity, it’s free to download for anybody. Lim’s reasoning behind this is simple. “I didn’t want people to have to pay for something, because obviously a lot of people were under a lot of financial pressure, losing jobs and that kind of thing. And I just wanted everybody to keep the cooking up.” She still found that people wanted some sort of physical memento or keepsake of lockdown, so the idea for the printed version came about.
(I can’t stress enough that this was made by me, and not Nadia Lim, and definitely not from a Nadia Lim recipe.)
Even talking to her over the phone, Lim can seem preternaturally chill and humble. When I talk about a cooking debacle I had during lockdown, the above potato salad prepared with too much hubris and not enough following the recipe, she says I probably used too much mayonnaise and it “would’ve looked like a pile of vomit”. She followed up with some helpful tips on food presentation – the trick is taking out some of the sauce – and shared her own screw-up during lockdown, which was forgetting to add sugar to an apple crumble.
Even when I, a bit cheekily, ask her what’s something she finds difficult that other chefs might find easy, she’s straight-up: her knife skills aren’t the best. “I never trained as a chef. I’ve never had any professional training whatsoever. I’m just a self-taught cook. I haven’t seen you chop an onion, so I don’t know how bad you are, but when I watch professional chefs chop up an onion, I’m like, ‘Holy moly, don’t chop off your finger’. Because if I tried to do what they do, I would definitely chop my finger off.” (Lim technically has already done that, as was reported around the world back in 2016.)
When we wrap up our interview, I ask Lim for a few tips. For months, I’ve been jokingly referring to the flat’s weekly My Food Bag delivery as our package from Nadia Lim, and following the four weekly recipes to the letter (except the pinch of salt bit, because when has anybody ever used just a pinch of salt?). It’s not that Lim is the only chef with a relatable brand – celebrity chefs have made millions off of being relatable – it’s more that she was my first introduction to cooking, and cooking properly. Only three months later, I’m preparing salads for the week at work, cooking for other people and not just myself, and even branching out past the My Food Bag recipes into my own personal monstrosities. I recommend frying crumpets in olive oil and your steak in sweet chilli sauce. Lim recommends a good knife and chopping board. We are not the same.
We don’t necessarily need any mementos of lockdown; it’s that once-in-a-lifetime universal experience where everybody’s individual memories make up one shitty kaleidoscope. But both Lim’s show and her cookbook are about as pleasant as mementos can get. For some, it’ll be very literal – they made the gnocchi, or perhaps the sagwala. But for me? They’re mementos of a time where I went from lacking one very normal adult skill to picking up a genuine passion, a stress reliever, and some sense of structure during a structureless time. But for Lim? She got people fed and got people cooking, made an entire TV show, and released a cookbook that made nearly half a million for New Zealand’s biggest charities.
We are not the same. She’s much, much better.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.