Gizzi Erskine Is, Like So Many Of Us, Cooking Comfort Food In Lockdown

For Gizzi Erskine, lockdown meant the closure of a restaurant that had been her passion project. Now though, she's finding new ways of sharing her love of food.

Gizzi Erskine

by Rosamund Dean |
Updated on

What are you missing most about ‘normal’ life? Apart from obvious things, like a hug from a much-missed loved one, or the simple joy of going to the cinema or pub with friends, I bet there’s a food you can’t stop thinking about. Whether Wagamama’s katsu curry or the fast and dirty joy of a Big Mac with cheese, it’s funny what we start dreaming of when we can’t have it.

That’s why food-obsessed best mates, chef Gizzi Erskine and Stephen Manderson (aka rapper and broadcaster Professor Green), decided to learn how to make their favourite fast food – and then teach us.

‘We’re just playing around really, showing people how to make the food they’re craving that they can’t get at the moment,’ explains Gizzi over FaceTime from her warehouse apartment in east London. Going under the name Giz & Green, Gizzi and Stephen host a weekly Instagram Live called Monday Night Fakeaway, where they make everything from fried chicken to – yes – a Big Mac.

‘It’s the most interactive thing I’ve ever done, because we share the ingredients a couple of days beforehand, and people are cooking along with us, which feels really good,’ says Gizzi. ‘We’re going to keep doing it until people get bored of us.’

As well as the practical benefits of a free cooking lesson every week, there are mental health benefits too, as Stephen explains when I call him in Morocco, where he’s seeing out lockdown with his girlfriend, actor and model Karima McAdams.

‘We’re all spending a hell of a lot of time in our own heads thinking about what’s going on and the ramifications of it on a global scale,’ he says. ‘It’s easy to fall into only having conversations about that, and I don’t know how helpful that is at this time. So it’s nice to be able to engage people in something else. And it has made me think about my own eating habits and how lazy I had become in terms of takeaways. Well, now I’m in Morocco with no takeaways, so I have to cook every meal at home.’ Why Morocco? ‘My partner is here, so I figured out I could either be at home missing her, or here missing my dogs. I got on the last flight out to Tangier before lockdown,’ he explains. ‘I do miss my dogs, but I made the right decision.’

Meanwhile, back in London, Gizzi is spending lockdown with her cats, Kimchi and Ponzu, and her boyfriend (she declines to tell me his name, explaining she’s ‘learned the hard way’ on that front). On a normal Friday night, she would be heading out dancing, probably to Hackney’s Moth Club. But, when we speak, she’s doing her make-up for a Houseparty quiz night. The change of pace is taking a bit of getting used to.

‘I find it really weird,’ she cringes. ‘Believe it or not, I don’t like doing this,’ she gestures at her phone screen. Doing interviews? ‘Talking to camera,’ she laughs. ‘It’s not where I get my kicks. I used to do a lot of telly but I gave it up around four years ago to focus on the business side and I’m so much happier for it.’ Having said that, she admits Giz & Green has ‘piqued my interest’ in being on screen again.

So when it comes to online quizzes and group video calls, ‘These are things that I would never do normally,’ she says. ‘Even a FaceTime call is not my comfort zone. But we’re all pushing our boundaries at the moment.’ And, like many of us, she’s finding this situation has brought her closer to family that she can’t currently hug in person. ‘I’m speaking to my mum way more than I normally do,’ she says. A few days before our chat, she had shared a vintage picture of her mum on Instagram, with the caption, ‘Can’t wait to squish her.’ Many people have embraced new elements of creativity in what’s now being called ‘the great pause’ but, for Gizzi, it felt more important than ever not to let isolation defeat her.

In February, she launched The Nitery, a pop-up restaurant in London’s St Martin’s Lane Hotel. A heady, bohemian French/American/British vibe, it was her biggest undertaking ever and her first West End opening. And it won rave reviews. But, less than a month into the three-month residency, it became clear that it was over. Even before the Government announced plans to shut restaurants, London’s venues were emptying as people realised the importance of social distancing.

‘That was pretty devastating,’ she nods, perched at the breakfast bar in her kitschily pink kitchen. Having poured blood, sweat and tears into the restaurant, seeing it close ‘was so hard, because we’d worked so hard’. She shakes her head, then laughs ruefully. ‘I feel like I might be to blame for all this, because I was trying to manifest a lie down.’

