Why does celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager have murder on the menu?
- Credit: Jim Holden
Wadhurst-based celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager has been sharing her cookery tips and recipes on TV for nearly 20 years but now she's cooked up a murder mystery for her debut novel
WORDS: Angela Wintle PICTURES: Jim Holden
On the day I’m scheduled to interview Rosemary Shrager over the telephone, Storm Eunice is doing its worst, ripping down power lines and leaving millions of homes across southern England without electricity.
Rosemary, not to be outdone by the worst weather front in more than 30 years, gamely honours our engagement, but the elements have other ideas. We are repeatedly cut off; then her power shuts down completely. As the only means of communication left to us is Morse Code, we agree to reconvene after the weekend.
‘Oh my goodness, what a terrible thing to happen!’ exclaims Rosemary, with typical gusto, when we finally catch up. 'Our power didn’t come back on for two and a half days. I couldn’t even send a text or email. It shows how much we rely on electricity.’
Nevertheless, Rosemary, who survived all manner of horrors on I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, wasn’t going to be knocked off course by a severe weather warning, and in true Blighty spirit raided her candle box, whiled away the time playing Sudoko and Patience, and whipped up a cauldron of goulash on her gas stove. You sense she’s a good person to have around in a crisis.
‘Yes, I’m a survivor,’ she says, in a rare moment of seriousness. ‘I never give up. If I can’t do something one way, I’ll find another way. I never look back and think “Poor me”. You have to push forward.
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‘I’ve been a very fortunate person in lots of ways, but I’ve had a pretty tough life, too. I’ve lost money, homes, cats and dogs. Many years ago I even found myself living on people’s sofas. I’ve had my fair share of disasters.’
Thankfully, there are few signs of her turbulent past today. Rosemary, 71, is a whirlwind of energy, despite a recent hip operation. She is bubbly, friendly and quick to poke fun at herself, frequently punctuating her conversation with shrieks of laughter. It’s why she has been a mainstay on foodie TV shows since the early Noughties, as well as a perennial favourite on reality series like Ladette to Lady and The Real Marigold Hotel.
She is chatting from the converted chapel in Wadhurst which has been her home for the past seven years.
‘I moved to the area in 2013 when I started a cookery school in Tunbridge Wells,’ she says. ‘I moved around a bit, then found this place which suits me down to the ground. I’ve knocked it about and added a studio-type kitchen which has enabled me to film live cook-alongs on Facebook, YouTube and now Zoom.’
These proved a surprise hit during the Covid pandemic when we were all cooped up at home. Rosemary’s Sunday-afternoon tutorials, where she showed viewers how to prepare classic favourites like steak and kidney pie, made for real comfort viewing, partly because her
kitchen, decorated with lamps, pictures and pretty blue-and-white china, looked so homely and inviting.
Although she spent much of her youth in London, she has taken Sussex to her heart and loves exploring the surrounding countryside, particularly Bewl Water, the scenic reservoir straddling the Sussex and Kent border. She has also embraced the local foodie scene and has high praise for the Abergavenny Arms in Frant, where she dines regularly, and her local farm shop, Eggs to Apples in Hurst Green.
Dining out, of course, wasn’t possible when we were all under strict lockdown, but Rosemary, never one to sit idle, soon decided to embark on a new career and dip her toe into the brave new world of crime writing.
Her debut novel introduces readers to retired celebrity chef Prudence Bulstrode, who is asked to step into the breach when her old TV rival, Deirdre Shaw, is found dead at the Cotswolds manor house where she was catering for a prestigious shooting weekend. Prudence happily takes up the position, but quickly realises that Shaw’s death is no accident and turns amateur sleuth.
‘The book came about because I’ve always loved classic murder-mystery writers like Agatha Christie,’ says Rosemary. ‘I was chatting to my agent during lockdown and she said, “Why don’t you write a book in the same mould?” My novel is a cosy-crime read very much in the style of TV series like Midsomer Murders and Grantchester. It’s not a Vera because that’s pretty tough, but it’s edgy enough for readers not to know who the murderer is. I’m nervous and excited to see what people will make of it.’
Rosemary admits the lead character is loosely based on herself, but few amateur detectives would guess at her own remarkable life story. By her own admission, her early life was a privileged one. The youngest of three children, her father worked as a company executive for a large crane company, and she and her siblings followed him from job to job, even spending two years in South Africa.
Once back in England, their life was divided between a beautiful Nash-designed Crown house near Regent’s Park and a sprawling country home in Cornwall. On paper, it looked idyllic, but home life was almost unbearable.
‘Psychologically, I had a very challenging background,” says Rosemary, an uncharacteristic note of steeliness entering her voice. ‘Let’s just say my mother wasn’t the easiest person to live with and love was never unconditional. I wanted to leave home when I was 10 years old.’
One good thing her mother did pass on, however, was her love of cooking. Rosemary started out designing kitchens for a London-based architectural firm, but in the evenings she’d rush home and stay up all night perfecting recipes. When she turned 20, despite having never cooked professionally, she marched into an employment agency and said she wanted to prepare directors’ lunches.
‘They asked, “Can you cook?” and I said, “Of course I can.” They took me on, but I quickly realised I knew nothing. I was never very successful because I bought all my supplies from Harrods.’
By this time she had married a man 14 years her senior and they had two children together. When her husband’s business failed, they decided to make a fresh start in Cornwall and she began running her own restaurant from home. But financial disaster struck again when his new property venture fell victim to the Nineties recession.
‘The bank froze our assets and I didn’t have a bean to my name,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t even afford to feed our cat and dog. We lost everything we owned paying off our debts.’
Her marriage collapsed and she took the brave decision to head back to London, armed with nothing but a small suitcase. ‘I knew I had to find work to support my children, but I couldn’t even afford to buy a ticket for the train. I had to ask a friend to send a postal order so I had some ready cash.’
Rosemary, who had never been though catering college, decided she wanted to learn from the best so she pluckily wrote to the French chef Pierre Koffmann at his famous Tante Claire restaurant in Chelsea, asking for a job. He had never employed a woman, but agreed to take her on a trial basis.
Her biggest turning point came when she was hired to manage the catering at a hotel and shooting estate in the Western Isles of Scotland for the cider heir Jonathan Bulmer. She opened her own cookery school at his castle and started making guest appearances on the BBC’s Food and Drink programme. She was then quickly poached by Channel 5 who offered Rosemary her own food show, and it has led to regular TV work ever since.
She worked steadily throughout the lockdowns, popping up on Channel 5’s Fishing Scotland’s Lochs and Rivers and ITV’s Cooking With the Stars. She is also launching her own range of pies and opening a new cookery school in Maidstone, Kent, where she’ll be teaching masterclasses.
I ask whether her packed diary is partly a means of fending off loneliness.
‘People are surprised when I say I love being on my own, but I do,’ she says. ‘The only time it does get a bit lonely is if I’ve been away during an intensive period of filming. It would be nice to have somebody waiting at home, so I could say, “Guess what I did?” But there’s nobody. That can be a little depressing because television, as fun as it is, isn’t reality.’
But Rosemary doesn’t dwell on dark thoughts for long. Besides, she has too much to do. She’s already working on her second crime novel and is quietly carving out a tandem TV career in America.
What’s her recipe for life? ‘Never say never,’ she says, ‘because you never know where an opportunity might take you.’
· Rosemary Shrager’s debut crime novel, The Last Supper, is out now in hardback (Constable, £16.99).