Grace Dent talks Comfort Eating, her love of the buffet and how the decision to give up alcohol changed her life for the better.
“When this issue goes out, we will just be on the last episode of season four of Comfort Eating, before we go into the break before season five,” Grace Dent tells me. “I recorded that one yesterday… hang on a minute, who did I have around yesterday?” She looks to her publicist for confirmation. “God, how could I forget? Yesterday Graham Norton was in my house,” she laughs.
We are talking about Grace’s popular podcast, in which she invites famous guests to share the secret snacks they turn to for comfort, delving into how food shapes our story. “It is interesting how the formula makes people reveal things; I am just dead proud of it!” She tells me when I ask about the format. “It seems to kind of sweep away a barrier that is normally there. Jamie Laing, for example, was just an utter revelation. I thought that I was going to meet this really confident Made in Chelsea cheeky chappy, who would have this front up. And he brought mashed up Scotch eggs in a glass that he formed into a ball and decanted into a roll. It was disgusting, but he made this snack, and then he just began to talk about his parents, and their divorce… If you sat a celebrity down and said: ‘Hi, my first question is, do you think your parents’ divorce affected you?’, they would just say, what the hell is this interview?”
The fact that the episodes are recorded in Grace’s own home also works to disarm guests. “I open the front door – they don’t have to get past a receptionist. I open the door and they can see immediately that my front hedge, my actual front hedge, is growing out into the street and I need to go out there with some clippers. And they can see that my hanging baskets have died because I haven’t watered them, and they walk past that, and they find me chasing my cats – I have got two and I always have to scoop them up and hide them away because they cry for attention right through the interviews. And that just sets the scene,” she explains. “I keep saying to my production team, look, I have lived in east London for 15 years, I have lived in London for 25 years… I should put the house on the market, it would be nice to get out of London, and I can see this horror in their faces. This is Comfort Eating, we do it right here in the living room, it wouldn’t be the same if we did it anywhere else.”
Grace wears coord (azfactory.com)
Of course, being at home can be equally disarming for Grace herself. “I don’t get to change personalities,” she tells me. “If I am having a sad, vulnerable day, where I am just feeling a bit crap about life, they get me like that when they come in, because I haven’t had the chance to puff myself up to be London, you know,” she says. “When Self Esteem came around I was having quite a weird day with a few different things that had happened, and I am not one of those people who cries easily, I pride myself on not being a crier, but as part of that interview, I said, ‘I am just going to read you some of your lyrics’, and I picked up this piece of paper and started reading, and just burst into tears. I was so embarrassed – there were tears coming down my face. She started crying, the crew started crying, and I thought, this would never have happened if we were recording this at the BBC. It was just something about being in my living room that brought that out in me.”
I wonder what the foods are that shaped Grace’s own early life. “I grew up on beige foods and mince and Findus Crispy Pancakes and butterscotch Angel Delight. And supermarkets were a big thing in my childhood, because this was when the really big supermarkets arrived and to me, good food was about having the best brands. To be able to have proper Coca-Cola and Smiths crisps… I still love those types of food today,” she reveals, explaining that it was only when she moved to London that she sampled gourmet food. “I really fell in love with restaurants. I fell in love with the fact that I had come to a city where hundreds of new restaurants open every single year – and hundreds shut. It is this ever-moving land of change and plenty and innovation. And that just blew my mind.”
She recalls her early days in the Capital: “I had a little flat with three girls in Bounds Green. And we were right in the heart of this Greek Turkish community eating loads of delicious food. And there was an Irish pub nearby serving traditional Irish dishes, and I was going into Chinatown, and I was working in magazines, and you know what it’s like, suddenly you are on a press trip at a really expensive hotel and being fed quails eggs and finest pate and caviar and oysters, and things that you have never ever had before. And that never stops making me excited, learning about food.”
It was a love affair that was to shape her career. “I was always aware that there was a bigger, better gastronomic world out there. When I was a child in Carlisle in the ’70s and ’80s, we would put on The Good Food Show and we would see Jilly Goolden swooshing wine around her mouth and saying that it tasted like babbling brooks,” she laughs. “I think that what makes me different as a restaurant critic is that I certainly didn’t eat those types of food as a child. I didn’t have that background. If you look at me and then look at the other restaurant critics, who I love very much, one of us is not like the others! I always say that it is an absolute fluke that I am in, doing what I do. The only reason that I am doing it is because it is one of the only things I can do. I have a very small skill-set – I am good at describing restaurants, and I am good at describing tastes and flavours, and I am good at selling the idea of why somewhere is absolutely brilliant, or being able to damn with faint praise to put you off spending £250 there because it is not very good.”
