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Interview: Margie Nomura on being a chef and podcast host

Ian Chaddock

BY Ian Chaddock

31st Jul 2023 Food Heroes

Interview: Margie Nomura on being a chef and podcast host

A professional chef and food writer who has worked internationally and even cooked for the Queen, Margie Nomura is also the host of the hugely successful food podcast Desert Island Dishes. Ian Chaddock caught up with her to find out more

How did your love of food begin?

I was really lucky to grow up in a family that loved food. My mum was always cooking and teaching me along the way. She also kept these amazing scrapbooks of recipes she’d collected over the years which she would then sit down with at the beginning of the week and decide what she was going to cook.

Sitting down to eat as a family was a huge part of our day and I remember planning our next meal while still eating and sitting round the table.

In the style of Desert Island Dishes, what’s the dish that most reminds you of your childhood?

Even though this is one of the questions I ask all my guests, I find it so hard to name just one. But I think when I think of dishes I loved as a child, it would be this incredibly simple but delicious pasta dish that my mum would make on weekends during the summer.

"When I think of dishes I loved as a child, it would be a delicious pasta dish that my mum would make on weekends during the summer"

She would peel and chop really good tomatoes and leave them in a huge bowl with a glug of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. After a few hours, when the tomato juices and the olive oil had mixed together, she would add cooked penne, tear over fresh mozzarella and basil leaves and a little grated parmesan. It’s so good!

What are your memories and lessons you learned training at Ireland’s world-renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School?

Margie Nomura
Margie Nomura is a professional chef, food writer and podcast host. Credit: Margie Nomura

I loved Ballymaloe so much. I soaked up every second of it and I remember how amazing it felt to discover that I was truly passionate about something. I think the main thing cookery school teaches you is confidence, which is really what cooking is all about. It’s also an ongoing process—you are always learning new things and different ways of doing things and I think that’s what makes it really exciting.

You have cooked all over the world in places as exciting as Japan and South Africa. Why do you think travelling is so important to cooking?

Nordic cinnamon buns
Nordic cinammon buns. Credit: Margie Nomura

Food is so inherent to who we are and travelling to different countries and cooking the food the locals eat is the best way to understand more about a country. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to do that. You can read all the books and study all the techniques but you really have to go somewhere and eat the food to really understand what it’s all about. To be a great cook, you have to be a great eater and I think you also have to be interested in people and the stories behind the food.

One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to find the local dish, or the restaurant all the locals love and eat there. I also ask a lot of questions—I’m always getting people to write down recipes!

Again, in the style of Desert Island Dishes, what’s the best dish you’ve ever eaten?

Pasta dish
Pasta dishes have played important roles in Margie's life. Credit: Margie Nomura

This is such a difficult question for me and I know my guests on the podcast struggle with this too as it’s hard to pin down just one dish. The most common approach to this question is to think of a really memorable occasion, so it’s about more than just the food, it’s the people you were with, why you were there and really happy memories. I think that’s the right approach because that’s what food is all about, sharing it with the people you love.

I think I’d choose something like the pasta my husband made me after my first daughter was born. She was born a week into the first lockdown in 2020 and we weren’t allowed any visitors. It was a very strange time to have a baby. It was just the three of us, all alone in our little house, and my husband was in charge of the cooking. The first thing he made me when we got back from the hospital was an incredibly simple pasta with homemade pesto. He brought it up to the bedroom on a tray and we ate it together as we looked at our new baby. The world was in chaos with COVID and it was a scary time but I will never forget that feeling of pure happiness. Life had changed forever and pesto pasta will always make me think of that time.

What are your three biggest tips for Reader’s Digest readers to remember when cooking?

Practically speaking, one of the top tips I learnt in a professional kitchen is to keep a bowl next to you when you work and that way you keep your area tidy and don’t have to constantly clean down your countertops and make lots of little trips to the bin. Always clean as you go along.

