Celebrated chef, Ainsley Harriot, talks to us about his life's most important moments
Charismatic chef Ainsley Harriott, 62, has appeared in numerous TV shows over the last 30 years, including Ainsley’s Barbecue Bible, Meals in Minutes and, most famously, Ready Steady Cook.
…Sitting in my high-chair, watching my mother, Peppy, cook. When she was making a cake, she’d give me the bowl full of leftover mix to lick clean. I think that’s when my love of cooking started.
…Our house was always full of people. My dad, Chester, was a famous musical entertainer, who’d appeared on the BBC, and my parents were always very well connected, particularly in the West Indies, where they were from. We had a nice house in Wandsworth, too, so lots of people would want to visit.
Touring West Indian cricketers, including Sir Garfield Sobers, popped in. Someone called Mr Andy, who later became St Lucia’s police commissioner, stayed for about three years, while studying over here.
He was just lovely and would give me, my brother and sister sixpence pocket money, every Saturday—with a sixpence bonus if we hadn’t wet the bed all week.
…Looking very smart. Mr Andy produced an additional sixpence for anyone who’d helped clean the house. Perhaps that’s why I developed my slightly OCD cleaning tendencies. When I got home, I’d even press my trousers for school the next day.
People used to say, “You look like you’re in a shopping magazine.”
…Morning elocution lessons at primary school. During assembly, our headmaster, Mr Mallett, would make us say things like, “the tip of the tongue, the teeth and the lips”, and “how now, brown cow?” On Fridays, we’d sing “Did You Ever See a Lassie?” He was very keen on clear enunciation.
I still live in Wandsworth and I’ve got mates from primary school who live down the road. That’s kept me incredibly grounded.
…Looking up at my dad on stage and thinking, wow. I saw him perform at Blackpool’s Planet Rooms, where he did summer seasons, and the place was absolutely packed. He was known as the black Liberace, because he was quite camp and used to wear lots of glittery clothes.
He’d do a bit of humour, then some songs and towards the end of his set, shout out, “Right, what do you want to hear now?” He just entertained the room. They definitely influence you, your parents.
…A great mix of children at secondary school. Wandsworth Boys School was a grammar school that had turned into a comprehensive. As the local phrase went, it had “some boys that could go to Borstal [Youth Detention Centre] and some that could go to Eton.”
You had to have your wits about you, but there were lots of charming pupils, too. I was fascinated by the blend of people that got involved in school plays and I took part in all the productions.
…Deciding to be a chef, while I was on holiday. My friend Charles had a French pen friend and he and I went to stay with their family when I was 17. It was phenomenal: going fishing, going to the market, then sitting around having a three-hour lunch. My mum was a wonderful cook and I’d always enjoyed cooking, too, but now I was understanding a new cuisine and things were taken to a new level.
I came back and told my teacher that I wanted to leave school and go into the kitchen. “Harriott, you’re far too bright,” he told me, which I thought that was really rude. He couldn’t see my passion. But I went to catering college, anyway.
…Shining up the copper pots with flour, salt and vinegar. My first job was at Verrey’s, a posh restaurant in the West End, and there was a black chef there called Clifford Walker who gave me the hardest time. I’d have to stay behind when everyone was going for a break, just learning the basics of food and, of course, how to keep the kitchen clean. But he was just pushing me to do well. “If you’re gonna make it,” he told me. “You’ve got to do it properly.”
The executive chef, Kevin Kennedy, had a cheekiness and a way of teaching you that made you feel passionate about what you were doing, instead of just rigid. And he was one of the first chefs to go on radio and talk about food, before all these cooking programmes came in.
…Combining business with pleasure. One of the staff at Verrey’s told me, “If you want to earn a few quid on your days off, come and work at Lord’s with me.” So I found myself making sandwiches there and it was great, because I was a big cricket fan. Plus, the money I picked up in four days was as much as I’d earn in a month at the restaurant.
