The evening before I interview Nick Frost, I make his Aunty Linda’s tuna and tomato pasta with garlic bread. The kitchen is not my natural habitat. Bomb disposal experts have gone about their work with less caution than I exercised when wrapping the bread in kitchen foil. Despite my best efforts, the meal was delicious. Thanks, Aunty Linda. And Nick.
The recipe came from Frost’s new book, A Slice of Fried Gold. The blurb accurately describes it as “a mix of recipe, memoir and digressions”. Inside its pages you will find musings on imaginary fine-dining restaurant La Maison de Squirt; biographical tidbits such as Frost eating a crouton from Sigourney Weaver’s leftover chicken salad; and heartfelt meditations on his mother’s alcoholism and his own struggles with depression.
There’s little of Frost’s considerable screen accomplishments – Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, etc – although he includes the recipe for ‘pie in a bowl’, a delicacy enjoyed with Simon Pegg in their flatsharing days. Primarily it’s about the food he loves and the people he loves and the salvation he found in both. “There are only two times that my brain is completely silent,” Frost tells me during an expansive Zoom call. “When I’m cooking or when I’m painting. Other than that, it’s just fucking mayhem.”
Mayhem, and magic also. Like food, the mind of Nick Frost is a pretty glorious thing.
Square Mile: I made your Aunty Linda’s tuna and tomato pasta last night.
Nick Frost: You’re still alive!
SM: I really enjoyed it. I felt like a proper cook when I wrapped the garlic bread in foil…
NF: Good! The one thing I’d say about the book is people generally shouldn’t try any of the recipes for fear that they might die – but you seem to be fine.
SM: Absolutely fine! I even added some mushrooms and Worcester sauce.
NF: That’s the thing about cooking. You can tinker and add things and take stuff out.
SM: I really liked the book’s open-mindedness towards cooking. ‘You can’t fuck it up’ seems to be the constant mantra.
NF: Or, ‘don’t be afraid to fuck it up.’ I used to make a lot of bread and post it on Instagram. People say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so afraid!’ It’s like 20p worth of flour and some yeast and water. That’s it. Fuck it. Do it again.
SM: You made the bread to help with your insomnia, right?
NF: I went through a phase of not sleeping at all for years and years. In the end I kind of embraced getting up at 1am and being really active until about 5am and then sleeping on the couch for a couple of hours and just starting the day as normal.
Painting is nice too because I can just do it. I’ve got a studio, but if it’s cold and dark I just stand in the kitchen and do watercolours.
SM: It feels like there are a lot of similarities between cooking and painting…
NF: I think painting is technically easier. You can just do anything and say, well, that’s what I meant. The thing I like about cooking is there’s a science and a method: even though you can add mushrooms to the tuna pasta, there is a formula to it.
What I like about art is there is no formula. As long as you are happy – as long as I’m enjoying it and not thinking about the sun blowing up – then that’s OK. That’s the payoff for me and art, while I sometimes like the rigidity of a recipe.
SM: Fair. You can add mushrooms to tomato sauce but you can’t add, I don’t know…
NF: A trumpet
SM: …custard. Or a trumpet.
NF: I guess you could serve it in a trumpet.
SM: Like pie in a bowl; pasta in a trumpet. OK, I have a pretentious question. What does food mean to you?
NF: As someone who has the tendencies of a massive people pleaser, I think it does two things. It protects me from having to engage in small talk. I’m just bad at all that, even with friends I’ve known for years and years. When people come to the house, sometimes my girlfriend will find me in the toilet. I just find it difficult even though I utterly love the people who are in the house.
Food can protect me against that: I can spend four hours cooking while people are here chatting, throwing in the occasional funny. But what I can do is then serve you up something which is tasty and delicious and I’ve put my heart into it and it’s a physical manifestation of the love I feel for these people in my house.
There’s also an element of calming down a brain, which is constantly firing in a million different directions. I find that with writing or cooking or painting. Once I start cooking, I’m hyper-focused on peeling a carrot. Also, nourishing my family – we eat so much processed food. I do too, but also cooking enables me to feel slightly better as a father and a partner in terms of OK, let’s try and eat homemade food five times a week. That’s that aspect of it too.
SM: I liked how the book feels a bit like going inside your mind. There’s biography, recipes, slightly surreal tangents…
NF: That’s about me not wanting necessarily to just write a recipe book. I wanted to find a decent angle which didn’t feel pretentious. I wrote a book before, a memoir, and I really enjoyed the feedback I got from that – in terms of lots of people saying, ‘Hey, my mother was an alcoholic,’ or ‘I’ve had these problems.’ I liked the fact that by sharing a truth that other people could somehow find their own voice.
Yes, it’s a recipe book for stuff that I cook at home but it also talks about deeper things. And I always wanted to be a novelist so the chance to suddenly peel off on a tangent from a ragu recipe to suddenly two young lovers who weren’t meant to be at a wedding and then 60 years later they have eight children. I love that thing where sometimes when you are reading a book and you turn a page and you read a line and you think, hang on, how the fuck did we get here?
