Interview: Lisa Faulkner, actress and chef

Actress and celebrity masterchef winner Lisa Faulkner remembers her late mother through their shared passion for cooking. Now lisa’s daughter is learning about her too

What endures? What do we bequeath to successive generations? Objects, certainly – a treasured piece of jewellery, the family silver – but what about less tangible gifts such as traditions, templates for living or memories strong enough to provoke laughter and tears decades later? Or even the way a particular taste, piquant on the tongue, can summon those who are long gone.

These ineffable legacies inspired a new cookbook, Recipes from my Mother for my Daughter, by actor and broadcaster Lisa Faulkner. She surprised herself by winning Celebrity MasterChef in 2010, and while it sounds a dreadful cliché, the experience really did transform her life, awakening a dormant talent that she’s been able to weave into her career, so that in addition to acting, she’s now doing shifts in some of London’s most prestigious restaurants, and has become the cookery presenter on ITV’s This Morning.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Faulkner is warm and vibrant, but if you’ve ever seen a professional chef chop a stick of celery, you’ll guess how fast she talks. It’s partly excitement: if there’s a word more potent than “passion” to describe her feeling for food, insert it here. It’s partly that she’s keen to get home to bake gingerbread with her five-year-old daughter, Billie, now that she’s back from school.

Faulkner, 39, grew up in Kingston, in Surrey. She was bullied at school for being skinny and flat-chested, but overall, counts hers as a happy childhood, especially when she recalls time spent at home with her younger sister, Victoria, her parents, and the friends – her mother’s best pals – who formed their extended clan and to whom Faulkner remains close.

But everything changed when her mum Julie was diagnosed with throat cancer. “Up until I was 14, I had this idyllic childhood,” she tells me. “It’s always rose-tinted when you’re looking back, isn’t it? Yes, I was bullied, and there were lots of little things, but the main thing that pulled that rug out from under me was when my mum got ill and then died when I was 16 and my sister was 14. My mum was 42. My life completely turned around overnight. My mum was an amazing woman, a whirlwind. She was a force. You knew if she was happy or sad the minute you walked in the door. But whatever mood she was in, she cooked. That’s where she spent her life. She loved cooking. She’d done cordon bleu courses and was always having dinner parties. The house was always full of people.”

After she died, Faulkner’s father, a civil servant, brought up the teenagers on his own. “We are very similar to my mother in different ways, and sometimes fly off the handle and are whirlwinds, but he knows how to cope with us because of her. My mum grew up in South Africa and came back to England when she was 14. She met my dad when they were both 15, at school. Yes, they fought and she screamed and whatever – she had a big personality – whereas my dad was very, very quiet. But they were childhood sweethearts.”

This past Christmas the sisters bought him a computer program for transferring photographs into internet slide shows. “He’s been doing all these pictures from when they first went on holiday when they were 16. God, my mother is just – beautiful. I mean, the pair of them look like movie stars. It’s lovely to see.”

No slouch in the looks department herself, Faulkner was spotted by a talent scout not long after her mum died, and spent a couple of years travelling the world modelling, before landing a part in The Lover. The film made very little impact in the UK, but enabled her to find an agent, and soon work poured in. She played an eco-warrior in Brookside, and appeared in three series of Holby City. But her most memorable small screen moment is probably from Spooks, when her character was brutally murdered by being plunged face-first into a vat of boiling chip fat.

After years of heavy-duty, high-profile partying with best friends Angela Griffin and Nicola Stephenson, and a string of romances with fellow actors – including Sean McGuire, Michael Greco, Jonny Lee Miller and Trey Parker – she met Chris Coghill (EastEnders, Shameless) on the set of Burn It and they married in 2005. After an ectopic pregnancy left Faulkner with only one fallopian tube, they failed to conceive naturally. Three arduous rounds of IVF were unsuccessful.

Doing my research, I tell her, I was struck by a persistent theme of broodiness. She grins: “You know, when I was going through this hell, my sister said, ‘You never wanted children.’ I was adamant that she was talking rubbish. She said I used to say, ‘I’m fine, I love my career, I love travelling, I love this I love that.’

“I don’t remember that at all. Apparently my mother wasn’t particularly that bothered about having children either. It was my dad who wanted children, which is really funny, because of course, she had us and everything changed. I think what happened was that the minute I helped deliver Lola, my first niece, I went, ‘There’s somebody that’s more important than me.’ There is a connection with her that I have today, it’s almost like she could be mine. We have the same mannerisms, the same everything. She’s so similar. High maintenance, like her auntie.

“So it probably didn’t hit me until I was about 30, 31, that oh my God, I really want a baby. And it was only when suddenly I wanted children and couldn’t have them, something clicked in me. I know it’s the same for a lot of women, suddenly that becomes their focus. It was horrendous, because you can’t see anything else. You end up being a horrible person for a while. You can’t see that life actually is all right and that you have everything else going for you.

