Delia and me – and life purpose

Two women are meeting to plan the first programme in a cookery series.

Woman 1: Since the first programme is about eggs, I think we ought to start with how to boil an egg

Woman 2: Surely everyone already knows how to do that? I think we’ll be laughed at if that’s what we do. How about omelettes instead?

Woman 1 was Delia Smith and Woman 2 was me, her first producer on Delia Smith’s Cookery Course, the series (and book) which made her name and fortune.

At that time, there was no ‘lifestyle’ programming. Delia was not a celeb. She was writing a popular cookery column in the London Evening Standard but her last TV appearance had been four years previously. In pitching my idea for a 3 x 10 programme series with accompanying books on how to cook, I met patronising male indifference

‘Delia Smith? That boring unsexy woman – oh please no.’ (Controller, BBC-2)

‘A book on how to cook? Why? Doesn’t everyone already know?’ (Head of BBC Books)

Despite this, the series was commissioned. I had my way on Programme 1. It did not include a sequence about how to boil an egg, but I recall a rather frosty conversation and there was probably quite a bit of haughty hair-tossing on both sides, the first of many such discussions.

At the recent BAFTA event where Delia was presented with a Lifetime Award, I once more heard her state her passionate belief in the value of learning how to cook well with simple ingredients, her understanding that many people are timid about cooking and her dislike of TV cooking that is ‘theatre’ – more about the presenter than about the food.

When our series was first broadcast, the reactions included many that are now familiar: the sneering from chefs, the accusations that she oversimplified. But the programmes instantly won an audience of 3 million against EastEnders, ‘One I prepared earlier’ became a catchphrase and we generated the first recorded instance of The Delia Effect when the national stock of lemon zesters disappeared in a day after we featured one in the programme.

For all Mr BBC Books’ doubts and grumbles, the first printing, where he had reluctantly agreed a run of 50,000, sold out in three days and the ultimate sales figures are in millions – in fact they kept BBC Books afloat for many years.

I did not truly understand then what I see very clearly now, that Delia was and is a woman on a mission. As a coach I frequently work with people on career issues and use Delia as a case study in the importance and value of identifying your life purpose. Once you know this everything becomes simple: decisions about direction are easy; moral dilemmas can be resolved in a trice; the chances are that you will be successful because the first principle of getting other people to believe in you is to believe in yourself.

Delia is also a perfect example of understanding that as a person you are a brand and that it is better to differentiate yourself than to try to be all things to all people. Delia flourishes on the very weaknesses that those lordly BBC mandarins identified. Her apparent boringness translates into ‘someone just like us’, her lack of obvious charisma conveys, ‘if I can do it anyone can’. Her perfectionism and stubbornness produces recipes that are reliable. She is consistently and authentically herself.

She has now said that she will never do another TV cookery series and has launched her own online cookery school ( where she can be free of those pesky producers, editors or supermarket bosses and have total control, specialising in a careful step by step approach – a little old-fashioned perhaps, just as our series now seems – which will show you just how to make a perfect Victoria sponge.

Seven years after producing the Cookery Course I left TV behind without regret. I was about to discover my own life purpose: the coaching and writing career I have pursued ever since. In 1998 Delia presented what was, in effect, a remake of our series. It was called How to Cook. Programme 1 started with how to boil an egg. The uproar was exactly as I had predicted. And she was exactly right in predicting how many people would confess that up till then they had not known.

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