MasterChef judge Grace Dent: What I eat when nobody's looking
Award-winning food writer and restaurant critic Grace Dent admits that when she gets home after a day of sampling highbrow delicacies in the MasterChef studios, she bungs in McCain oven chips and hurls Saxa salt at them followed by Sarson’s malt vinegar.
The bag of chips is returned to her freezer where it sits alongside Birds Eye potato waffles, Magnums and a Warburtons Toastie white loaf in what she and her other half Charlie call ‘the Drawer of Deliciousness’.
That’s just for starters in her latest book, Comfort Eating, an exploration of what we eat when nobody’s looking and the emotion that each mouthful of naughtiness evokes, whether it’s gooey cheese, thick slabs of melted butter on pretty much everything, or sugary, doughnutty delights.
She confesses that when she’s done a day of judging in the MasterChef studios, trying perhaps eight rounds of tiny mouthfuls of very rich food, she feels a mixture of nausea and hunger.
“That’s when I come in and take my false eyelashes and my pieces of false clip-in hair off and lay them on the chair arms like little feral creatures, and I put my bra on the end of the banister and that’s when I have my oven chips – and it’s magical.”
Dent, 50, grew up in a working class family in Carlisle and devours the food influences of the Eighties and Nineties in the book, recalling everything from her school dinner comfort eat – ‘Chocolate Concrete’, a rough and ready take on the chocolate brownie, to the granulated instant gravy she has poured on chips over the years, of which she remains a huge fan.
But what are her favourite comfort foods?
“Comfort food admissions come with a bit of embarrassment because what you really want to tell people is that you’ve got four pans on the go, making an amazing lasagne, but in reality the things that I live on are porridge with different things hurled into it.
“I’m a real sucker for those cooked porridges that cost about 75p from any old newsagent, and I load them up with peanut butter, jam, any old kind of seed or fruit or anything that’s sitting about.
“I eat loads of hot buttered toast and I think cheese spread is one of my go-to things. You’ll never hear it mentioned on any of the posh cooking programmes.”
The award-winning writer devotes whole chapters to potatoes, cheese, butter, pasta and other comfort foods, but the book is also a homage to her late mother, also called Grace, who she describes as queen of the comfort eaters, and who Dent moved in with at the end of 2020 when she was dying of cancer.
She would lie in bed with her mother and they would eat the same food, she recalls. There was white toast, lashings of butter and the cheap marmalade her mother loved. There were individual trifles with the fruit salad at the bottom and set custard.
“Right near the end of her life, I decided to introduce baba ganoush into her diet. It did not work. She was not keen at all and didn’t understand my fancy ways,” Dent says, chuckling, recalling that despite all her efforts taking her mum to posh restaurants over the years, her favourite eaterie remained McDonald’s – two cheeseburgers, fries and a Coca-Cola, her meal of choice.
Her mother died in February 2021 and Dent records her health deterioration in heart-breaking detail, as she almost stopped talking and comfort food slowly became their only connection.
In grief, Dent took solace in comfort food, recalling the heavy flapjacks full of refined carbs which hit the spot but settled like an extra layer of padding on her behind.
Yet the book is ultimately an uplifting, nostalgic look at the memories sparked by comfort food, and her bid to understand why certain foods make us happy.
It also charts the creation of her Comfort Eating podcast – which inspired the book – launched shortly after her mother died, in which she invites celebrities to her home to talk about the comfort foods that have seen them through, and also to bring a snack with them that they eat when nobody’s looking.
Comedian Jo Brand brought a fried bread sandwich, Scarlett Moffatt reminisced about beans on toast with crushed Wotsits on top and actor and stand-up comedian Aisling Bea plumped for potato waffles with tinned spaghetti.
Actor James Norton, actor and writer Stephen Fry, and Doctor Who screenwriter and TV producer Russell T Davies have also appeared on the podcast with their comfort foods. Dent tries everything – some she likes more than others.
But the podcast is also hugely revealing as guests open up about the different stages of their life when food provided huge comfort. She agrees that it’s a little window into a person’s soul. Season five is currently being aired.
Of her own childhood in Carlisle, she recalls a pressure cooker that was always on the go into which her mother loaded corned beef hash or hotpot.
“Years later, I realised that how she was making those lamb hotpots so nice was (putting) a layer of black pudding in them, which I would never eat now. I can’t stick the stuff.
“My mother was also great with batches of fairy cakes, which I thought she was making for us but now I realise it was because they were so cheap to make and it stopped us having to buy them from the shop. When we went on a day trip we would take about 85 misshapen fairy cakes in a big tin.
“But my happiest times were with my dad walking to the chip shop and having fish and chips. In Cumbria, there’s a thing called a patty which is basically battered mashed potato, sometimes with minced beef or cheese in it.
“A battered cheese and onion patty with chips and a side of scraps (spare batter out of the frying pan), as a child, felt like you’d won the jackpot because you’d been given all the batter without having to eat any of the fish.”
She went to the University of Stirling in the Nineties, a period she describes as her ‘cheese years’.
“That’s when you realise nothing can deliver love and security more than melted cheese. In the Nineties, I’d no money because I’d spent it all on Rolling Rock beer and shots of Dubonnet. They had a reduced counter in the the Stirling Iceland and they had enormous blocks of cheese.”
She’d make buttered crumpets topped with a mound of grated cheese and eat them with jam or mango chutney.
Today, she’s expanded her repertoire and is really interested in the more unusual cheeses served in high-class restaurants.
“But up until the age of 24, I only ate Cheddar, sometimes Red Leicester. We didn’t touch any foreign cheeses. We didn’t trust cheeses – the idea of Brie, which is a bit wobbly, a bit oozy, seemed very frightening to us.”
Bavarian smoked was the first foreign cheese to pass her lips, she recalls.
“It came in a kind of weird, slightly rude sausage shape in a brown plastic cover. I bloody love the stuff.”
She holds herself back from devouring old-fashioned comfort food like bread when reviewing sophisticated plates in high-end restaurants, but imagines what she would pick from the menu in an ideal world.
“I could polish off a whole bread basket and a side of dauphinoise potatoes without thinking. That would be my ideal dinner – just the potatoes and the bread.”
Comfort Eating by Grace Dent is published by Faber on October 5, priced £20.