“We went through hell, and it was really heartbreaking. But I decided that however I was going to do it, I was going to be a mother. Whether I made her myself or adopted, the outcome was to be a mother, not to grow a baby. I will always miss that experience, but you know what, there are worse things in the world and I have my little girl. I have my dream. I couldn’t have made one better, honestly. She’s incredible and I’m so proud of her. I’m really lucky.”

The book, then, is more than just a way to launch herself on the culinary scene. It’s also a way to inform Billie about the grandmother she never met. It has a retro feel, harkening back to Julie’s heyday, in the 1980s, with recipes such as Coronation chicken, chicken marsala, beef Wellington, and profiteroles. And each one comes with a memory. For instance there’s a recipe for griddled lamb cutlets with “my mum’s mint sauce,” and Faulkner explains her frustration over trying to recreate the precise taste she remembered from childhood. “I asked my chef friends to help. I was on the verge of giving up when Tony at Smiths handed me a bowl – I dipped my spoon in and was hit by a tidal wave of memories. Crash! Boom! The tears started falling – this is her sauce.”

After Celebrity MasterChef, we might have expected a more ostentatious book, showing off Faulkner’s new skills. But her goal was to assemble a kind of family history through food.

“For me, it’s about filling my house with friends or family, like my mum did. I like noise and music and laughter and food. I love cooking for people. I always have, but Celebrity MasterChef has given me the confidence to keep cooking. I had all these recipes that were my mum’s or my grandmother’s or my godmothers’ or my best friend’s, and I wanted to put them into a book, because I’m constantly getting bits of paper out or remembering them in my head. I wanted people to use it to enjoy cooking again, because we lose that sometimes, when you’re a mum and you’re busy.”

Once she got over the shock of being invited to take part in Celebrity MasterChef, did Faulkner find it incredibly difficult having her food judged by Gregg Wallace and John Torode? “It’s properly hardcore, but they’re not mean. It’s just that they don’t tell you anything, so you can’t prepare, all you can do is think on your feet. As you go along the competition you’re growing. All I did was cook. I’d come home and cook and cook and cook. You do it all by yourself and they guide you in little bits, saying a few things. You just want them to like your food. When they say something nice,” she flops into a happy little heap of relief.

But if they handed her something – tripe, for instance – how would she know if it needed to be handled in a certain way? “You just have to figure it out. I read cookbooks – I have a huge collection. And I looked online and swotted up.”

Whenever Faulkner wants to feel love – or show it – she cooks. “I am not very good on Sundays. I hate that whole feeling of going back to school. And so I want to cook a roast dinner and have the house full of warmth and smells and people.”

Her passion for food is opening doors professionally. “I never saw it as something I could make money out of. I wish now, that I’d done it years ago and I could have then trained as a chef – it’s completely taken me over. I love the acting, but food is something that I have fallen in love with because of that thing of pushing myself and learning different things. I do charity dinners, pop-up restaurants. I’ve been cooking at Roux at Parliament Square and at Smiths, which is John Torode’s restaurant. I want to grab these amazing opportunities with both hands.”

What does she do when she turns up at a restaurant? “I’m quite happy to wash spinach and watch what everyone is doing. You get to do a lot of prep; you’re learning about boning animals and making sauces and reductions and confiting and pressing duck. To me it’s absolutely fascinating. I’m not afraid to say, ‘Why are you doing that? Can you teach me?’ I love the adrenalin of working in a team. I am just a cook. I am not anything else there. When the first check comes through, oh, it’s the theatre and the excitement. And you’ve got a dish that goes out and somebody’s eaten it – it’s an amazing feeling!”

She’s even taken to hanging around her local butcher’s shop. “At Christmas he said, ‘Come in on a Tuesday and you can do a whole pig or sheep.’ If you’re going to eat meat, you can’t be funny about where it comes from, or what bits are what. I want to know. I’m working on my next book already, about cooking for special occasions, and my husband gets really cross. He says, ‘You’re talking about lunch at breakfast!’ ”

Would she consider cooking full time? With alacrity she replies, “I’d absolutely love to, but it’s not feasible. I have Billie and my other jobs, as well. I’m doing the new series of Heir Hunters and Murdoch Mysteries for television, and cookery appearances in the United States.”

And what about Billie, is she continuing the family tradition of keeping mum company while she whips up one masterpiece after another? “She cooks with me all the time. She puts the herbs in and loves tasting stuff. There are things she doesn’t like – I have all the same dramas as every other mother, but because she likes to be with me, and I want her to join in, we cook together, so she will always be more adventurous than a lot of people, I suppose.”

All this talk of food is making us salivate. Apart from gingerbread, what’s she planning for dinner later? “My husband has football on Mondays, so I’m having a jacket potato and salad and prawns and mayonnaise. A really boring Monday night dinner, but you know what, I love it!”