Food milestones - Ainsley Harriott

Celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott recalls the food of his childhood and a career that has spanned hosting Ready, Steady, Cook and recent YouTube stardom.

Ainsley Harriott tossing a stir-fry in a wok

Ainsley Harriott became a household name as host of BBC daytime TV classic Ready, Steady, Cook. He went off the radar when the show ended in 2010 only to gain a new cult following online. Dozens of memes and YouTube channels have been created in his honour – and there have been petitions, signed by thousands, to have him instated as the face of the new £5 note and to present The Great British Bake Off. When he turned 60 earlier this year, Twitter was astonished at how youthful he looked.

Ainsley has been described by fans as ‘more than a TV chef’, an ‘unsung national treasure’, ‘the king of the kitchen’, and a ‘fully-fledged culinary legend’. Which is why we’re proud to have him be the first celebrity to share the milestones of his food journey with Good Food, revealing his inspirations, his influences and the convictions that drive him.
 

Childhood memories

My mum was always baking cakes.

One of my earliest memories is sitting in a high chair and being given the bowl of leftover cake mixture. I remember putting my whole hand in and licking my fingers. This was in Wandsworth and, 60 years later, I still live in the borough. I have friends that I went to primary school with and my kids are friends with their kids. It’s lovely to have a bit of a history.

My parents were immigrants from Jamaica.

In those days, it wasn’t so easy to eat in West Indian style because you had to go to a special shop to get things like yams, green bananas and sweet potatoes. When I was at school, I really looked forward to chips. In those days there weren’t oven chips or frozen chips, just real potato chips. When we had them at school, about once every two weeks, it was a treat. As soon as they appeared on the menu there was a great buzz, people would be talking about it even before we went into the hall for our school lunch.

Dad worked as a pianist and singer and he loved to have friends round.

My mother would do all the marinating and he’d cook on the barbecue. In winter, Dad loved cooking oxtail. I remember it being in the bottom of the oven for an eternity and when it came out, it was very succulent. Dad loved it, it gave him a taste of home. In a lot of developing countries the cheaper cuts were embraced because, traditionally, the important cuts went to the posh households. I loved my mum’s red pea stew. It was a beautiful dish cooked with a shin of beef, pig’s trotters, pig’s tail, thyme, coconut and red kidney beans and she’d finish it with amazing dumplings that would float on top.

Braised oxtail with basil dumplings in a wide rimmed bowl


Eating around the world

My first holiday memory was when I went to Jamaica when I was eight.

I remember asking my grandfather if I could have money to buy a Coca-Cola. And he said, ‘No grandson of mine is going to put money in the American man’s pocket. Go outside and pick two or three fresh limes from the tree, mix them with sugar and iced water and drink it down; you won’t want that American rubbish again.’ By the time we left, there was hardly a lime left on that tree!

The worst restaurant dish I’ve ever had was shark preserved in urine.

I was doing my series, Ainsley Eats the Streets in Reykjavik, Iceland, and I rashly said, ‘Let’s go to a restaurant where they keep old recipes alive.’ I was not looking forward to the shark and before I even put it in my mouth, the smell was toxic, like the sea had started to rot. It tasted terrible.

My best dish was in Australia.

I’ve been going there for years as my food brand is sold down there too. I will never forget my first tuna tartare by the chef Neil Perry. I had another amazing tuna tartare at the Four Seasons in New York in 1999, when the dish had started to become fashionable.

The food that really influenced me as a chef was Chinese.

I had it in Chinatown with my dad when I was a child. We would go up into town to get our hair cut on Frith Street in Soho, and afterwards we would have delicious noodles or beautiful wonton soups.

I've had some great breakfasts in New York.

I am going there again in a few weeks and if it wasn’t for my cholesterol, I would be having corned beef hash with a fried egg on top and a side of pancakes.

American pancakes


Dinner dates

There’s always someone new, but I won’t be getting married in the foreseeable future.

I like to woo with clams and spaghetti. One of the reasons is that I can recreate that scene from Lady and the Tramp when they suck on the same piece of spaghetti. It’s so lovely!

I’d like my last supper to be 120 courses so it lasted forever!

But, if I had to choose one thing, I would want my mum’s red pea stew as it makes me feel loved.
 

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