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Food + Cooking

10 Questions for Sophie Dahl

Published in Gourmet Live 09.05.12
The cookbook author and former model talks about healthy eating, her famous family, and her love of breakfast—recipes included

By Lauren Salkeld
10 Questions for Sophie Dahl

Clockwise from center: Baked Pumpkin with Lemon, Sautéed Greens, and Toasted Cumin Dressing; Tapioca with Stewed Apples and Apricots; Salmon Fillets with a Wasabi Coating.

Cookbook author Sophie Dahl describes her modeling years as a "weird accident that happened to become a career." Discovered at 18, by the late legendary fashion editor Isabella Blow, Dahl quickly rose to fame, traveling the world to be photographed by some of the biggest names in the business. But writing was her early passion—little surprise, as Dahl is the granddaughter of Roald Dahl, author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. She started with fiction, writing an illustrated novella, The Man with the Dancing Eyes, and a novel, Playing with the Grown-Ups, but in the past few years, Dahl has channeled much of her energy into cooking and writing about food. She's authored two cookbooks, Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights and the recently published Very Fond of Food: A Year in Recipes, and hosted two food programs on BBC Two, The Delicious Miss Dahl and The Marvellous Mrs. Beeton. Dahl opened up about her dual careers, how she stays healthy, and her grandfather's unsurprising fondness for chocolate. Plus, she shared three recipes from Very Fond of Food: Tapioca with Stewed Apples and Apricots; Salmon Fillets with a Wasabi Coating; and Baked Pumpkin with Lemon, Sautéed Greens, and Toasted Cumin Dressing.

Gourmet Live: Your first career was as a model. How and why did you transition to writing, specifically about food?

Sophie Dahl: I had grown up surrounded by writers and wanting to write. I stopped [modeling] in 2007 because I wanted to get better at writing and the only way to get better at something is do a lot of it. I had also been passionate about food, cooking, and food writing, and so it seemed like a natural progression. I'm still working on fiction, though, too.

GL: Do you see any similarities between writing and modeling?

SD: Not really, although both require a fair amount of discipline, physical and mental. I love—and hate!—that writing is totally self-mandated and -contained, whereas modeling is anything but.

GL: Your grandfather, Roald Dahl, often wrote about food. Do you have any memories of him involving food?

SD: He wasn't a cook, but he loved good food. He could do basics, and used to make a delicious sandwich for us when we were children, involving crispy bacon and marmalade. [He was] also very keen on chocolate in all its incarnations, which I have inherited.

GL: What about your grandmother, actress Patricia Neal? Do you have any food memories involving her?

SD: My aunts would talk about this chicken recipe that she used to make in the '70s, and it became like the holy grail of recipes, but no one could really remember what went in it, particularly not her. I was determined to re-create it, and knew it had a lot of tarragon, cream, and mushrooms, but the rest was a mystery. When I asked my grandmother what was in it, she replied, "Christ, I don't know, baby… Chicken?"

GL: You wrote and hosted the BBC Two program The Marvellous Mrs. Beeton about Isabella Beeton, author of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. What drew you to Beeton?

SD: She was such an enigma. Everyone imagines the voice behind this tome of a book as a starchy old matron, when in fact she was a twentysomething, newlywed fashion journalist. She saw a gap in the market and developed a voice to comfort the new middle-class women who were living in cities, as the industrial revolution was taking place, far away from families and the familiar. She died very young, and her brand continued to thrive. Her letters are wonderful, and I became very fond of her throughout the process.

GL: Do you get involved in the photography and styling for your cookbooks?

SD: It's one of my favorite parts of it. For Very Fond of Food, we used mostly all of my own things, dishes, plates, vintage wallpapers, and fabrics as backdrops. I wanted the color tone of the book to feel quite Scandinavian, which I think we achieved, and I love the thickness and feel of the paper. I am a proper geek with detail.

GL: What's the best meal you've ever had?

SD: God, it changes a lot, but on my brother's 21st birthday we sat on a dock in Menemsha, Martha's Vineyard, and ate cracked lobster with butter on paper plates, along with corn on the cob and coleslaw. We drank cold bottles of beer, and had brownies for dessert. Really simple, and totally sublime.

GL: You've included a lot of breakfast recipes in Very Fond of Food. Do you always eat it? What's on your ultimate morning menu?

SD: Breakfast would be my last meal if I was heading off to the ax. Savory breakfast, kedgeree, and really hot buttered soda bread and a huge pot of thick, French hot chocolate. I may be killed by the breakfast before the ax.

GL: What's your approach to dieting and staying healthy?

SD: I was pretty disciplined back in the day—a lot of protein and vegetables. These days, I'm not trying to fit into a sample size, so I don't think about it that much, unless my jeans get particularly tight—like after Christmas—and then I exercise more and eat a bit less. Old-fashioned has always worked for me. I avoid anything processed, and I like to use flours like spelt and buckwheat. I use agave in a lot of my cooking, too. But, equally, I am very partial to salted chocolate and a glass of red wine.

GL: You're the mother of a 17-month-old. Do you hope to pass your passion for food on to your daughter?

SD: I don't think about it, I just try and include her in preparation and tasting because it's fun. So I'll hold her hand and let her mix with me, and lift her up to let her look in pans and smell what's happening as stuff is cooking. Then we all eat together.