Born: 23 July, 1934, in Sidcup, Kent. Died: 13 January, 2013, in Sussex, aged 78.
When Katie Stewart received her lifetime achievement award from the Guild of Food Writers, among those eager to congratulate her were a generation of cooks who were not even born when she began her career.
They included the campaigning food writer and cookery expert Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who, like many of his contemporaries, credits Katie Stewart with teaching him how to cook.
“I believe Katie was one of the most important cookery writers of the 20th century,” he said. “Right up there with Elizabeth David and Delia Smith. I’ve been cooking her recipes all my life.”
Such was the appeal of her simple, accessible and effective recipes that they endure today – with professionals and amateurs alike. Passed down through families, the well-thumbed copies of her many books, anointed with stray remnants of their efforts, are testimony to the popularity of a woman who became one of the first well-known cookery writers of the post-war era.
In Fearnley-Whittingstall’s case, it was literally a dog-eared copy. His mother, having been impressed by a friend’s dinner party dish from Katie Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book, borrowed a copy which was promptly chewed by their puppy. On replacing the friend’s book, the family kept the Labrador-savaged edition which young Hugh worked his way through, from the age of seven or eight, specialising in her puddings.
“There was a clarity and simplicity to her recipes… they were fool-proof classics like profiteroles, lemon mousse and Victoria sponge. It was absolutely the go-to book and it’s one of the books I still refer to when I need a reference point for a recipe.”
Katie, who was born in Sidcup to Dr Allan Stewart and his wife Lois, spent several years of her childhood in Aberdeen, hometown of both her parents. She would later retain links with the Granite City through her successful series of cookery programmes for Aberdeen-based Grampian Television.
Her father, who had originally moved south to set up a medical practice, brought the family up to Scotland during the Second World War. Katie, who was then five, was educated initially in Aberdeen and later at Blackheath High School after the Stewarts returned south, this time to St Paul’s Cray in Kent.
There she enjoyed the outdoor life with her ponies. She was a practical rather than exceedingly academic youngster and, after leaving school, completed training courses at Aberdeen’s School of Domestic Science and the Westminster Hotel School in London.
Already fascinated by food and cookery, despite the ongoing post-war rationing, she then took off for Paris, where the gastronomy of the French capital took her interest to a whole new level. She worked as nanny for a rich family on one of the world’s most exclusive streets, the Avenue Foch, and gained a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu school on the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
Living in France was a completely new experience but in 1957 she was off on further travels – to New York. After writing numerous letters she was offered a job in the test kitchen of Nestlé in White Plains. She sailed from Southampton and was soon to get her first taste of supermarkets and barbecues as well as the enormous range of cooking styles introduced to New York by its immigrant population.
The work also taught her skills such as accurately setting out recipes, developing new ones and taste testing new products. She also learned how to prepare dishes for photo shoots – all talents that would be put to good use when she returned to Britain two years later.
She was initially recruited as a cookery writer with the magazine company Fleetwood Publications, and her flair was quickly spotted. She became cookery editor of Woman’s Magazine in 1963. She later spent 32 years as cookery editor of Woman’s Journal plus more than a decade writing cookery pages and a Saturday column for The Times. This helped to make her a household name and produced the hugely popular Times Cookery Book and Times Calendar Cookbook, which concentrated on recipes utilising what was seasonally available.
In the early 1970s she also made several series of cookery programmes for Grampian Television, which were broadcast on ITV, and produced several companion Katie Stewart Cooks books. Her last work was as food writer for BBC Homes and Antiques Magazine.
Throughout her career she wrote numerous cookery books. Her signature style was unfussy and unpretentious yet she contributed enormously to people’s understanding and enjoyment of food, helping to awaken an enthusiasm for new flavours. Though hugely influential, she remained unaware of her celebrity status.
However, she was well known in Cuckfield, Sussex, where she lived following the dissolution of her 1961 marriage to Murray Leask. Fully involved in community life, she was voted mayor in 2001 and was vice president of the Cuckfield Society. She took part in the village show, regularly provided recipes and was always available to anyone looking for cookery advice.
A couple of years ago, she was reintroduced to an old friend, wine merchant Derek Balls, whom she had known 40 years earlier. The couple enjoyed much happiness latterly, taking cruises and holidays together. She was also a devoted grandmother and extremely proud Scot.
She is survived by Mr Balls, her son Andrew, his wife Nicola and grandchildren Archie, Harvey Bear and Scarlett.