Claudia Roden, 76, is world-renowned for her books on Middle Eastern cookery. Earlier this year, she received the Guild of Food Writers Lifetime Achievement Award.
What was your earliest ambition?
To swim fast. I trained every day at a sporting club with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. When I was 15, I beat the Egyptian 50m backstroke record. Then at boarding school in Paris, I dreamed of making films. A day girl had a boyfriend at film school and we were all enthralled by what he told us. But my parents said: “Il n’est pas question.” So I switched to wanting to paint large political murals – and change the world.
Public school or state school? University or straight into work?
In Cairo I attended the Gezira Prep and The English School; then the Lycée Hélène Boucher in Paris. I went to Saint Martins College of Art in London and left after two years to work at Alitalia, when my parents arrived as refugees. I got £7 a week, but many free flights. I started collecting recipes from people leaving Egypt after the Suez crisis. I was fascinated by their stories and realised that cooking was an important part of culture – and began to take an interest in the history and background of food.
Who was or still is your mentor?
The people who helped me in my research are my mentors. There are many in different countries and also in Britain who gave me recipes, cooked for me, lent me books and gave me contacts and advice. Editors, colleagues and my agent have encouraged me.
How physically fit are you?
I’m healthy. I don’t exercise but I eat good things.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Talent, hard work, luck and perseverance.
Have you ever taken an IQ test?
How politically committed are you?
I’m very concerned about what’s going on in the world, especially in the Middle East. My views are to the left.
Do you consider your carbon footprint?
I do, but I travel quite a bit by plane for my work.
Do you have more than one home?
I have a home in London and a small studio in Paris.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
A machine that makes instant ice cream.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
The studio in Paris.
In what place are you happiest?
I love being in foreign cities, but I’m always happy to come home.
What ambitions do you still have?
To go on working, but to have much more time with family and friends.
What drives you on?
I enjoy working – it means eating delicious food, travelling and meeting people. It’s convivial but also involves solitary research, which I like.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
Bringing up my three children. They and their children are the most precious thing I have.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
I forget them.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?
She would be intrigued, but pleased that I still feel like she does.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
Consider the options.
Do you believe in assisted suicide?
Yes – if someone is in great pain and near death.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
I feel lucky but don’t know how to rate that.
‘The Food of Spain’, by Claudia Roden, is published by Michael Joseph (£25)