SM: It’s interesting: the autobiographies of successful people tend to focus on their success. Yet you’ve written two autobiographical books and neither of them really cover that period. Is that deliberate?
NF: It’s absolutely deliberate. Sometimes celebrity memoirs written about being a celebrity can often come off sounding rather ungrateful. Talking about attending a premiere and your handmade shoes are rubbing and you’ve got private jet lag and you met so-and-so at a lavish dinner and you’re bored – it’s like, fuck off. It’s completely unattainable for normal human beings andI think it comes across as crap.
This is me trying to kid myself essentially but I think I’m a regular human who happens to be able to act. And I’ve been very good at that and I’m very grateful for the opportunities it’s given me. But in terms of having a voice, I felt that voice was better directed at things that I knew personally. And those things happen to be addiction and alcoholism and grief and trauma.
I’m not trying to be one of those people that’s like, ‘I’m trying to help people.’ It’s more a case of: ‘This is what happened to me and this is how I dealt with it and this is how I deal with it every day. Maybe you are a bit like that too, and if you are then have a read and hopefully you’ll get something from this.’ I’m always aware that I come from a privileged place in terms of being fairly successful in the acting industry and I never want to come across as boring and disingenuous.
SM: Are you a fan of Anthony Bourdain?
NF: Yeah, absolutely. This is going to sound like one of those boring, disingenuous stories now, but when I was staying in Chateau Marmont in LA about five years ago, I came down to have breakfast and he was there, having breakfast. I’d made sure he had finished, I went and introduced myself and said, ‘I’m a massive fan’… then I didn’t know what to say and went, ‘OK, bye’, and drifted off.
But I was very proud that I got to meet him. Bourdain is someone that started off like me working as a line cook – I worked in a Mexican restaurant, he was in a more high-end French place – but he was a normal human who had something to say and people loved him. People loved him because he was honest and funny and spoke his truth.
If you can write something from the heart and people feel like you are talking to them directly – because nine times out of ten, humans have all had a similar kind of experience. Anthony did all those things and people attached to that and attached to him and felt like he was talking to them directly. And in many cases, he was.
SM: ‘A slice of fried gold’ – you coined that phrase in Spaced, right?
NF: Yeah. If something was great and amazing, it became fried gold. I used to drink in a pub in the daytime, The Turk’s Head in Highgate where we used to live. I loved getting in there at one o’clock, having a lasagna and chips and staying until seven or eight.
Often I’d be sitting next to this old lady in her seventies who would just drink gin and tonics but she was completely made up. She always looked immaculate and her hands were always incredible and her nails were amazing and she had lots of gold on. We never really spoke but we sat next to each other and drank and the telly was on.
I wrote in a diary once – I used to keep diaries and write everything down – I wrote that her hair was the colour of fried gold and that’s where the phrase came from. I was probably 25, 26 then, still working in the restaurant, thinking about doing some standup and trying to write a novel.
SM: The book is described on the blurb as ‘a love letter to food’ – but it also reads like a love letter to your partner Hayley and to your kids as well. Is that a fair assessment?
NF: Yeah, I would suggest that my love for my children and for my partner was something that potentially saved my life. It was the catalyst and the thing that let me try and think of something nice. It was a light in a really shit dark room that I was drawn towards. And it was very clear that that was absolutely worth living for.
SM: That’s beautiful. You describe how your love of cooking stems from the pride of your parents when you first made beef stroganoff, which is a lovely passage. It’s an impressive dish for a twelve year old to attempt…
NF: My mum and dad both cooked. I was always fascinated with process and being allowed to do something or taste gravy before it was finished. Dad used to pour a tin of McEwan’s beer into his gravy and I’d say that I felt a bit drunk. I’d give gravy with beer in it to my 12 year old and he’d do the same thing.
It always stayed with me because in a house that could be a fucking awful place to live in as a child, that was not at all awful. That was the best bit of it. So I think my love for cooking was about a child trying to hang on to happiness. That’s what I put onto food and to cooking from a really early age and that’s stayed with me. Happy. It makes me happy.
SM: Were you not tempted to cook professionally? Make a career of it?
NF: Well, I was a barman in a restaurant and the tips weren’t as good as the waiters’. So I became a waiter and was really good at that. But after four or five years of dealing with the general public all the time… I think I served someone a rack of ribs once and she complained that they had bones in. Then I transferred to the kitchen.
It was just Ugandan men working there. Then I rocked up and they took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew about the food we cooked in that restaurant. They taught me how to chop and to cook and stir. That was my education in kitchens. I enjoyed it and I got a lot out of it but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
Even up to the age of 30 – then I was like, ‘You’re acting: you’ve done a couple of seasons of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead so let’s do this.’ Up until that point, I was just all right doing what I did. I liked working in the restaurant, I made enough money so I could go raving at the weekend. I never once thought, ‘What am I going to fucking do?’ I just kept going.
SM: Do you think your love of cooking is related to your neurodivergence?
