After a year in lockdown, and endless hours in the kitchen, it’s easy to start feeling bored by the usual dishes you have on rotation.
Whether you’re tired of the same old pasta recipe that makes a recurring appearance in your weekly menu or are struggling to find ways to make vegetables remotely exciting, Nina Parker – an expert at sprucing up simple dishes with punchy flavours – has the solution.
“I went mostly vegetarian about four years ago and realised the best way to make healthy food interesting was through a great sauce, dressing, or marinade. I also created a great chilli oil which I put on everything,” she explains. With this in mind, the food entrepreneur and private chef (to the likes of Donatella Versace, Russell Brand, and Stormzy) launched her third cookbook, Saucy, a collection of sauce recipes inspired by her travels around the world. “The concept that you have one great sauce that you can put on anything and it will just light it all up, is how Saucy was born!” she shares.
We caught up with Nina to get the lowdown on easy ideas to zest up your next dinner, and found out about the strange food request Donatella Versace had her make for Fashion Week.
How did you first get into cooking?
I was always interested in ice cream and cakes, much like all kids. My Polish grandmother got me into rich foods such as lobster, oysters, and creme brûlée when I was little. She used to take me out for lunches when we were on holiday. It was a passion that properly grew when I left university and got a job working at L’Anima, near Liverpool Street.
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What are your favourite childhood food memories?
There used to be this amazing ice-cream parlour in Port Grimaud, in the South of France, called Del Rey. I would save up all my pocket money and spend it on Belgian waffles, banana splits, and dame blanche (a sweet dessert consisting of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and warm molten chocolate). It was total heaven, and for a long time, I wanted to recreate it back here in London. I think back to that place and it always reminds me of the good times, and definitely shaped me and my food style.
Who’s influenced your cooking the most?
I grew up loving Ottolenghi cakes and his pastry. I was also heavily influenced by the Italian chefs in L’Anima – Francesco Mazzei, Lello Favuzzi, and Claudio Milani. They really taught me about hard work and discipline, as well as how to cook. I’ve also been influenced by the LA food scene and the way they are not afraid to try out any flavour combinations. LA restaurants’ attention to combining flavour with healthy food has had a big impact on my cooking.
The strangest request you’ve gotten from one of your celebrity clients…
Scrambled egg-white omelette – and I had to make it look pretty. I had to put edible flowers all around it and I wasn’t allowed to season it either. As you can imagine, it’s hard to make that appealing. That was for Donatella Versace for Fashion Week.
Tell us about some of your favourite places to shop for produce in London…
It’s a long list! I like to get my fish from Jaines and Son and Steve Hatt. I live very close to the famous Newington Green grocer and my corner shop offers amazing vegetable produce with zero plastic. There is also a good refill place called Mother Earth in Newington Green where I try to get everything from shampoo to oats refills. When I’m cooking meat for clients, I recommend Provenance or Meat N16 butchers. There’s also a good Italian deli called Gallo Nero for burrata.
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
Toasted sesame oil.
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If you could only have one sauce in your kitchen for the rest of your life, what would it be?
My Asian-inspired chilli oil. It goes on anything and everything!
Where are your favourite places to dine in London?
I love The Dusty Knuckle Bakery, Pophams, and Padella for pasta, Violet Cakes and My Neighbours The Dumplings for an easy dinner with mates as you can go in a group (although, it feels an age since I was last in a restaurant).
What is your go-to meal at home when you’re low on time?
Probably something with toast involved. Maybe hummus on Dusty-Knuckle sourdough (which I always keep in the freezer) with steamed broccoli, sesame seeds, and a soya-tahini dressing, topped with chilli oil (if I have some).
You’re having friends over for dinner. Which recipes from Saucy would you whip up for an appetiser, main, and dessert?
I would definitely do the Bagna Cauda pickled veg. That is SO delicious and such a crowd-pleaser! Then I would probably go for the fish or vegan tacos, or the miso aubergine for mains with veggie sides. Dessert would have to be the brown-butter blondies, which I think is my most-made recipe ever.
Any kitchen tips to help us spice things up while cooking at home?
I would try to follow at least one new recipe from a cookbook a week. I think this is one of the best ways to learn new skills and be more confident in the kitchen. A mandoline slicer and microplane are also key.
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What is the biggest misconception people have about plant-based cooking?
That it is boring and mushy. It definitely can be, sadly, but I also think it can be some of the most delicious food, with the added bonus of making you feel good. People say that it’s expensive but when you compare it to meat or fish, it is definitely better value.
Must-visit food cities include…
Lisbon, Los Angeles, and Mexico City.
Advice for women thinking about starting a business in the food or restaurant industry…
Get experience in a restaurant, even if you don’t want to work as a chef. I think it’s helpful for anyone wanting to understand the food industry to learn how to work hard and be disciplined. It’s a life experience and I truly believe that. I think anyone who eats in restaurants should do it to be honest.
Order your copy of Saucy (£13) here.