The Sybarite spoke to Nicola Millbank, British actress and influential foodie, about writing her debut cookbook, fad diets, her go-to dishes for a dinner party, and some exciting news.
Known to most as an actress from British TV programs such as Mount Pleasant and Mr Selfridge, Nicola Millbank is carving a name for herself in the foodie world.
It was only last year that Nicola decided to create a website – now known as ‘Milly Cookbook’ – full of recipes that friends and family had been requesting, as well as providing a motivation for her to “get creative between work”. Only three months after the site had gone live, Nicola was approached by renowned publisher, HarperCollins, to turn her blog into a book. Now, she’s one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Food Today 2016 and is building a rapidly growing brand for herself.
So what lit Nicola’s metaphorical pot of passion for cooking? “It’s always been something I have been really keen on,” she says, “for as long as I can remember I’ve always been the family cook…I’ve always loved being the person who invites people over for a dinner party, whether that’s a fancy affair or whether everybody brings a plate along and digs in – the thing I love about cooking and being in the kitchen is it’s a very social activity.”
Despite her success as an actress, Nicola’s original dream was to become a ballerina (for which she trained 15 years) or a marine biologist. “Although I wasn’t exactly brilliant at biology, I had this ideology – as you do when you’re about eight years old – that being a marine biologist meant you swim with dolphins for a living. I very quickly realised that wasn’t true” she laughs.
The path to acting was led by her drama teacher at secondary school, who encouraged Nicola to try out for drama school. She ended up attending Arts Ed School of Acting in London and it was here, when she moved into her first flat at 18, that cooking, which was once seen as a simple necessity, morphed into a passion.
With her foodie influence continuing to grow, does Nicola ever see herself making the move from acting to cooking full time one day? “I really love the cooking so much and the great thing about my job now and how it’s starting to evolve is that I’m starting to present things as well,” Nicola tells me. “I’m really not afraid to let loose and be myself in front of a camera when I’m cooking” she laughs.
“Ideally, I’d love to be an actress forevermore, it’s my passion, but I love the cooking so much that I’d be happy to do that too.”
Such is her luck, in fact, that Nicola is not only releasing one but two cookbooks with HarperCollins. Her first book “Milly’s Real Food” will be available in May 2017. Despite the swift success, Nicola expected the project to be more of a slow burner. “When I started Milly Cookbook on the website, [writing a book] was definitely something that I would have hoped would organically evolve into a cookbook of sorts, maybe a few years down the line.”
Despite the swift success, Nicola expected the project to be more of a slow burner. “When I started Milly Cookbook on the website, [writing a book] was definitely something that I would have hoped would organically evolve into a cookbook of sorts, maybe a few years down the line.”
Despite her initial reservations about signing a book deal, Nicola enthuses about how excited she is to be sharing some of her home cooked recipes and healthy takes on classic favourites.
Nicola’s approach to cooking focuses on the ‘everything in moderation’ attitude and being sensible with your ingredients in order to be healthy. Keen to encourage people to turn their backs on trendy ‘elimination’ diets, Nicola is all about cooking honest and healthy food (as well as “pure unadulterated filth” because “we’re only human”) that’s easy to make and accessible for everyone.
“A balanced diet is, in my opinion, healthy living,” Nicola says. “I think if you start to demonise and eliminate food groups out of your diet – if it’s not for a medically diagnosed intolerance – I just think it’s creating a bit of a negative relationship with food.”
“I am more about having bacon and eggs if you want bacon and eggs! And eating everything in a balanced way, really making use of seasonal ingredients and having a little bit of what you fancy, that’s my motto. ”
“As a young female, I really want to get the message out to other women that you don’t have to do all those elimination diets and cut out food groups and demonise cheese and bread; life’s too short!”
Despite this positive outlook on food and eating catching on in society, Nicola doesn’t feel that we’ll ever be rid of fad diets completely. “Ultimately a fad diet is just that, it’s a fad; it’s a diet and it’s not sustainable. I think rather than go on these fad diets, why not take a completely different approach to your diet as a whole and look at what you’re eating and embrace all food groups and just cook them in a healthy way at home.” Nicola is a big believer in cooking everything from scratch to make sure you know what you’re putting into your body.
So with the festive season fast approaching, what would Nicola suggest for a three-course dinner party? “I love really hearty mains so something light for a starter,” the cook enthuses. “I love really proper fat figs stuffed with gorgonzola, wrapped in prosciutto and with some honey and balsamic salad.”
“For a main, something like my duck and rioja lamb shanks with rice and peas and garlicky kale, that’s really yummy, if I do say so myself!” she chuckles. “I love really hearty mains because you don’t need to be in the kitchen when guests are over.”
For dessert, Nicola suggests a recipe from her upcoming book – Nan’s Lemon Mousse – which is based on her grandmother’s dessert but has a twist – a thick layer of lemon and lime curd.
So what does the future hold for Nicola? Well, she’s starting to work on cookbook two in the new year as well as planning her wedding to new fiancé, Michael Eagle-Hodgson, as well as a potential TV show which is in talks at the moment. With so much in store, we can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.