Ainsley Harriott: 'My sister still takes control of my cooking at home'

Figcaption Ainsley Harriott My Sister Still Takes Control Of My Cooking At Home
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

I have a painting of an old lady stirring a pot on a fire in a West Indian kitchen, cooking with her children. It used to hang in my mum’s kitchen and now I’ve got it in mine. It’s lovely and tells of yesteryear.

My father was an entertainer and had lots of people in showbiz – like Des O’Connor – round in the front room. Mum used to make them snacks and nibbles and I’d watch the reactions of appreciation and hear the banter.

Most important of all is being able to convey enthusiasm on screen and I’ve always been a glass half full rather than half empty guy. Because of my energy, people tell me, “Oh, you’re so up, Ainsley.” When I was on Ready Steady Cook especially – they’d say: “Oh, he must be on drugs, you know?”

When I phone my brother, to this day he still preaches to me about how to cook. “What you must realise, Ainsley,” he begins. As the youngest in the family, I just reply “yeah, yeah” and think: “Well, I haven’t done too badly as a professional cook.”

I made something quite Caribbean-y on stage at the Commonwealth Institute many years ago, and my mother was in the audience and called out: “Don’t forget to turn down the heat, Ainsley!” Then my sister shouted: “And don’t forget to do the onions.” My sister, when she comes over, will say: “I saw your programme the other day and you did OK.” But that’s it for the praise. I take it on the chin. She’ll stir things I’m cooking at home and take control.

Back in the day, Ronnie Fraser’s stall in Northcote Market [in Battersea] was the place for fruit and veg. He liked my mum and she always gave him a little pressie at Christmas – maybe socks or handkerchiefs. And I remember him pulling out a machete and chopping the rotten bits off big yellow or white yams, saying, “How about that, then?” and wrapping them with Mum’s mangoes and avocados. He sold them when others didn’t. He had cassava there, green bananas, plenty of sweet potatoes. And he was a lovely – a lovely, lovely – man.

I had Greek neighbours and my friend’s father, who worked at Battersea power station taught me how to play tavli (backgammon). We’d sit out there for hours drinking coffee, eating nuts and playing tavli. The mātēr and daughters fed and taught me all kinds of dishes. I was eating lots of things from an early age. Mr and Mrs Cluck, who lived three doors down, would make Polish food and bring it round to our house and we’d reciprocate with fried calypso chicken.

I spent an entire summer in France as a teenager, when I was still in school. I went with my friend Charles – who didn’t want to go alone – and we stayed with a pen pal of his with a constantly barking dog and a Gauloise-smoking, police-inspector father who drank Ricard first thing in the morning. Charles was off in the hills all day with a girl. I spent a lot of time shopping for food and cooking with her mother.

Aged 17, I had a passion. I said I wanted to go into the kitchen and my housemaster replied: “You’re much too bright for that, Harriott.” What an insult. But I went around hotels and they felt like factories. Then I went to a small fancy classic French restaurant at the top end of Regent Street [Verrey’s]. I got there just after lunchtime service finished and the chefs were sat down with beautiful chipped cups – used by staff – and big silver pots of coffee and milk. They said: “You’re not here to get slaughtered, are you? You should go somewhere else.” I thought: “No way. This is it.”

I had to go to Westminster Catering College to do my City & Guilds on day-release. I worked really hard but absolutely loved it. I mixed salt and vinegar to shine up the copper pots, made flour finer with a three-blade parsley chopper – which was their joke on me – and started off cooking button onions. The chef used to say: “When customers come into the restaurant, you ought to be able to cook anything. The menu’s only a guide.” So I had a classic Escoffier training and at the end of the week, a white tablecloth would be pinned up, a projector brought in and we’d watch dirty films on the wall. It was very exciting.

After two and a half years at the Palace hotel – as chef de partie – I drove across America with an old mate and spent my day at Sausalito in a very funky part of San Francisco, or drinking beer, smoking silly stuff and having fun. When I returned to London I became sous chef at the Westbury.

I was chef of The Long Room at Lord’s cricket ground, and a radio producer rang up and asked if I’d host a cookery show. It was she who taught me how to talk about what was happening – “When you see that smokey swirl starting, you want to add a bit of colour in”; “You score the outside of that wonderful golden edge, releasing the sugar …” – that sort of thing.

I’ve never got rude letters or ones written in strange coloured ink. Maybe Joan or Sarah in the office have read them first and not sent them on. But I’ve had lots of lovely people saying “You make me smile” and “You are a wonderful inspiration”. One couple said, “You are the son we never had.”

I went through a stage of going out and buying or reading any cookbook I saw. I used to go to Books For Cooks in Notting Hill Gate and sit down with a few nibbles and look at the history of food. That was lovely.

For a few years I was the face of Fairy Liquid. All kitchens involve washing-up. There were lots of exotic locations and it allowed me to pay for my children’s education, until the advertising agency decided to use a hard-nut fairy in leather on a motorbike.

I sometimes call my dog “Basmati Bob”, because he likes his rice. Some people say you should just give your dog the same biscuit every day, but that would be boring, surely? I go to the fishmonger in Northcote Road and ask, “Have you anything for the dog?” and I go home with salmon, haddock, whatever trimmings, and poach it up to serve with his rice.

Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook is published by Ebury (£20). Ainsley’s Food We Love begins on 10 April on ITV and Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook is on ITV weekly from 20 April

My favourite things

There’s nothing better than the comforting smell of just-roasted chicken. Warm, crispy skin, juicy flesh and all the sides bring back childhood memories. And I still have my mother’s aluminium Jamaican dutchie pot and use it to deep fry, slow cook, steam or oil. I make creamed corn, stew with dumplings and rice and peas and things in it.

I love a tot or two of dark rum and really look forward to the limited-edition bottle a friend gives me each Christmas. It’s a perfect accompaniment to an evening at home playing backgammon. When summer comes around, my delicious rum punch is always a winner.

Place to eat
I love going to the Jaunty Goat in Chester. I often pop in after an early morning walk with Bobby, my dog. I love to sit outside and watch the world go by while sipping on a superb coffee and enjoying one of their fabulous cakes.

During lockdown the Holy Cow Indian restaurant off Balham High Road has been my delivery of choice for a treat. It’s always a delicious experience.

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