"Although cooking is functional, it’s also meant to be fun so don’t make it more stressful and find a way of doing it that you enjoy"

My second tip would be to remember that cooking doesn't have to be complicated. Sometimes the best dishes only use a handful of ingredients and if you cook with gorgeous, in-season produce, you really have to do very little to make a delicious meal. Although cooking is functional, it’s also meant to be fun so don’t make it more stressful than it has to be and find a way of doing it that you enjoy.

Thirdly, get a microplane grater if you don't have one already. I use mine constantly for parmesan, garlic, lemon zest—it’s always on the go. You can grate garlic on the microplane without peeling it first and the skin just falls off—that’s a top tip.

Was one of your career highlights cooking for Queen Elizabeth?

Margie Nomura in front of a pink door
Margie Nomura has cooked for famous clients as well as friends and family. Credit: Margie Nomura

After finishing my training at Ballymaloe I worked in various restaurants and catering companies and have been lucky enough to cook for some amazing clients, often having to sign NDAs! Cooking at Windsor Castle was amazing—I got to cook in the most beautiful kitchens that were steeped in so much history.

However, when it comes to cooking it really doesn't matter who you’re cooking for, whether it’s someone famous, or your friends and family—it’s always about making something really delicious that someone else will love and will hopefully bring a little joy.

Your Desert Island Dishes podcast has recently charted #1 in the Apple podcast food category and has millions of listeners. What does the podcast’s success mean to you?

Desert Island Dishes
Desert Island Dishes is now one of the most popular food podcasts in the UK. Credit: Margie Nomura

The fact that the podcast is now one of the top food podcasts in the UK has honestly been the biggest and most amazing surprise. I started it as a little side project which I thought would be fun to do. The fact it has grown in the way it has is so exciting.

Of course, the podcast is primarily about food, but it’s also about people and the stories behind the food. I’ve got so many plans for Desert Island Dishes—I really want it to be a community where people can share recipes and find out more about the dishes people love and why. Ultimately, I’d like Desert Island Dishes to be a place where someone can go for all their cooking needs—recipes, inspiration and anything related to the kitchen and cooking.

What are your favourite conversations about food you’ve had on the podcast?

Margie Nomura with Amelia Freer
Margie Nomura and her dog Digby with podcast guest Amelia Freer

One of my favourite interviews was with Stanley Tucci. That was definitely a pinch me moment. I recorded with him before his career pivoted into food and at that point he was most well-known for his incredible Hollywood career. He said it was the first time anyone in an interview had asked him about his favourite sandwich and his answer did not disappoint.

"Food is incredibly personal and guests have shared personal stories on 'Desert Island Dishes' about proposals, heartbreak and love"

What I’ve learnt from my guests is that food is incredibly personal and this format of interviewing can actually be much more revealing than you might think at first. People share really personal stories from their life—I’ve heard about proposals, heartbreak and love. Some guests can get quite emotional and we’ve often had to stop recording because everyone’s in tears, which you might not expect from a podcast about food! Of course, there are also unbelievably delicious dishes that people talk about, which inspire some of the recipes we share on Instagram and our website.

Who would be three dream guests for you on the show and why?

So many! There are too many to choose just three, but I would definitely start with Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater and Joanna Lumley. I think those guests would be perfect because I know they’d have some amazing stories to go with their dishes, as they’ve all led such interesting lives.

I also really like the idea of using the podcast as a platform to talk to lesser-known people doing brilliant things. The questions I ask aren't only interesting if you’re famous—everyone has their own unique answers and that’s what makes the podcast interesting. I don’t think it’s possible to listen and not think about how you would answer the questions.

Finally, again in the style of Desert Island Dishes, what’s the last dish you would choose to eat before being cast off to the desert island?

My mum makes an incredibly delicious chicken and sweetcorn pie with a puff pastry lid, so I think it would have to be that. She used to make it a lot when I was younger as it was one of my favourite dishes. She made it for me the night before I went away to boarding school and,  since then, she’s made it for all of my major life moments—I even had it the night before my wedding. It reminds me so much of her and so I would have to have it before being cast off to the desert island. I would have it served with buttery mashed potato and steamed greens with peas. Perfect!

Banner photo: Margie Nomura

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