Mummy's delicious legacy! Lisa Faulkner was just 16 when her mother – a fabulous cook – died. Now she shares her family recipes
When Lisa Faulkner lost her mother prematurely, to cancer, she turned to cooking as a solace
When actress Lisa Faulkner lost her mother prematurely, to cancer, she turned to cooking as a solace.
‘The process of preparing and making food gave me a focus,’ she says. ‘It made me feel I had a purpose in a world that had crumbled around me. I cooked the simple, everyday recipes I’d picked up from Mummy,’ she recalls. ‘Family meals like shepherd’s pie, lasagne, roast chicken; stuff that would now be labelled “comfort food”.’
Lisa was just 16 when her mother Julie,
an accomplished amateur cook, died aged 44. And the recipes Julie
bequeathed to her elder daughter after evolving, inventing and adapting
them over the years have become, in a sense, her mother’s most enduring
legacy. They are a sensory recollection that evokes her happy, Home
‘My earliest memories are of Mummy
cooking,’ she says. ‘I can close my eyes and swamp my senses with the
wonderful aromas as if they were drifting up to my childhood bedroom.’
passed on not only her love of food, but also her culinary skills to
Lisa. But although Lisa, like her mother, adores entertaining, she did
not recognise the extent of her ability, or realise how finely tuned her
palate was, until she won BBC1’s Celebrity MasterChef in 2010.
‘Lisa elevates humble food into something beautiful,’ said judge Gregg Wallace after her victory. ‘She’s possibly the best celebrity winner we’ve ever had.’
Since her win, Lisa, until then best
known for her roles in Spooks and Holby City, has been working at top
London restaurants Smiths of Smithfield and Roux at Parliament Square,
gaining experience in every area of the kitchen. She’s
also written a book, Recipes From My Mother For My Daughter, which is
both a gastronomic narrative of her life and a way of passing on a
culinary inheritance to her own little girl, Billie, five.
and her actor husband Chris Coghill adopted Billie when she was 15
months old after three IVF attempts failed. With motherhood has come a
surge of protective love and fear. ‘I love Billie more than I would a
child I’d given birth to,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t have made one better
Lisa says becoming a mother has sharpened her sense of how food defined and shaped her own childhood
Lisa turned 40 last week; an anxious milestone for her because she worries that her own life, like her mother’s, might be cruelly cut short; she frets continually about leaving Billie motherless. ‘It’s a real dread, being 40. Most people who’ve lost parents young can’t see past the age they were when they died. You’re fearful until you’ve passed it.
‘I’m a born worrier and with motherhood come guilt and fear. When I get on a plane now I fret much more. I think “I need to be here for Billie”. I never realised how much love you could have for another human being until she came along.’
Becoming a mother has sharpened her sense of how food defined and shaped her own childhood too. She was raised, with her younger sister Victoria, in Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey in a close-knit and loving nuclear family: her father David is a civil servant, and before motherhood, Julie – who was blonde, vivacious and beautiful – worked as a legal secretary.
‘My mum was a whirlwind, a proper
force,’ recalls Lisa. ‘She was a brilliant cook and was always filling
the house with people and music and food. She’d make her own pastry – we
never had anything bought – and I can still hear, clear as a bell, the
sound of her wedding ring tinkling against her glass rolling pin as she
shaped it. I remember watching in awe as she made profiteroles, chicken
tarragon, beef Wellington… and what’s stayed with me more than anything
is the taste of that food.’
My mum was a whirlwind, a proper force. She was a brilliant cook and was always filling the
house with people and music and food.
Lisa was 14 and Victoria 12 when Julie became ill. ‘The cancer started as an ulcer under her tongue and the dentist didn’t know what it was. Then it spread to her throat and neck. It was, at most, two years before she died and there were times when she seemed better, then she’d be very ill. I know my parents made choices and protected us from how ill Mum was, and that was right. If we’d known how ill she was, would it have changed anything
'We knew she had cancer, but we didn’t know she was going to die. Victoria and I were at school when we heard the news. It was awful. I was completely lost; not brave in the slightest. I remember going home and ironing Dad’s shirts. I’d never ironed anything before. I started cooking, too. Looking back now I did it because food was my mum. The kitchen was where I felt close to her.’
