Self-confessed “perfectionist” Gizzi Erskine tells Janet Christie why she wants us all to get in the slow lane and appreciate cooking in a new way.
Gizzi Erskine is telling me about a tomato over the phone as she negotiates the London rush hour traffic. “A Vesuvius tomato grown very, very slowly, naturally in the volcanic soil around Naples. Grown in sunlight, without hydroponic lights, and sprayed with a fine mist of salt water from the sea nearby. They taste and smell like the tomatoes we grew up with,” she says. A tomato whose taste is down to the concentration of minerals in soil enriched by millennia of stratification of lava, and as she talks, she’s taking me on a journey where taste is all about time.
In a world of rolling news and 24/7 Twitter feeds, with 148,000 people following her Instagram posts, a new restaurant opened this year and another opening next month, “call it five” books to her name and another out this month, chef and food writer Gizzi Erskine wants us all to slow right down. That’s why her new cookery book is called Slow: Food Worth Taking Time Over, designed to teach the art of slow cooking and how to serve up stews, soups and hearty sauces. She’s fed up with quick cheats and cutting corners and wants us to prod the produce, take time trying out techniques and linger lovingly over the creation of a kale, spinach and ricotta conchiglioni. It’s time to stew, braise, bake, poach and roast.
“We are so short of time in our lives that we forget that cookery does take time,” she says. Not that one of the first proponents of the pop-up restaurant doesn’t have time for fast food: “Sometimes you’ve just got to have something on your plate instantly, so you batch cook at weekends and have quick ready meals for the week. But I think losing yourself in the cookery process is therapy as well.”
Taking time out to enjoy the process is close to Erskine’s heart after a busy year that started with her opening her first solo restaurant, The Dining Room, at Mare Street Market in a former office block in Hackney, and will end with the opening of vegetarian burger chain, Filth, a joint business venture with model-turned-nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson aimed at delivering healthy food to hedonists. The pair met at a festival, music being a passion of Erskine’s from hosting a cookery and cabaret stage at Latitude to what she calls a “penchant” for musicians, including Klaxons rocker Jamie Reynolds who she dated and split up with in 2016.
All this and her latest book, out this month, Gizzi doesn’t appear to be someone to whom you’d attach the adjective “slow”. After leaving school at 15 and home at 17, Gizzi – short for Griselda – was in a hurry to get on with life and success came early. While working as a body piercer in Camden, she trained at Leith’s School of Food and Wine in 2003, graduated top of her year and won an internship at BBC Good Food magazine, writing and styling while working in kitchens and starting her own catering company. With her psychobilly flicky eyeliner and beehive hairstyle she was made for TV, and Channel 4 gave her her own show, Cook Yourself Thin, followed by Cookery School and Drop Down Menu. More TV followed with Sky Living. At the same time, she was turning out cookery books including Gizzi’s Kitchen Magic and Skinny Weeks & Weekend Feasts as well as writing for magazines and newspapers including InStyle and Sunday Times Style. And then there were the pop-ups, from a gourmet pie shop to food inspired by the New York Korean hole-in-the-wall scene, and one in Edinburgh during the Festival.
But it’s time to slow down and talk about Slow. At 39, Erskine is at pains to point out she has been doing this for a long time.
“I just wanted to be respected for the job I do; it’s not just about how I look. I work very, very hard, I’m probably one of the hardest-working people in the industry. I’m good at my job and want people to recognise it. And I think that’s why people like Mark Hix, Angela Hartnett and Tom Kerridge, all the big guns, have always taken massive care of me, and that’s because they trust me as a cook. I dunno, it’s probably all my own shit to be honest, in my own head, but I just feel like I’ve been doing this for a long time now.”
Erskine’s big purpose is to get us to slow down, embrace ingredients and technique – and for her own part, she also wants to be taken more seriously. Always a huge fan of methodology, she found the quick and easy recipes approach demanded by media for cookery frustrating. “I’m like, ‘You know what, I’m a chef, a real chef, and I really enjoy the process of cookery and I love technique – it’s what I get my kicks from’.
