SHE may have been late to the kitchen, but it hasn't taken Natalia Conroy long to cook up a storm among foodie circles. The young chef tells Keeley Bolger about learning from her husband and impressing food idol, Nigella Lawson

Natalia Conroy knows a good deal about having too many cooks in the kitchen.

Author of new cookery title The Kitchen Orchard, the 26-year-old is married to fellow chef Jonathan, who she met while working at London's famed River Cafe restaurant, which boasts Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as a former employee.

But far from squabbling over saucepans and meddling with each other's menus, theirs is a harmonious kitchen, and the two often take it in turns to cook in the evenings, or team up for their private dining clients.

"It's a real partnership," says Conroy, who studied Russian and German literature and language at Oxford University, and only started to consider cooking as a real career choice after a stint waitressing at River Cafe in her summer holidays.

"My husband's been cooking three times as long as I have, and in professional kitchens. The River Cafe was the only place I worked in a formal style, and although that was three years, that doesn't compare to the years he's racked up in other restaurants.

"So I take a lot of my form from him, and when we have a job, I tend to be a bit more anxious and he's more confident."

But Conroy, who was raised and lives in London, was a dealt a hefty boost of confidence from the acclaim she's drawn from her first book.

She draws inspiration from seasonal produce and her well-stocked store cupboard, and it's clear that winter is a fertile time for her.

"I guess I really enjoy being able to cook things slowly and to leave them to take their time," she says.

"It's a very hearty time of year, and I think everybody agrees, you feel more hungry in the winter. You need more energy to do things, and we're all a bit more glad for a nice bowl of something you've made an effort with."

Understandably for two chefs, the kitchen is the "hub" of the house and a great place to hunker down during the cold months.

"It's the room we're in most of the time," she says. "There are a lot of cookery books in piles on the floor. We've got a sofa in there as well; there's no way any other room is going to win over a room with a fridge and a sofa."

Among that "mountain" of books, is a treasured copy of Nigella Lawson's Feast.

"When I was younger, Nigella was a massive inspiration. Her books made me feel like I could just make do and mend anything, and cooking was fun," she explains. "I remember going to a book signing when I was at Oxford, and Nigella was doing a signing of her book Feast. I went to meet her and it was the most exciting day ever."

And in a lovely twist, Conroy's own book attracted quotes of praise from Lawson, as well as from River Cafe co-founder Ruth Rogers and acclaimed food writer Claudia Roden.

"Nigella's first food books were my favourites, and so it was absolutely amazing that she enjoyed my book. You can't really get higher praise and encouragement than from her.

"When I got the book deal, it was a real honour, and I thought, 'I'm not sure I know enough to write a book'," Conroy continues. "I really felt that was something Claudia Roden did and Nigella did, so it's wonderful to have praise from people who really know what they're talking about.

"Hopefully, I put out some recipes and ideas and thoughts about cooking that make people want to make something to eat. But obviously, I haven't spent my life researching food or cuisine. I've still got a long way to go, I guess."

It certainly seems Conroy's hitting the right taste notes so far, though - and here are three recipes from her book to try at home...


(Serves 4)

  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, roughly chopped
  • 1/2tsp crushed dried chilli
  • 3tbsp olive oil
  • 20 carrots, finely diced or pulsed in a food processor
  • 2 1/2tbsp honey
  • 1tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1tbsp ground cumin
  • 500ml milk
  • 250ml double cream
  • 250ml water
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Coriander leaves, to serve
  • Nigella (black onion) seeds, to serve
  • Greek-style yoghurt, to serve

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, fry the garlic, parsley and chilli in the oil over a medium heat, until the garlic starts to turn a light golden. Add the carrots, honey, ginger, nutmeg and cumin.

Cook the carrots over a medium heat, stirring the pan from time to time for about an hour, until they are very soft and sweet. Add the milk, cream and water and continue to cook for a further 10 minutes, then check the seasoning.

Pour half the contents of the saucepan into a food processor or blender and blend until smooth, then return this to the pan. Serve the soup sprinkled generously with coriander leaves, nigella seeds and a dollop of yoghurt.