The top chef and author dishes on clean eating, her favourite Middle Eastern flavours, and how social media is changing the face of food…
Scottish-born, London-trained chef Gizzi Erskine has previously compared herself to Nigella Lawson – but “edgier”.
And her penchant for vintage Sixties dresses, beehives and thick black eyeliner does set the 37-year-old Brit apart, as does her willingness to speak out about the rise of amateur social media chefs.
After being catapulted to fame on UK show Cook Yourself Thin, Erskine has gone on to front her own cooking programmes, and publish a number of wildly successful cookbooks.
The TV host was in town this week for the Dubai Food Festival, so we quizzed her on everything from Instagram health gurus to what to cook in our baking-hot summer…
EW: What do you make of the whole clean-eating trend – a food fad or something that’s here to stay?
GE: The essence of what clean eating means is actually something I think we should all live by; eating pure foods, cooking with fresh ingredients, understanding what goes into what you eat, and eating the best quality produce you can get your hands on – that we can’t argue with.
Unfortunately it has sort of moved on with a lot of bloggers, and changed into something that has become more about extreme health. It’s convoluted messages about what health really means. It has now turned into gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and people will believe that these are the healthiest ways to live. And as someone who is passionate about food and where it comes from, I really believe it’s a terrible thing that’s happening to the dairy industry and wheat industry.
Veganism isn’t always the best diet for everyone, you really need to have a full understanding of those things you’re missing out on – B12 being one of them. There are a lot of B vitamins you don’t get if you’re a vegan. We’re all Instagram-obsessed at the moment, and you go through it and see spiralised courgetti from a 22-year-old blogger saying this is healthy. It’s topped with some tomato sauce – or even worse, an avocado pesto – and it’s not delicious, it’s health over flavour.
You can’t tell me that is better for you than a lamb stew made with really good quality meat with loads of fruit and vegetables and onions and garlic and fresh herbs. That is much better for you. It’s rib-sticking, gut-busting food but it’s good, it doesn’t have to pile on the pounds.
It just makes me very sad there is this mixed messaging, and I worry for young girls and boys now.
We live in a horrendously hot environment here for several months of the year. What dishes would you recommend cooking at a time when tasty stews, comforting soups and the like are too heavy?
I think you’re very lucky here – I always love to get your Lebanese and Arabic foods, which I think are brilliant. They’re very healthy naturally – there is a lot of fried stuff but if you’re having light mezzes, like hummus, fattoush and tabouleh and all of that, that is healthy food.
You also have some of the best Japanese restaurants in the world, so I would embrace that. Again, it’s knowing you can eat what you like, but maybe cut it and eat half of the rice. Don’t go nuts, basically.
What are some easy substitutes people should be making to keep meals healthy without being too time-consuming?
It could be pan-frying a salmon steak really quickly – or butterflying so it cooks in half the time. Just having a well-stocked aromatics drawer (herbs, gingers and garlics, chillis and stuff) and then having a well-stocked cupboard with soy sauce, fish sauce and then loads of spices.
You can really easily make a peri-crusted salmon steak and maybe a stir-fry with loads of veg. There’s loads of things you can do.
Do you feel the rise in Instagram health gurus and home chefs is a great way to get more people cooking, or are they doing more harm than good?
It’s a fine line. I’m fully in support of anybody who feels passionate about anything and wants to lay their cards on the table and show the world – I think that’s wonderful. Once you start getting over a certain amount of followers, you then have a responsibility and I think you have to be very, very cautious and careful.
A lot of these people haven’t asked for their fame, it’s just sort of just risen up and they’ve jumped on a great thing. I don’t blame the player, I blame the game, and it’s the publishers and the TV companies and those people who have the responsibility, so that’s actually more the problem. [When] you’re 23 years old and you’re going to write a blog and everyone’s going to go nuts about it, of course you’re going to go for it.
It’s difficult for me because people presume that I’m within that category sometimes and I’m not – I’m a journalist. I trained as a chef and I did my work placement in magazines and newspapers, so that’s something a lot of people don’t realise; I’ve never blogged.
Moodily lit dinner of “Mexican” sopas verde. Which I’ve kind of pimped. Chicken soup with loads of garlic, green chillies, cumin, ground coriander, cloves, cinnamon, then okra, spinach and a whole bunch of fresh coriander. And lots of lime and salt and avocado in at the end. FIX ME. I’m serious. I’m missing @helenedarroze galette des rois night and #simonrogan dinner cos I got me some laryngitis
What are your favourite Middle Eastern ingredients and flavours to cook with?
Molasses, sumac, za’atar… I love it all actually, I just love Middle Eastern food. I used to live on Pedro Road in London, that’s where I was brought up and that’s where I cut my teeth. Everyone else was going to the horrible doner kebab place and I was getting shawarma from Anoustis on the way home.
Any favourite Dubai restaurants? What’s the best thing you’ve eaten during your visit so far?
It’s really hard – there are too many now and I feel like I would upset too many people if I pinpointed one restaurant. I just think it’s great that it’s so diverse – street food is coming up in such a big way now.
For a long time I think people saw Dubai as a playground for the rich and famous, and actually it’s not now. There are people who work here and want to try loads of things and are inspired by what’s going on around the world, and Dubai is catching up fast.
What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring female chefs who want to break into the business?
I would go out and learn your skill. Nowadays there are too many people cutting corners, we can see that through Instagram. You might have the best blog of all time, you might have the X Factor, but let’s go back to basics because you will be far more respected and you’ll have more longevity if you do it all properly.