“I’m really pleased with this book,” she says. “You know when you talk about rock stars making a brilliant album with a load of banging hits, that’s what these recipes are like. Often you lose something in a book, but they’ve kept my voice.
“And one of the great things is it’s the first one I’m not on the cover. I’ve begged not to be on the cover of every single one – I think it’s a celebrity chef thing – but I don’t buy those books, I buy ones written by proper cookery writers or real old school chefs.
“I want this book to stand for something. I don’t want it to be just like I’m spoiled and I’ve been on the telly and can write lovely recipes. I actually have a big purpose and I want to get out there and make changes,” she says.
Not that Erskine doesn’t care about the visuals – like the shiny bob that replaced the beehive a couple of years ago – but she’s moved on from Cook Yourself Thin and Skinny Weeks & Weekend Feasts, having a more complex take on body issues these days. Of a recent post online where she mentioned putting on weight, she says: “I did that without thinking, but 25,000 people responded, so it touched a lot of people. But I don’t want it to be a thing that defines me. I put on that weight because I worked my arse off this year, setting up businesses, writing a book and helping build a house. It’s been an exhilarating, tiring 18 months and I lost my way in my diet. Is that the biggest thing you’ve ever been through? Absolutely not. Do I stand for more than this? Yeah! You know what, I don’t want to talk about it any more because I don’t think it’s very feminist.
“Obviously my image and having a certain style has been a part in what I do and that’s been brilliant; I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do without it. I’ve done a lot of TV – the last one was a Korean show for BBC One, My Seoul Food, where I got to live in Korea for four months, maybe one of my best experiences of all time. And I got to work with Idris Elba and Paloma Faith and Rankin on Sky 1 HD, and I pinch myself every day about that sort of thing. But the stuff I like best is educating people, showing them new things.
“I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years, and won awards before I did TV, I’ve written a column for the Sunday Times for almost three years. I’ve earned my stripes. I’m a perfectionist and meticulous and I really want to be known for being good. That’s the first and foremost thing.”
The wake-up call that her style was being valued over her stew came for Erskine when her annual appearance in the Evening Standard newspaper’s 1,000 Most Influential List saw her listed under “Party Girl” rather than “Food”.
“I was like, f***, that is the worst thing! It’s my choice to do social media, because I love my fans and the fact I can have conversations with them, but when your lifestyle choices make people see you differently that’s no good. It was my fault and I deserved it. I thought I want to be recognised for doing my job, and I am good at my job, and it was important I stuck with it and showed how much I respect my industry.
“Now I’m back in the Food section,” she says, satisfied, “have been for the past three or so years.”
During her childhood, the family travelled a lot because of her mother’s work – Erskine and her two sisters spent time in Thailand, Switzerland and Spain after her parents’ divorce. As Erskine puts it now, with a laugh: “I’ve had a very weird upbringing, there’s lots of weird shit gone on.”
Food was always part of her life, with her mother teaching her recipes – her influence is in the new book. There’s also the Scottish grandmother from Edinburgh, Mona, a brilliant cook who married a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis, and flitted between Communism, clairvoyance and Buddhism. She died when Erskine was a child, but came through to Erskine years later when she visited a spiritualist. “They said ‘Mona’s here’. I was still piercing at this stage and she said either you or your mother need to cook, because you both want to, so I went home and asked my mother what it was all about. She said, ‘That’s your grandma’, and it was on the nose. Mona has come through again, this time in the book with a Jewish chicken soup recipe.”
Erskine’s father was also Scottish, from Dumfries, and she lived there briefly when she was very young. She still calls Scotland “the motherland”, priding herself on her mince recipe.
It was the death of Erskine’s father on the day of her first GCSE exam that saw her leave school immediately at 15. “School wasn’t for me anyway,” she says, “and it turned out later that I had ADHD, which made sense.
