In this month's edition of the Unwrapped Interview, we're joined by Nina Parker, chef to the stars and lover of vegetables. We talk about meat, shoulder tapping and Nina’s latest cook book - Saucy.
What inspired you to get into cooking?
I suppose my Polish grandma – she got me into very rich foods like lobster and crème brulé when I was little! She was into lavish stuff and lots of cakes!. She gave me vodka when I was little, that was the Polski side of the family. My mum and dad are not great cooks at ALL so it was all from her side.
When I left university I wanted to work in food, so I thought “I’ll be someone’s sous-chef” - with no idea that sous-chef is only one level below head chef! I just thought, how hard can it be?! I clearly hadn’t watched Masterchef. Then I got a job and my boss there was Francesco Mazzei who I still sometimes work with and do supper clubs with, and he said that if I had a passion for it he would teach me everything in the kitchen.
It was definitely a slow start – I wasn’t very good at cooking before uni.
Your recipes have evolved to become much more vegan-friendly – what made you decide to move to more meat-free dishes?
I’ve watched a lot of documentaries. It’s been almost 4 years now since I became mostly vegetarian, that was when I watched things like Cowspiracy and realised the effects of the meat industry. It made me feel so good personally so I thought I’d start encouraging others too.
I did Veganuary and really enjoyed it, but it’s been a gradual thing. I feel like with this type of food you can be much more imaginative.
But it’s everything – environment, health, sustainability, animal cruelty…
This summer I did a job and had to kill 6 lobsters, which I used to do a lot and I just found it very hard – I felt sad afterwards but I had to say to myself: they’re just lobsters, get a grip!
Do you think there’s any place for meat in a sustainable diet?
Yes I do, because of the amount of people who tell me that they need to have it as part of their balanced diet. I think it’s just about provenance, where it comes from, if it’s local.
If I have to cook meat for clients, I only ever get it from a really good butcher where I know where it comes from. If you need it, local meat, as far as possible, can be part of a sustainable diet.
You’ve just released a new book, Saucy. What led you to focus on sauces?
Leading a mainly plant based diet, obviously you end up consuming a lot of vegetables and to make those delicious I would make dressings with miso or chipotle or chilli oil, using easily available condiments to make great dressings quickly.
So I thought that could be interesting – I can put my chilli oil on anything and it makes it amazing – rice, noodles, whatever.
It’s really because basically I wanted more good sauces for myself!
You’ve looked all over the world for incredible, less heard of sauces – which part of the world do you think produces the best food?
I think Mexico and Japan are really good, but for imaginative fusion, I would have to say California. They take all of those fusions and make them modern and exciting, always putting unusual cuisines together and revamping them. Everything we get in London I always think is from 2 years ago in California. Sushi burritos! They’re so good at mixing things and making food modern.
If you could only eat one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Definitely pasta, for sure! Basically all last week I ate pasta and nothing else! I’ve just made these really good tortellini with charred ricotta and brown butter walnut sauce and they are sooo good, I’ll put them up on Instagram very soon.
What’s next for Nina Food?
I feel like I’m having a bit of a break but… maybe perfecting and bringing out my chilli oil as a product. But we’ll see!
What in life to you most object to?
I object to people tapping me! It drives me crazy, if someone taps me, on the shoulder or wherever, I can’t handle it!
And I also object to a wet towel scrunched on the floor