NF: I mean, there’s a peace that descends on my brain when now all I’m doing is separating eggs. ‘How much sugar is in this? How much is that? What are my timings? So I need to get the food on the table at 3pm, so I’ve got to get this in the oven at two, this goes in at quarter to eleven.’
There are only two times that my brain is completely silent – and that’s when I’m cooking or when I’m painting. Other than that, it’s just fucking mayhem. Maybe there’s also a psychological need to silence all those noises and just be at peace, chopping a carrot for five minutes.
SM: It sounds like the kitchen has been a real place of refuge for you over your life?
NF: Totally. Often there’s a physical barrier between you when you’re in the kitchen. In our kitchen, we’ve got a little island where the sink is and I stand behind that; I do my prep on that and people stand on the other side. So there’s a space. A defendable position.
SM: Are you more comfortable in the kitchen than on set?
NF: No, on set is the place I feel the most comfortable. Every set for me is the same. All the equipment is the same, all the crew are the same. All the crew wear the same clothes as every crew in the world. I know everything they say, I know what the language means. Usually, not always, you’ve got to know your place in the food chain, but usually I’ve got a voice, I can ask questions. I just love it.
It never gets boring, either. I’m always learning something. There’ll always be a bit of equipment where I end up saying to a camera assistant, ‘Hey, what’s that? What does that do?’ There’s always something new, even though it’s very same-y, which is comforting for my brain. The cameraman is doing something new or they’re using a different filter. I love all that.
SM: Your mum is another person who suffuses the book throughout…
NF: Yeah, I spent a lot of my time as a young person – 18, 19, 20 – running away from her and just being angry because she was an alcoholic and because I was her, I was her as a child. And that resentment and that anger built to a crescendo and then she died. So I couldn’t even vent to her how I felt.
Then I spent a long time hating my mum. But now I’m 51, and the last few years have been very different for me. It’s only through addressing my own problems as a human that I fully understood why my mum did what she did. And in discovering that in myself, I found it easy to forgive her.
That took 26 years. But I’m very grateful that it only took 26 years. There are people who spend their whole fucking life angry at something, at someone or feeling resentful for something that they thought they deserve but it didn’t happen to them. I came to understand that the things my mum did and the person my mum became was as a result of things that happened to her.
She didn’t choose to be that person. She didn’t choose to be that woman but she had no choice. That was something, as a younger man I didn’t understand. I’m very lucky and grateful and happy that I’ve found that out and I could accept that and understand why.
SM: Was there anything specific that triggered that understanding and forgiveness? Or was it a gradual process?
NF: Just looking at myself. It is fine to look at someone and make someone some kind of emotional scapegoat. Why did you do this to me? How could you do this to your child? Then cut to years later when perhaps I was doing a similar thing to one of my children and not realising. Then suddenly like, oh my God, I totally get that. I understand how and why a person would do something like that.
SM: The book ends on a beautiful note: you telling your younger self that his story will have a happy ending…
NF: At this point it is a happy ending, I think. I just don’t want the book to be like, ‘Oh, it’s recipes but it’s a memoir and wasn’t his life shit.’ It is a happy ending. For a long time it wasn’t going to be a happy ending but now it is. So I’m fucking absolutely going to celebrate that.
SM: Absolutely. One of my favourite quotes is from the American version of The Office: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” Likewise, it’s important to recognise ‘happily ever after’ once you’ve reached it…
NF: Totally. My mate said it to me years ago, when we were having a drunken conversation one night: “It’s all right to succeed. It’s OK to win every now and again. You don’t have to be shy of that or embarrassed by it. It’s all right.”
SM: OK, a couple of food questions to end on. What does a great meal mean to you?
NF: Oh, I dunno. I guess it is a chance to be with my girlfriend. Hanging out without our kids, I hope. The chance to try something maybe I’ve never tried before or taste something that will just stay with me for a long time. And I’ll think about it for ages and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that was amazing and I can taste it again.’ Just experiencing magic.
I’m not even talking high end – just a well-cooked chicken thigh with a bit of soy sauce on it. I get high cuisine and fine dining and I think it is absolutely magic. But there is a joy and a simplicity for me in a nice roasted chicken thigh with some coriander.
SM: What’s your last meal on death row?
NF: How am I being killed?
SM: Good question. Do you get to choose?
NF: It depends what state you’re in. I think the last meal would be something that I could never really eat without feeling a ton of guilt that my heart might explode. Like a fucking massive bucket of KFC. And that nice gravy they do. With loads of salt.
Also, if they were going to electrocute me, maybe all the fat in the chicken would act as a superconductor and I’d die quicker.
SM: Finally, dream dinner party…
NF: Well, I’m thinking now, oh, Hunter S Thompson and Jimi Hendrix, but in reality it would be my mate Danny, my mate Tony and my partner. Just hanging out. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright pop in. All the girls.
SM: Thanks so much for your time. I’ll attempt your beef stroganoff this weekend.
NF: Thanks, man. I appreciate it.
'A Slice of Fried Gold' by Nick Frost is out now.