In 2016 Erskine was officially diagnosed with the disorder and she’s very upfront about how cooking helps and is helped by it.
“I can be hyper-focused and hyperactive at the same time, probably everyone else’s nightmare. So I’m either distracted and it’s knock me on the head to get attention, or bouncing off the walls and I find it very hard to listen. So cooking is like exercise, it’s therapy for me.
“There’s also a side where I felt too clever for school, which is really knobby, and no-one really explained the importance of education. I was a bit of a dick in that I chose to leave but I was a nightmare at 15, going out, having a wild time, and my father died, so it was a bit of an excuse for me not to go back.
“I was devastated by his death, but I didn’t face it. It took me five to ten years to really accept it. I put my head in the clouds and wanted to party. But now as a grown up, I don’t necessarily believe leaving school was the worst decision.
“What would I have done if I’d stayed? Gone to art school maybe, but I don’t think I would have learnt as much as I did going out to work. I started piercing when I was 15 and I loved it and it set me up with the particular skills that I learnt from and transferred to cookery. That sounds like a ridiculous synergy, but I learnt things like wanting to be the best and investing in something, going on courses to improve. It was a brilliant lesson in how to be good at something,” she says.
Erskine still loves piercing but has reduced her own ironmongery from 24 or 25 to just the one. As to its whereabouts – “I’m not going to tell you that.” She laughs.
After seven years of piercing Erskine decided to pursue her love of cooking and enrolled at Prue Leith’s prestigious London cookery school, still piercing and working in restaurants to fund her studies.
“My family is quite bohemian and we were very broke,” she says. “I lived on my own and ended up squatting, doing school in the day then in kitchens every night, and piercing and restaurants at the weekend, and yeah, probably partying too hard. So I lost it, I was just so exhausted.” Physically and emotionally something had to give and Erskine thought about quitting, but the school wanted her to stay and loaned her the fees for the last term. “They were so kind and saw something in me, so I was like f***, I’ve gotta do this!”
Success followed, but nothing has given Erskine more satisfaction than her first solo restaurant at Mare Street Market, where she was hands-on in the kitchen until preparations for veggie burger eatery Filth took her away recently.
“Cooking really good food people are coming back for… It was something I took a long time to get my head around, whether I wanted to be involved in business or not, but it’s been really satisfying and confidence-boosting,” she says.
With Mare Street Market under her belt, she’s putting the finishing touches to the sustainable burger enterprise and is evangelical about the vegan burger she’s concocted with sidekick Ferguson.
“We’ve spent a lot of time messing around over a cauldron,” she says. “We’ve made this patty that’s a real game-changer. Totally vegan, it feels similar to a traditional beef burger but has more protein, fibre, nutrition, and all the umami. I sound a bit Miss World,” she laughs, “but I’d love to make an impact with it, because what we eat is crucial and it’s time for a revolution in food.”
So with a busy year behind her, Erskine might be forgiven for retreating to the warehouse she’s converting in Hackney with her ex-boyfriend, curling up with her cats Kimchi (Korean pickle) and Ponzu (Japanese sauce) and taking time out to slow cook a ragu.
“No! I’ve got another interview to do, five minutes ago!” she says, before briefly explaining her domestic set-up.
“We were together for ten years and then broke up for five and now we’re building a house together. We’re best friends now, and it’s a lovely little set-up. We love each other, it’s great,” she says.
With 40 just around the corner Erskine is happy with her life as it is. “I feel ageless. I don’t feel the need to settle down and have kids. I’m really satisfied and have a very fulfilled life and get kicks from so many things. I don’t have time for anything else.
“I’d like to do more cookery books but I want them to be for the right reasons. I don’t care about just churning them out. I want to spend time thinking about the next step, spend time making it good.”
Slow: Food Worth Taking Time Over by Gizzi Erskine is out now, published by Harper Collins at £25