The British chef, whose new cookbook, Cook, Eat, Repeat, is out April 20, gets candid about aging gracefully, processing grief and learning to love herself

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For more than 20 years she's been known as a domestic goddess, one who could make chopping kale or eating spaghetti seem intimate and even sexy. But these days Nigella Lawson, 61, is proudly shedding that glamorous persona.

She rarely wears makeup and sticks to a "baggy black thing" wardrobe, prefers "lounging about flat out" to sitting, eats chocolate in bed—and makes sure to revel in it all.

"I feel that you get to a certain age, and your desire for comfort is so much greater than your vanity," the chef tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

The daughter of Nigel Lawson, a conservative British politician, and Vanessa Salmon, an heiress to a tea company, says her carefree attitude is an effort to avoid her mother's mistakes.

"Diagnosed with terminal cancer two weeks before her death [at age 48], she started eating—for the first time, she said giddily—without worry or guilt," Lawson writes in her 12th cookbook, Cook, Eat, Repeat, out April 20. "How unbearably sad."

Nigella Lawson
“It was the longest period of my life not feeding people,” Lawson says of life during the pandemic. “I did occasionally feed that instinct by making food for friends and leaving it on my doorstep.”
| Credit: Keiko Oikawa

For more on Nigella Lawson, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

The Oxford-educated home cook has endured plenty of her own sadness in life. Cancer also took her sister at 32 and her first husband, John Diamond, at 47, leaving Lawson alone with two kids, Cosima, now 27, and Bruno, 24, just as she was becoming a star.

"A loss doesn't magically go away. The wound is always there, but it's not as raw," she says of learning to cope with grief. "And it is not linear—you go up and down; some years can be harder. You don't know why it is that you can be plunged into lowness or why some things don't upset you."

nigella lawson book

After climbing the ranks as an editor at The Sunday Times, Lawson quit to become a freelance journalist and publish her first cookbook, How to Eat. In 1999, two years before Diamond's death, she filmed her first cooking show, Nigella Bites, which would make her a household name.

Her past losses made her deeply aware of the fragility of life during the current pandemic. "I'm my children's only parent," she says. "I wasn't going to risk anything." So she spent much of it alone (Lawson split from her second husband, Charles Saatchi, in a very public divorce in 2013), writing her book and cooking for one.

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Nigella Lawson (bottom right, with her parents and sister Thomasina in 1965) grew up in a “very old-fashioned” home.
| Credit: Knoote/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

"I've grown to love solitude, which was just as well since I've been plunged into it," she says with a laugh. "I'm not a huge drinker, but I did take up drinking more during lockdown: Campari sodas. I don't have one every day anymore, but I did for a couple of months. I'd think, 'What potato chips am I going to have with my Campari soda?' I put them in a bowl, like my grandmother did, and I rather like that ceremony."

Lawson is now happily vaccinated but has still been in "semi-lockdown" in her London home due to restrictions in Britain, and says she's found comfort in finally being her true self.

"A lot of people in my family have died of cancer, and I don't think you can witness that and equate thinness with health. It's quite alarming," she says. "I don't focus on what people say about me, even when I'm filming. I occasionally think, 'Oh, why didn't I hold my tummy in?' but it doesn't last because I was trying to be something other than I am, which would make me feel even more uncomfortable. The shape of your body, that's where the flesh settles, isn't it? You can't do an awful lot about that."