Not that she’s actually having much of a break at the moment. She continues to juggle many beautifully presented plates. As well as Giz & Green, there’s Filth, the plant-based burger brand she runs with nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson. And a new book, the details of which are still under wraps, will be published later this year.

One of Gizzi’s big passions is minimising food waste, and eating sustainably. ‘We do have to be more conscious about how we eat, and a bit more frugal, because a lot of people have lost their jobs, or are not sure about their future. It’s a complicated time, and people are genuinely having to learn how to pace themselves, within their kitchens as well.’ To this end, she is refocusing on creative ways to eat well for less.

‘I’ve really enjoyed trying to teach people how to break down a chicken, to show how much you can get from one bird. That’s why I feel it’s important to use a higher-welfare bird,’ she says. ‘I get a thrill from that connection with food, and appreciating and understanding where your food has come from. People so often disassociate from that when they’re dealing with plastic-wrapped supermarket food.’

Rediscovering the emotional power of food has been a journey for Gizzi. ‘I feel like I’m connecting with food again, and I’m seeing that in other people too, they are genuinely engaged with it – and making dishes that they actually want to cook rather than thinking on their feet.’

Of course, the other side of the coin is our complicated relationship with food in terms of emotional eating. At the moment, we are all variously experiencing anxiety, boredom, loneliness, frustration, stress and depression – all of which are huge triggers for overeating.

I didn’t go to the award ceremony because none of the really stunning clothes that were sent for me fit. There were tears.

It’s an issue for which Gizzi briefly and unwittingly became a poster girl in 2018, when she shared a picture of herself, with make-up done, ready to attend the GQ Awards, but explained in the caption: ‘I didn’t go because none of the really stunning clothes that were sent for me fit. It’s pretty devastating. There were tears. This isn’t a knock at the fashion industry or anyone actually. I had put on three stone.’ The post had 11.5k likes and many comments thanking Gizzi for her honesty. When I mention it now, she sighs deeply.

‘I did something really flippant, then woke up the next day and saw the impact of it. I thought people would say I was a spoilt brat, but I had so many messages – some from huge movie stars, who I won’t name because they contacted me privately – saying, “Thank you, we feel like this the whole fucking time.” So it was a weird moment, but it was just a moment,’ she says, firmly. ‘I don’t want it to be a definitive thing for me, because I’ve got a good relationship with food. It’s just that food is my work, and sometimes I work too hard.’ She admits that, when busy and stressed, she can end up ‘guzzling Coca Cola and Haribo’, so she didn’t feel great at that time. ‘That was the first time I had actually put on a lot of weight, and I struggled to get it off, which has been difficult.’ She pauses, choosing her words carefully.

Among the many positive comments about Gizzi’s Instagram post, there were a handful of people who criticised her for being honest about wanting to lose weight in this era when we’re supposed to feel body-confident no matter what. ‘I’m having to limit my words because I’m scared as to how they can be perceived,’ she says slowly. ‘It’s made me self-conscious because I’ve got to be aware of trigger warnings and things that might offend people. But I can’t help but be myself, and I can’t help but think some things that not everyone’s going to agree with, and surely that’s the beauty of life.’

Despite what happened with The Nitery (which Gizzi hopes will reopen once lockdown is lifted), she is finding some silver linings, with the current situation making her aware of the power of food to comfort and reassure. ‘The thing that’s keeping me going is to be able to lose myself in that kind of distraction,’ she says. ‘Any chef will tell you that they don’t often get to cook how they like to cook at home. One of my favourite foods is spaghetti Bolognese, but I would never make that normally because I’m thinking about a dish that I’m developing for work. So now I’m loving being able to immerse myself in food, in a way that is grounding because it reminds me what people actually want when they’re cooking.’

And many of us are realising that we can use this opportunity to get to know our way around the kitchen. ‘It’s so great to see the amount of people actually cooking,’ grins Gizzi. ‘A positive thing that can come out of all this is that people can see and appreciate the effort that goes into cooking, and actually get some joy out of the process.’

We need to find joy where we can at the moment. Who knew that it might just be in the kitchen?

Giz & Green’s Monday Night Fakeaway live every Monday night at 7pm @gizandgreens @gizzierskine @professorgreen

Read More: Gizzi Erskine: 'It's OK To Not Feel Body Positive All The Time'

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