Are there too many celebrity chefs? Are black men really better dancers? And why does Gary Rhodes keep taking his clothes off? Ele Cooper caught up with Festival of Taste’s Ainsley Harriott to find out.
Ask any Brit to do an impression of legendary TV presenter and chef Ainsley Harriott, and they’ll immediately launch into a camp cacophony of cor blimeys, oo-ers and Sally Salt and Percy Peppers. It is for that reason that when he agreed to talk to me, I prepared myself for a lively, innuendo-littered chat that would leave me jubilant – and completely exhausted. He didn’t disappoint.
One of the few chefs instantly recognisable by first name alone, Ainsley’s passion for food is second to none. An animated man at the best of times, he reaches a fervour bordering on the carnal when questioned about what he’d cook for a loved one: ‘Ooh… Well, it would be a really sexy encounter, something noodle-ish, something spaghetti-ish’ – at which point he starts making slurping noises. ‘It’d be something luscious and saucy, something you could suck and taste and chew and share… Or maybe I’d just take a bottle of champagne to bed!’ he laughs.
This love affair with eating and cooking can easily be traced back to his childhood. His grandfather cooked for the White House and passed his skills onto Ainsley’s mother. This, combined with the fact that his father was an entertainer, so the family was ‘never short of a few bob’, meant that Ainsley was free to experiment as much as he liked in the kitchen. He says, ‘You’d go round to a lot of people’s houses and the parents would be like, “Use an extra egg? You’re joking!” But at home, we could make as many cakes as we wanted.’
The Harriotts enjoyed a mixture of classic British foods – fish every Friday, home-baked flapjacks and the like – and traditional West Indian fayre, and Ainsley recalls the never-ending flow of visitors coming in and out of their house in London with fondness. ‘We were constantly entertaining, so now when I meet people I don’t hesitate in inviting them over for dinner,’ he says. ‘But they’re absolutely terrified and they never reciprocate! Mates I’ve known all my life might invite me over for spaghetti hoops on toast, but most people go, “Well, I don’t want a b***** chef coming round!”’
If you hadn’t already guessed, Ainsley, the married father of two teenagers, is a shameless flirt. Upon confessing that I take great pleasure in eating the soggy cake crumbs that fall into my tea, he cries, ‘You dirty cow!’ But the smooth talking is never sleazy – for one thing, it’s done in such a camp manner that it is difficult to take in anything other than the light-hearted, harmless way it is intended. Which is why, when Ainsley offers to take me to Barbados so we can sit in a roadside café and eat fresh flying fish while sauce dribbles down our chins, I agree, rather than recoil with horror from the 51-year-old ladies’ man.
After composing myself – and waiting for my stomach to stop rumbling – I steer the conversation back to the food industry. Having watched a TV interview in which Ainsley agreed with the presenter that there are too many celebrity chefs, I ask if he still stands by his comments. ‘Ye-es,’ he cautiously replies, but that’s not to say they’re not all talented people. ‘The thing is, there are a million chefs out there who are fantastic cooks, but they haven’t got the zip, haven’t got the pizzazz.’ So c’mon, say I; who’s the dead weight? ‘Nooo!’ he giggles, ‘I won’t get into a slanging match with my colleagues – Gordon [Ramsay] does enough slagging off for everybody!’
The talk then turns to Gary Rhodes, who was recently voted off British television show Strictly Come Dancing. ‘Poor Gary,’ Ainsley chuckles. ‘He’s more into his body than his dancing, I think! Bless him. Good chef, though.’
And while we’re on the subject, Ainsley would like to make one point clear: ‘Being black doesn’t mean to say you’re a good dancer – you should see my cousin Andy, he’s so bad it’s unbelievable. I wouldn’t even say he dances like a white man because some of my white friends dance better than that.’ Glad he cleared that one up.
To be fair, Ainsley is more qualified than most to comment on dancing: back in the early ’90s, the influence of his all-singing, all-dancing entertainer father, Chester, translated itself into Ainsley becoming one half of the Calypso Twins. The comedic musical duo’s main success came from their smash hit, ‘World Party’ (check it out on YouTube – the crazy waistcoats and tight cropped jeans alone mean that you won’t regret it), and they toured Europe, even playing the London Palladium. But it was in TV that Ainsley found his true calling, and he’s presented Ready Steady Cook on British terrestrial channel BBC2 five times a week for the last eight years.
So does he think that TV personalities dealing with food have a duty to encourage the nation to eat more healthily? ‘I suppose so,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘Yes, we are responsible in the sense that we are on television, and we are trying to make them aware of getting their five a day, and eating not only organic produce, but home-grown produce. But it’s only people who are genuinely interested that will find the show appealing – and they’re probably eating the right kinds of stuff already. Some people see eating as a pleasure, whilst others see it as fuel to feed the body.’
But Ainsley is by no means defeatist. He has a real interest in making cooking more accessible, and is a firm believer that we should start with the basics – like muffins. ‘People dismiss it, saying “Oh yeah, that’s easy,”’ he says. ‘Well, let’s do it then – let’s cook together and talk about ways of doing different types of muffins!’ Why muffins, you may wonder? It turns out Ainsley often cooks up batches with his 15-year-old daughter, Maddie – ‘But it’s a tricky one, because they really need to be eaten within a few hours. And 12 muffins is a lot of muffins to get through in a day!’
Both Maddie and Jimmy, Ainsley’s 18-year-old son, are clearly the lights of his life. He often diverts the conversation back to them and has no regrets about the fact that he cut back on his work as the owner of a catering company to spend time with them while they were growing up. ‘I don’t care what anybody else does, but I chose to put time in, and as a result I have such a fantastic relationship with them,’ he says with pride. ‘I bake with my daughter, I can go and play tennis or golf with my son, and I would never sacrifice that for my career.’ Is this why he hasn’t followed the likes of Gary Rhodes and Gordon Ramsay and opened his own restaurant? ‘Partly – plus the fact that I’ve been writing a book and making 100 episodes of Ready Steady Cook a year! But now that the kids are older, who knows. It could be a test, you know?’ He launches into a rousing version of the Indiana Jones theme music, rising to a crescendo, before stopping abruptly and cackling with laughter. ‘It’d be like Harrison Ford – he’s old, but can he still do it?’
Given Ainsley’s blazing joie de vivre and unflappable determination, I’m convinced that he can. As we’re ending our interview, Ainsley comes out with a quote that sums him up perfectly: ‘Just go for it. It’s your life, really embrace it; don’t be frightened, because not doing it shows fear. We’re all far too worried about what people think – just enjoy it.’ I can’t help but think he’s got a point.
‘Last time I went out there it was probably the rainiest week they’ve ever had! There were floods in the street because the roads don’t have any drainage. Oh, we had a terrible time!’
Dubai’s food scene
‘I think it’s fantastic – although I find that the restaurants are so enormous that there’s no atmosphere. Some of the hotels, which are beautiful, could be broken into sections to become more intimate. But the quality is really high – Dubai is very much a premier player.’
The Festival of Taste
‘To be honest I’m not sure what I’m doing there. I’ve got another few weeks filming Ready Steady Cook, about 20 functions and a trip to Australia before that! All I know is that when I’m there I’ll give it 110 per cent, embrace what’s in front of me, get into the zone and do my thing. I’m looking forward to doing a bit of the old cooking!’
Meet Ainsley at Festival of Taste from November 11-13.