Shrager is the quintessential English lady, with layers to her character that unfold as she describes her journey from society upbringing to the discovery of her Jewish roots in her early teens, to marrying into a Jewish family, and going on to become one of the UK’s best loved chefs.
She speaks proudly of her Jewish origins: “I was 14 or 15 when I learnt about my Jewish roots, but it had a profound impact on me. I have always felt that I am a bit different, my character, my life is strange. I am not Jewish but I have these feelings. I think it’s my mid-European background. It may be a cliché but a lot of my friends are Jewish.
“I only discovered that my grandfather was Jewish after he died. He insisted on a proper Jewish funeral. I don’t know much about him, but he came to the UK as a refugee from Austria and was taken in by a Manchester family. They were in the umbrella business. He married a Yorkshire society woman and never spoke about his religion. It became a taboo subject. There was a lot of antisemitism around.”
At ease with her roots, Shrager was comfortable with her husband’s traditional Jewish family.
“Shrager is my husband’s name. We are separated now,” she explains. “I felt relaxed and totally accepted by the family. All was fine until I had my son, the first born, and they wouldn’t recognise him until I had him circumcised which was a shock. No one would do it because I wasn’t Jewish. In the end the circumciser to the Royal Family came to the house. I had to hide away while he did it. It was so alien to me. I discuss it with my son from time to time. Interestingly he embraces his Jewish roots. As a family, we always celebrate Passover, so there is an element of Judaism in our lives.
“I love Jewish food. I make my own salt beef and latkes. When I worked in the City I used to get my salt beef sandwich from Bloom’s and would go to Brick Lane early in the morning for bagels and smoked salmon.”
Food has always been a passion: “I realise how lucky I am to have found the thing I love. I started off in catering for companies like Pricewaterhouse. I lived a privileged life. I had my food delivered from Harrods. It was the norm. But I wanted to get it right. I used to phone the head chef at Claridge’s if I couldn’t get a recipe to work and ask him what I was doing wrong.”
She doesn’t want us getting it wrong either so has been sharing her skills, refined over the years working with top chefs and running her own restaurant. Her books are easy to follow with lots of pictures and gentle advice of foolproof methods.
Have her children got the cooking bug? “My kids love cooking but wouldn’t go into the business. It is so hard for family life. I worked 18 hour days when they were young. In my work I have confidence, but I am never satisfied. Life was tough when I lost everything — my restaurant collapsed and my marriage ended at the same time. But I am always thinking ‘What next?’ I am very driven. I am a ‘do-er’. Maybe that’s my Jewish genes again.”
Such determination and an open mind has contributed to Shrager’s 25 years of TV experience. Teaching cooking and etiquette on Ladette to Lady, as a judge for Celebrity MasterChef, braving the jungle on I’m a Celebrity...Get Me out of Here. She sailed the English Coastline for three weeks in All At Sea and discovered her spiritual side while filming The Real Marigold Hotel in India.
She remembers wistfully: “Miriam (Margolyes) and I used to have incredible chats early in the morning. We had a natural connection and I learned a lot about myself doing that show. I learned to relax more. I found myself being very drawn to that life, one of calmness and acceptance.”
Shrager is always smiling and positive. It’s infectious.
At 64 she continues to have boundless energy and enthusiasm for her work and projects. She is about to start a second series of television food competition show, Chopping Block and will be on air this autumn in The Big Family Cooking Showdown which she says was all about family cooking, going back to the basics of family values and mealtimes. “I love going into people’s homes and I love people cooking for me. It has been such fun working with Nadiya Hussain, Zoe Ball and Giorgio Locatelli.”
The Big Family Cooking Showdown will be on BBC2 in the autumn