Amazing Grace

07 February 2024

Master chef judge and guardian critic Grace Dent chats to fellow gourmet Jimi Famurewa in the splendid surroundings of Cedric Grolet's French Patisserie in London.

The instant that we have been left to conduct our interview, surrounded by exquisite confections at the heavenly Cédric Grolet french patisserie counter in the heart of The Berkeley, Grace Dent turns to me. ‘So,’ she begins, ‘just to say that I won’t be answering any questions about my personal life or family. I’ve got a deal with Crosse & Blackwell soups that means I can’t mention any other brands, and my publicist will be coming in to wrap things up in 37 seconds.’ She pauses; a half-smile breaks the deadpan expression. And then comes the mischievous, gleeful bark of laughter that I know well from the years we have spent as fellow critics and hired gluttons on MasterChef.

Cedric Grolet pastry selection in Cafe
cedric grolet selection of patisserie flat lay
5 rows containing a selection of 5 cakes

It is typical Dent: a stiletto-sharp, highly specific bit of tension-breaking humour. But, of course, what makes it particularly funny is the notion that she would ever engage in anything like cagey evasiveness. Lacerating, playful honesty – whether as a columnist, broadcaster or author of Hungry, her award-winning account of her father’s struggle with dementia – has long been her signature. And that especially applies when it comes to the new book we are primarily here to talk about. Namely, Comfort Eating, an ostensible companion to her hit guilty culinary pleasures podcast that, in the writing, morphed into something far more exposed, raw and emotionally complex.

‘The book was supposed to be a cheery spinoff where I discuss Stephen Fry, Russell Tovey and Jo Brand coming to my house, and I link it to what I’ve learned about comfort food,’ she explains. ‘That was the genesis. But the fact is, I began both the podcast and the book in deep, high-functioning grief about my mother [Dent’s mother died in early 2021; her father passed away in late 2022]. I didn’t have any time off work.'

And I realised that, when I started to write this book, and my father was also dying, the things that I wanted to talk about – bread, cakes, childhood fish and chips, Sunday dinners and the importance of butter in my family – all felt like getting up in the morning and going into therapy.

The result of this extended reminiscing is a book of two distinct, hugely compelling sides. On the one hand, it is all characteristically uproarious stories from behind the scenes of Comfort Eating, tales from her 1970s childhood in Cumbria and why Aunt Bessie represents ‘laziness rebadged as love’. On the other, it is seasoned with moments of crisply observed, unflinching disclosure – about her family history, about her working life, about the bottomless, bleak reality of bereavement – that frequently take your breath away. It is because of all of this that, she jokes, the book could be subtitled ‘tinned ravioli and death’. But the poignant symmetry of the moments she was describing – such as scattering her parents’ ashes at the same Silloth beach where her family would go for rainy caravan holidays – was too powerful to deny. ‘I was a bit like, “Should I leave it in?”’ she says. ‘“Do I want to bum everyone out with this?” And then I just thought: if not now, then when?’

Another encouragement would have been that this level of openness is wholly in keeping with the Comfort Eating way. Since it launched in summer 2021 as an adjunct to her Guardian restaurant column, Dent’s podcast has been a safe space for celebrities to reveal both their basest gastronomic kinks and thornier personal struggles. BBC presenter Jay Blades has talked about overcoming prejudice between bites of Jamaican bun and cheese; comedian Jo Brand brought equipment for a fried-bread sandwich and wisdom about dealing with loss; actor Russell Tovey held forth on Fruit Loops and then wept openly while unpacking his adolescent closetedness. ‘I lure people in by saying it’s about Findus Crispy Pancakes,’ she notes, with a smile. ‘And, pretty soon, we’re talking about childhood trauma.’

Thick chocolate chip cookies by Cedric Grolet
Inside of a hazelnut financier by Cedric Grolet
cedric grolet patisserie flat lay
cedric grolet patisserie flat lay

There is real meaningfulness, she thinks, in who we are when we ‘take off the bits that have made us acceptable to the world’. What’s more, she increasingly feels that comfort and nostalgia are vital components of even the most refined and luxurious dining. ‘We’ve just seen it, in absolute technicolour,’  she says, in reference to our morning photoshoot up at Cédric Grolet’s much-lauded counter (an experience Dent reviewed glowingly). ‘It is one of the fanciest patisserie experiences in Europe. But they brought out this tray of chocolate cookies that were melting in the middle and had splodges on top that looked like Cadbury’s Chocolate Buttons. And it was so intoxicating because instantly my brain was just going: “Me and dad going to the supermarket for a packet of Buttons.”

I think I am always looking for comfort food on every menu.

In terms of London restaurants that excite her now, she identifies Manzi’s of Soho (‘A shiny, new, beautiful toy’), Polentina in Bow (‘Just perfect’) and the preponderance of fantastic Korean options clustered around New Malden. ‘I got off the train there recently and just thought, “I am so lucky’’’, she says. This gratitude and clarity is probably also partly attributable to the two years she has now been sober – a self-defined ‘new phase of life’ that has helped to clarify ‘what’s really important’ and, she thinks, will be the basis of a forthcoming, multi-format project. ‘Booze was completely woven into every part of my entire life,’ she says. ‘My first memories are of my mum drinking and Babycham glasses – the absolute height of sophistication. And I realised my entire life I’d chased that: I thought it was so glamorous, as I drank myself into oblivion. So, that’s the next book. And the next podcast.’ 

As with Comfort Eating, her columns and all her work, it is another example of seeking connection through humour and honesty; of speaking to the things that people really go through, really feel and really desire. It’s something that was affirmed by all the grateful Instagram DMs she received in the wake of Hungry from people in families affected by dementia. ‘It’s like that line in the Police song, Message in a Bottle,’ she says, as we prepare to wrap things up. ‘“I guess I’m not alone in being alone.”

That’s what these books always feel like. You feel like you’re alone in this emotion, you cast this message out in a bottle and you get up and there’s thousands of other bottles going, “I’m so glad you wrote that."

Comfort Eating by Grace Dent (Guardian/Faber) is out now. Book the new French Patisserie menu at Cédric Grolet at The Berkeley.

Grace Dent biting into a chocolate chip cookie by Cedric Grolet
Grace Dent on the left and Jimi Famurewa on the right, smiling stood behind a selection of pastries and cakes by Cedric Grolet
Jimi Famurewa smiling while he cuts into a pink cake by Cedric Grolet


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