I got to know the executive chef and was eventually put in charge of the Long Room [a famous old part of the pavilion]. We were only ever busy for Test matches, NatWest and Benson & Hedges finals or if Middlesex were doing quite well. About eight days a year. The rest of the time I’d write a bit of poetry and build up great relationships with the customers. Even now when I go back for various chefing events, it feels like home.
…My friend Charles and I taking the train into show business. We went InterRailing around Europe one year, with a guitar and a few percussion instruments, and would stop in any square and do a little turn.
We’d earn enough money to eat in fancy restaurants, so when we came back, even though he was a teacher and I worked in a hotel, we started performing in Covent Garden on Saturday afternoons. We went on to the alternative cabaret circuit, too—places like The Comedy Store.
After a few years, Charles met a wonderful Australian girl and left Britain. But I then formed another musical duo called the Calypso Twins, with my school friend, Paul Borros. We had a hit in 1990, with “World Party”. Paul recently helped me put the music together for Caribbean Kitchen.
…Those elocution lessons came in handy. While I was at Lord’s, in the early 1990s, a Radio 5 producer asked me to appear on a cookery show, More Nosh, Less Dosh. After that, I joined Good Morning with Anne and Nick on BBC1. It was live TV and, to begin with, I was incredibly nervous. But I just remembered primary school, Mr Mallett and “the tip of the tongue, the teeth and the lips”.
…Being the odd one out on Ready Steady Cook, when I first appeared on the programme in 1994. I hadn’t had a successful restaurant like a lot of the other chefs. But it was great being able to compete against them.
I don’t think there had ever been anything like that on television before. Fern Britton thought it would only last a month, but she was host for seven years [1994 to 2000] and I did another ten years after that.
…Travelling the world changed my mindset as a chef. In the 1990s I started visiting places I’d only dreamt of for programmes like Ainsley’s Barbecue Bible. As a chef in a restaurant, you’d be working all the time so you didn’t get much opportunity to experience different things. On your day off, you might just want fish and chips. But suddenly I was exposed to all these different cultures and tastes.
Filming Street Food in 2015, I tried everything from what I think was whale meat preserved in urine to raw chicken. The whale meat was awful but the chicken was actually quite nice.
…Missing my family while I was in America. I did 140-odd shows out there [including an eponymous 2000 talk show], one day interviewing a basketball star, the next, Danny DeVito. But it’s all very well seeing your name on the side of buses, if your kids are back in Britain. When I got offered the gig presenting Ready Steady Cook, I came home.
…Breaking up with my wife, Clare, in 2012, but remaining respectful. You spend a lifetime of getting to know someone so why are you suddenly supposed to hate them? It’s OK that we changed. We still have meals together at Christmas and other special family events. We’ve got two kids together, so why not enjoy it?
I love having my grown-up children [Maddie and Jimmy] at my house. My son plays five-a-side round here. My daughter loves my dog. And we go to watch Arsenal together.
…Even now, I’m still learning about food. While I was in the Caribbean for the new series, I was amazed how much they rely on seasonal produce. I asked someone for a mango in Tobago and he replied [in a broad West Indian accent] “Too late. It fall from the tree two weeks ago.”
We’re so used to going to the supermarket to get what you want, when you want it, it was quite refreshing to be somewhere where you couldn’t. And when the seasonal produce did come, boy, the taste was fantastic. There’s a real earthiness and joy.
It’s wonderful the way they go into the sea to catch a fish and it’s so opaque and so delicate, because it’s so fresh, too.
…I’ve never had a five-year plan. Will there be a second series of Caribbean Kitchen? I certainly hope so, but I never know what’s around the corner.
I want to keep healthy, though. I still wake up in the morning and run round the common with my dog, diving on the floor with him like a kid. I play my tennis, too and do Pilates. If I can stay fit, I’ll be ready for whatever my next challenge is.
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