Alongside the need to take control of
her life, to assume a motherly role, came a conflicting urge to rebel.
‘I went off the rails. There was a lot of smoking, underage drinking,
partying. I didn’t look after myself. I didn’t care. When your world has
been completely rocked, in a way you switch a self-destruct button. You
think, “What’s the worst that can happen I’ll die and be with my
Soon she was spotted by a talent scout
from a modelling agency and whisked off to an assignment in Japan. Her
entre into acting came when a film director spotted her photo in a teen
magazine and cast her in the risqu romance The Lover. She was 19.
Later, mentored by the actress Amanda Redman, she took a drama degree.
This led to parts in Dangerfield, Brookside, Holby City, Spooks and
drama series Burn It, where she met her future husband Chris, shortly
after splitting up with the actor Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie’s ex.
Inspiration: Lisa's mother died of cancer
Chris and Lisa were married seven years ago and, although they both wanted children, their hopes were thwarted when Lisa suffered a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. The three unsuccessful IVF attempts that ensued drained her physically, emotionally and financially.
‘My consultant, Mohamed Taranissi (the fertility specialist who helped Penny Lancaster conceive) was an angel, but he said, “Lisa, I can do everything except the magic.” After three tries he said, “I’m going to let you go now.” It was the best thing he could have done. I’d put on weight and been pumped full of hormones. I felt slightly off-balance. I wanted to move on. IVF takes over some women. It’s all they can see. You have to start looking at the big picture. I thought, “I can be a mother. I’ll just have to do it differently.”’
She and Chris duly embarked on the protracted process of adopting.
‘It takes forever. It’s horrendous,’ she admits. ‘You worry about having a past – there are pictures of you falling out of nightclubs – and you don’t know whether that, and being an actress, will go against you. They go into everything. They have to. They need to know you can cope with certain situations and actually, the more you’ve been through the more helpful it is to a child. You’ve acquired capabilities and experience that can prove useful to them. But adoption is like a difficult birth. The moment you have your baby the memory of all the difficulties fades.’
Now her pretty blonde daughter is old enough to be learning some of the elementary cooking skills that provided succour and therapy to Lisa; to Billie she is passing on the legacy her mother bestowed on her. ‘Billie loves cooking,’ says Lisa.
‘I let her do everything. I take a deep breath and say, “Yes, you can!” She loves to taste, stir, and bake. She gets herbs from the garden. She’s my little recipe tester.’
Lisa is also passing on to Billie some of her mother’s culinary traditions. When Charles and Diana married in 1981, Julie, a staunch Royalist, threw a magnificent party. A trestle table was laid with the best china and a sumptuous array of food, the centrepiece of which was a platter of coronation chicken. ‘And when William and Kate married last year, I threw a party too. I thought, “Mummy would have loved this so much.” There’s always something that reminds me of her.
‘I still talk about her to Billie as if she was around. I’ve made my peace with the fact that she’s no longer with me, yet sometimes I still think she’s sitting on my shoulder. When I decided to write the cookery book I invited my three godmothers, Nina, Pat and Ann, around and I made Mum’s coronation chicken for them, just as she used to make it. They arrived armed with little cards and recipes Mummy had given them. It was amazing. Even now a scrap of paper falls out of a book and it’s a recipe written in her handwriting. I think, “It’s another gift from her.”
‘Lots of things trigger memories. I still have her spice rack, her tea cup, her special wine glass; her glass rolling pin. They all transport me back. At Christmas Billie and I stirred the filling for the mince pies with my mum’s wooden spoon. I think she would be proud that I love cooking; proud of my book. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of her. Anyone who has lost their mother will know.
‘She taught me to be strong, brave and true to myself, and though I’m constantly doing things that terrify me – my heart thuds when my food goes out into a restaurant – I think how pleased Mum would be. She was instrumental in everything I’ve done with my life. To me she was just magic.’
Recipes From My Mother For My Daughter by Lisa Faulkner is published by Simon & Schuster on Thursday, priced 20.