Grace wears dress by Issey Miyake (fenwick.co.uk), shoes (toryburch.com); and ring (thomassabo.com)
Grace’s career in food has seen her become a household name, though she believes it is not necessarily because people have read her columns, but rather that they have seen her appearances as a judge on MasterChef. “From the moment I got involved with it, it changed my life entirely,” she tells me. “I had been a journalist, and been on TV doing odd bits of presenting on and off through the late ’90s, the early 2000s, I was definitely on things… but the moment I went on MasterChef, it just meant that I could be in Aberystwyth trying to buy something in Boots, and an absolute stranger would walk up to me and ask what I really thought of that soufflé that I ate nine months ago, because they thought that my reaction was too kind,” she reveals. ‘I think that MasterChef is a familiar place of calm for a lot of people in a quite unstable world, and I am just really proud to be part of it. MasterChef is one of the greatest joys in my life. I have watched it since I was a little girl, sitting with my dad on the sofa in Carlisle, where we used to laugh our socks off at restaurant critics coming on and complaining about the standard of their foie gras!”
Grace’s most recent TV project, The Million Pound Buffet, is something altogether different, though no less fun. “The idea comes from my deep love of the buffet. I know it sounds silly, because some people do not see the buffet as being a higher form of gastronomic pleasure, but to me, I eat lots of fancy dinners, go to Michelin-star restaurants, and I always say that one of the happiest things is going to somebody’s party, wedding, christening… and the door opens to the banqueting room, and there is just a groaning table full of food. These things are just a joy. The idea of choice and abundance. And the fact of people being brought together with no airs and graces,” she reveals. “So, I was speaking to Channel 5 about it, and they said, ‘You know, the buffet actually makes a great deal of money in hospitality? You get these incredible, really expensive buffets where you go and spend £150 or $150 and fill your boots on lobster and caviar and things like that, and would you like to investigate that?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I absolutely would like to investigate the multi-million-pound buffet industry!’”
The show, which aired over the Christmas period and is now available to stream on My5 saw Grace visiting some of the most expensive all-you-can-eat buffets both here and in the States, learning the secrets of turning out gourmet food in Titanic quantities and getting stuck in at the buffet herself. “I just spoke to lots of people…it is a travelogue really – a funny, happy travelogue about the psychology of the buffet,” she tells me. “I just had the time of my life. There is footage of me on the show, on my treadmill, which I call my road to nowhere, desperately trying to walk off the excesses of the thousands and thousands of calories that I had eaten. And then, also, buffet gets under your skin, so you will fill yourself up, and at 10 o’clock you won’t be able to eat another thing, but at 3 o’clock you wake up thinking about the buffet… so, there is this footage of me in a hotel in America eating the minibar chocolate at 3 o’clock in the morning because my sugar levels had crashed!” She laughs.
Though Grace’s sleep might sometimes be interrupted by the aftereffects of overeating, it is no longer affected by drink. “I stopped drinking completely about a year and a half ago,” she reveals. “I was just absolutely tired of losing half days and days to feeling wretched with drinking alcohol. I tried so many times to just moderate. I’d think, oh I’ll just drink on the weekends, or I’ll only drink once next week. But the problem with my industry is that it is so convivial, it is so sociable – it is hospitality! And everywhere I went, every time I walked through the door, somebody put a glass of wine in my hand. Now, this doesn’t sound like a problem, but for years I feel as if everywhere I went, I always had a glass of Champagne in my hand. When I went on TV there would be drinks in the green room, and I would have a drink. And you go to parties, you go to launches, you go to award ceremonies, you for a girls’ night out, you go to meet somebody to talk about a job… you know, whatever it is, it turns into having a couple of wines, and I just thought, it seems that the only way to do this is to absolutely take alcohol out of my life.”
Grace wears: suit (aspiga.com); and shoes (gina.com)
So she did just that, and she has absolutely no regrets. “I think that it is like a superpower, I really do. I feel like I have got double the amount of life that I had. I get so many more things done, and I just feel 100 per cent better,” she exclaims. “I highly recommend it. I gave up alcohol and then I started weightlifting, which is one of the best decisions that I ever made – it has just absolutely changed the shape of my body. The two things together: I feel like they have completely changed me. I am really conscious now that the lifestyle that I led when I was like 32, when I thought I was invincible, probably isn’t going to carry me through at this age. Look, you know, gout is a real thing…” she laughs.
Any tips for those looking to go dry this January? “You have to open yourself up to change. Nothing will change if nothing changes, and that’s it, really,” she shrugs. “I think that moderating is really, really difficult, but pulling the plaster off and not drinking at all, once you have got momentum, will change your life completely. I don’t want to criticise people who drink, or look down on it, because I drank, and I loved alcohol for years and years and years. But when you get through that hurdle of your first wedding, and your first work do, and the first Christmas day with your family when you are sober, once you get through all of those, the thought of going back and being this slightly drunk zombie on all of those occasions becomes a bit sad and frightening. You think, God, I don’t want to do that again, I don’t want to be that person again. So, yeah, forgive me if I am a bit evangelical!”
Season 4 of Comfort Eating is available to download now. You can watch Million Dollar Buffet on My5.