Nicola Millbank

How did you first get into food—what were your early influences?

I was always into cooking when I was younger, but it didn’t fully develop into a passion of mine until I moved into my own flat at 18 to study at drama school and cooking became a necessity. Not only that, but cooking good food became crucial!

I quickly tired of the quintessentially British pies and bakes and yearned to learn more. Watching Saturday morning cooking shows swiftly became the routine start to my weekend and I became a bit more experimental, both in the kitchen and eating out at street food markets. That was the turning point: food became more than fuel. It became exciting.

What would you choose for your ideal last supper?

A very spicy Bloody Mary followed by an enormous medium-rare steak covered in Maldon sea salt, truffle mash and buttered kale, washed down with a good glass of red wine.

I don’t particularly have a sweet tooth so that would be followed by a large, super-stinky cheese plate with oat crackers and lashings of fig chutney.

What is your guilty craving? Do you ever have a midnight yearning for dirty fried chicken?

Voodoo anything. I love hot wings, buffalo and blue cheese burgers, anything with hot sauce. I’m always asking for extra, I like to drown my food in it. I’d eat that any time of day or midnight… that or jam and Marmite on toast. Trust me, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it—I go way back with this one!

You’re most widely known as an actress—can you pinpoint the moment when you realised acting could be a career?

I got my first job on TV when I was 17, alongside Michael Fassbender in Sky 1’s HEX. I loved every second of it. Despite this, it was my drama teacher who convinced me to audition for drama school. I wasn’t sure I’d get in but with some gentle coaxing I auditioned and got a place that year.

I graduated in the recession, which was tough, and there were only a few people that drama school thrust into the arms of agents; I wasn’t one of them. Just as well, because that gave me the gumption and tenacity to do it myself. It’s a common misconception that everyone graduates with an agent or that it’s something easy to achieve—I worked for free doing student films for two years before getting a major agent.

After that I never looked back, but I will always remember the hard work it took to get here, and indeed the hard work I continually have to put in today.

Is it ever a struggle to divide your time between acting and writing about food?

In recent months I’ve been stretching myself thin, but I love every second of it. I’m lucky that my filming schedule on Mount Pleasant was such that it allowed time for me to work on the book and when I wrapped I went into full-on writing mode. I’m not one to sit idle, I thrive on busy times and get more done when juggling everything all at once.

Were you always into healthy cuisine? What motivated your anti-diet sentiment?

I wouldn’t say I’m into ‘healthy cuisine’—I’m more an ‘everything in moderation’ and ‘balance is key’ kind of cook. I’m not a fan of ‘diets’. Why deprive ourselves of the things we enjoy and self-persecute by eliminating food groups that ultimately make us healthy and happy?

Everything in moderation is the absolute key, and my way of cooking with a little bit of what you fancy is very much what my cookbook Milly’s Real Food is based upon.

You’re all about making wholesome food delicious; what would be your go-to pointers for a time-strapped novice trying to integrate whole foods into their routine?

I don’t buy into what some food bloggers have labelled as “Whole Foods”, for me it’s about integrating lots of fruit, vegetables, grains, fibre, dairy, meat and fish into my diet.

I love making things that let the oven or stove do all the work. Pearl barley risotto is a lifesaver as—unlike normal risotto—you can leave it to bubble away until cooked. Since it’s autumn, try a butternut squash and sage pearl barley risotto—delicious. Also slow-cooked beef brisket with brown rice and buttery greens is a super warming and wholesome dish that’s delicious in the autumn/ winter months.

You’re against fad diets and extreme elimination regimes that aren’t sustainable; how would you describe the range of foods you advocate in your recipes?

Self-diagnosed food intolerances and advice from “blogger health-gurus” that bread and pasta are sandpaper for the gut are quite frankly bonkers. If you have a gluten allergy, absolutely, don’t eat it, but for the majority of us who don’t and who simply want to enjoy food and eat well then I strongly believe in eating everything in moderation.

My recipes are built on accessible, affordable and attainable ingredients. You won’t get a hefty shopping list for Planet Organic in my book!

My grandfather is 101 years old in February and his astonishingly good health is testament to his diet of meat and two veg, cheese, eggs, cake and bread. If I told him I’d gone vegan, paleo, gluten-free because someone on the internet said it was a good idea he’d call me a lunatic. There’s something very refreshing about his unspoilt attitude to food.

Which country would you say has the best approach to food?

Countries in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, in my eyes, have the best approach to food. Lots of fresh fish, meat, vegetables, pasta and a little bit of cake, bread and cheese here and there is absolutely something that resonates with me.

Food for me is happiness. I’d be utterly miserable surviving on sweet potatoes, kale and chickpeas.

What would be your failsafe dishes to rustle up for impromptu supper guests?

I always have a full larder of rice, pearl barley, orzo pasta, spaghetti and bulgur wheat. It’s easy to rustle up an orzotto or pearl barley risotto from the contents in my fridge, teamed with a fresh salad and a pimped ciabatta with lots of herbs, garlic and butter. Easy peasy, stove does all the work but you look like a pro.

What would be your dream ambitious menu if you had the finest kitchen and all the time and resources in the world?

I love the idea of water baths and vacuum pack machines but they’re just not practical in a home kitchen so I’d go wild, Great British Menu style! I’d do slow-cooked beef cheek with a rich gravy and truffle mash potato—something I’d love to try and recreate from Rolf’s in Stockholm, where I visited while we shot my book. I ate it three times in nine days..!

Which has been your most enjoyable acting role to date?

I played a girl called Imogen in Silent Witness. She was a young, naive and damaged girl who fell in love with the police officer who saved her from prostitution. He groomed her and she fell into a very toxic relationship, to the detriment of her family’s safety. It was an intimidating role but electric to play.

What’s next on the agenda?

I’m just finishing up my debut cookbook Milly’s Real Food, which is released in May 2017. After that, I’ll go wherever the wind takes me. Hopefully somewhere exciting.

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