Food writer Niki Segnit believes that by learning the basics of cooking you can unleash your creativity without needed to use a recipe book any longer.
With the release of her second book Lateral Cooking, which she has been working on for the past 8 years, she explores the basis of 77 recipes which show readers how one dish can lead to another as they expand their culinary horizons and increase their confidence in cooking. Having worked on this book for 8 years, this is the companion to her first award winning book Flavour Thesaurus which won critical acclaim among chefs and food lovers alike.
With Lateral Cooking she wants people to understand the connection between a custard, a creme caramel, a creme brûlée and an ice-cream. “Ultimately, they are all variations of the same theme,” she explained.
The book grew organically and she never expected it to take eight years to finalise but she continued to discover new things as she went about her research and she had to test each recipe to be able to create this compendium of recipes.
Niki said that she came across many surprises on her journey to write the book and she thinks this would also be valid for experienced cooks with a broad repertoire of experience.
One example she cites is what can be achieved with 250 grammes of flour, water and some salt. That is the basis to create a dough and from this dough you can create different foods from different regions around the world “When you make a dough with these ingredients, you can make bread, a tortilla or taco, if you use buckwheat you can make Japanese noodles and if you add olive oil you can make crackers. These all come from the idea of making a dough,” she said. “With just a tiny variation, you can create something completely different,” she said.
In a previous interview she has been quoted as saying that she barely knew how to peel a potato before she embarked on writing her first book but she says that might be a bit exaggerated. “When I was 18, I knew how to cook two things. A pea and potato soup and a lentil and tomato soup. I must have known how to peel potatoes to make a soup,” she said.
But she admits that interest in food was rather low until her mid-20s because she had her sister cooking for her. “But that changed in my mid-20s when my sister got married and I realised that if I was to eat good food like my mother used to cook us, I had to learn how to cook myself,” she told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
“I think that parents of teenagers should not despair if their children are picky eaters. My mother used to cook 70s style food which was very good and healthy and I ended up with a passion for cooking good and fresh food because I realised that if I was going to eat well, I needed to start cooking,” she said.
That love of food and cooking came from a trip to a friend in the South of France. It was there that she discovered the joys of laying a table with good food and how food was a vehicle to a great party. At first she thought that those cooking skills would serve her to attract boyfriends, something she discovered was not the case, at least at the time, but it gave her a useful tool which allowed her to get where she is today.
Niki Segnit’s first book, the Flavour Thesaurus won the Andre Simon award for best food book, the Guild of Food Writers Award for best first book and was shortlisted for the Galaxy National Book Awards. It was translated into 13 languages.
Niki said that with Lateral Cooking she has created the book which she would have needed as she embarked on writing the Flavour Thesaurus. “While researching that book I realised that there was nothing which documented what could be done with different types of flavour combinations. For example, if I embarked on pairing rosemary with chocolate, I could make a cake or an ice-cream but needed to look in different places to find the recipes.
She has received positive feedback from chefs and bakers for her new book Lateral Cooking but she said she has written it for a wide-audience. “I would think it is for people who are like-minded, who love to cook but I doubt it is for someone who is indifferent to cooking or food,” she said.
Niki used to work in marketing before she took to writing. She told Food and Wine Gazette that her previous career gave her the necessary tools she needed to write The Flavour Thesaurus. “I used to work as a strategist and to do that I needed to research the product, understand the people who liked it and how they would use it. I think that the Flavour Thesaurus went through a similar process since went through a lot of rigorous research to write it.”
She finished Lateral Thinking in April and it was published in the UK in September and in the Netherlands in November. The book is set to be released in the coming months in Italian, Chinese, Spanish and Russian. The US version will come out later next year but Niki is already working on her third book. “For the time being, I am thinking about new opportunities to test new things. I am tinkering and thinking of the structure and as from January, I will start writing,” she said without giving a hint of what the new project will entail.
Asked what hints she would give to people who are interested in food but who do not necessarily know how to cook, Niki said that they should expect things to go wrong. “Even when you watch programmes like Masterchef of television, you find that people who have been cooking professionally for many years can still make mistakes. “It is a bit like horse-riding where you learn by falling. It is part of the learning process. Things will go wrong but it doesn’t matter. You should get back because you will get better and better but remember that anyone can have an off day,” she said.
She tells me that the book which had the most important influence on her was the New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson which she was introduced to by her husband. “It is probably from here that I came about the idea of the Flavour Thesaurus,” she said.