Nici Wickes – A Quiet Kitchen

Photography Todd Eyre

Middle-aged, child-free and single, Nici Wickes is relishing a life of relative solitude. Her cookbook is a guide to living alone healthily, joyfully and quietly, with lots of glorious recipes.

On camera, Nici Wickes is exuberant, noisy even, as she cheerily prepares meals for television or Instagram – so the title of her new cookbook, A Quiet Kitchen, comes as a surprise to many.

“What, Nici quiet?” she laughs. Yet pottering alone in her kitchen is what Wickes loves best. It’s where she finds solace and joy, recharges her batteries and she’s discovered that living in the small seaside rural community of Port Waikato fills her cup to the point that it is now overflowing with contentment.

When lockdown forced Wickes to be in one place, she chose Port Waikato over her rented city apartment.

“I learned quite a lot about myself during that time. People around me were like, ‘Are you okay because you’re on your own?’ And I could not have been more okay. I enjoyed being off the hook for social events and I really understood that I love to live on my own,” Wickes shares.

She says she wrote A Quiet Kitchen because she wanted people to know that it’s okay to live solo, to not have kids or to have not found your soulmate. It’s a reflection on where life is now for Wickes and a “quietening down of ourselves”.

“I suppose it comes off the back of lockdown where we all had to get a bit quiet and that was pretty tough for some people but it was a dream for me,” she says. “My little kitchen occasionally has people in it but mostly it’s just me pottering around in there. I want this book to be an inspiration for people who are living alone to feel okay about that choice or if it hasn’t been a choice, grow to love that. I probably thought I would’ve been married at some stage in my life. I haven’t and it’s been a bit disquieting at times to wonder about that. Now I go, it’s fine. I’ve had some good relationships, but I’m on my own and let’s revel in that.”

While the book is not a memoir and contains lots of mouth-watering recipes, Wickes does share some personal experiences, which she doesn’t think are unique and believes need to be spoken about more, like anxiety, fatigue, comfort eating, giving up booze and menopause.

“I wanted to be honest about all those things,” she says. “Menopause can be a real shit. It was for me. I wanted to bring all of that in and the connector for that is food for me. I find food a huge comfort and I adore cooking. It’s the thing that really settles me down.”

Living a quiet life in rural Port Waikato has also helped Wickes recover from fatigue brought on by years of working in an unrelenting deadline-driven industry, preparing recipes for New Zealand Women’s Weekly, television and writing weekly restaurant reviews.

A four-day retreat in Bali five years ago gave her an inkling of hope that she’d be able to get her energy back.

“People would say, ‘You’re not just depressed?’. I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m fucking depressed alright because I’ve been tired for years’. On this little retreat in Bali I was still and in a really gentle place and I knew my energy was coming back because my ideas started flowing and I realised the fatigue was not terminal and if I rested enough, I could recover. So this was a beautiful moment for me.”

She followed this up with a mindfulness course, and made a conscious effort to slow down and spend more time in Port Waikato. Losing her job at New Zealand Woman’s Weekly at the start of the 2020 lockdown, when the publisher closed their doors, turned out to be a gift as she discovered living in Port Waikato full time was not only possible but fulfilling.

She gave up the Auckland apartment, and in retrospect realises her humble home is everything she ever wanted.

“I looked back at a list that I’d manifested years before, which was a house by the sea. I don’t have a view of the sea but it’s 200 metres down the road. It has French doors and is single level with lots of sun,” says Wickes.

Six months ago she added solar panels, describing it as the best thing for her heart. “It felt fantastic and was the biggest thing I felt like I could contribute to the next generation,” she says.

“I wanted to be honest about all those things,” she says. “Menopause can be a real shit. It was for me. I wanted to bring all of that in and the connector for that is food for me. I find food a huge comfort and I adore cooking. It’s the thing that really settles me down.” Photography Todd Eyre.

Cooking for one

Over the years many people have shared with Wickes that they can’t be bothered cooking for one, although it is something she personally adores. For Wickes, it is a form of self-love, and if you fall into that camp of not feeling you can be bothered, she suggests trying her recipes and treating them “as a gift to yourself”.
A lot of her recipes require very little time on the tools. They’re not finicky – 15 minutes chopping and five minutes in a pan, or five minutes prep and the oven does the rest. They’re also what she calls “very forgiving” – if you stop and start, or cook them for too long, they will be fine.

“I like to say that most of my recipes, if not all of them, can be cooked while you’re camping,” she laughs.

Wicks uses herbs and spices for flavour and inexpensive good-quality ingredients. Pantry staples include parmesan, risotto rice, gluten-free pasta, bacon, lemons, parsley and pepper. Her garden yields spinach, parsley and rosemary and she has a lemon tree.

You’ll find wine in Wickes’ pantry, too, to add flavour to her cooking, though she gave up drinking alcohol age 40, after a drunken tumble resulted in a black eye. “Giving up drinking is the secret to a good life,” says Wickes “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I did have the odd glass when I was still reviewing restaurants but now I’ve even stopped doing that because even having one makes you feel sloppy and the next day I know I’ve drunk a glass of toxin. I don’t judge people for drinking. It’s completely fine. I didn’t have a good relationship with it.”

Comfort eating

She is a fan of eating for comfort though and challenges the societal narrative, especially how it relates to women.

“I think comfort eating has a really bad name and it’s something that’s attributed to women. If you conjure up comfort eating, it’s not a guy sitting there with a tub of ice cream, is it? So I think it’s a real slur sometimes. Just as is ‘cat lady’ and this thing about women living alone, like it’s a bad thing,” she says.
“I really want A Quiet Kitchen to provide comfort for women living alone and to celebrate it. It’s a great thing. It doesn’t mean that women who are married or living with others is not a good thing, but I want us to feel good about the comfort of our own houses rather than this idea of, ‘oh, you’re a cat lady’ or ‘you’re comfort eating’.”

Wickes’ comfort food is a beautiful casserole or a coq au vin. Her mother used to cook the classic French dish when she was growing up. Wickes’ coq au vin recipe (see page 61) is quick and simple to prepare. She’s also converted some pudding recipes to make smaller portions “because why wouldn’t you have a little pudding after dinner?”

Accepting menopause

And while she has gained “a widening girth” with menopause, Wickes has decided not to battle it. “I actually think that’s a natural form of evolution and I’m good with it,” she says. “Menopause is a weight-putting-on occasion. I’m not going to spend the rest of my years, which I should be enjoying, trying to get rid of my gut. I’m sorry. But I do want to be heart healthy – a thickening middle can also be a sign of potential heart disease – so go get your heart checked, which I did, and as long as that’s good, well, I’m happy to be fatter. “I’m very round now but I still get in my togs most days and go for an ocean swim.”

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