If you saw Nigel Barker on a plane, you’d notice that he is very tall and very handsome—and travels with his own container of cayenne pepper to perk up his in-flight meal. “I bring a lot of my own food when I travel,” he says in his British accent. (Did we mention the British accent?) “Spice is ‘the spice of life,’ as they say.”
The fashion photographer, best known as a judge on America’s Next Top Model, is part Sri Lankan, so he’s no stranger to spice. One of the first foods he ate was parippu, a traditional Sri Lankan curry made with yellow lentils, coconut milk, and turmeric. “They give it to babies to get them used to Sri Lankan food,” Nigel says. “As you get older, they slowly wean you off of the mild stuff and work in the chiles.”
One of six children, Nigel spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother. “I learned a lot: recipes, family stories, the joy of working together, local gossip,” he says. These days, when he’s not on set, you’ll likely find him cooking at his home in upstate New York. “I usually make dinner,” he says. “It’s my way of unwinding, even if I’ve been shooting all day.” And he often has help: His wife, Crissy, and their kids, 12-year-old Jack and nine-year-old Jasmine, all pitch in.
"My Mom and Grandmother weren’t big on measuring ingredients,” says Nigel. “It was always ‘a pinch of this’ and ‘a twist of that,’ so I’m not really a recipe person.”
Tonight the Barker bunch is making a Sri Lankan feast: parippu, shrimp skewers, rice with nuts and raisins, and cabbage with mustard seeds. While the family cooks—Crissy skewers the shrimp, Jack grinds spices in a mortar and pestle, and Jasmine chops tomatoes—Nigel manages to get in a lesson or two. “What do you do if you get chile in your eye, Jas?” he asks. “Pour milk in it!” she responds. “That’s a Sri Lankan trick,” Nigel explains. “The milk will neutralize the capsaicin and stop the stinging.” When Jack gets a little overzealous bashing the lemongrass with a meat mallet, Nigel reminds him that a lighter touch will release the flavor without leaving stringy strands in the food.
"From a kid’s perspective, cooking is dangerous and exciting,” says Nigel. “Kids aren’t normally allowed to play with fire or knives, but they can in the kitchen.”
In addition to the culinary lessons, Nigel hopes that cooking will also make his kids more open-minded. “I want to instill in them a love of food,” he says. “And I hope it helps them to be more adventurous, too.”