If there’s one celebrity to turn to when you need cheering up, it’s got to be Ainsley Harriott.
It’s a grey and stressful Monday morning, during the November lockdown when I speak to the 63-year-old TV chef on the phone. But he greets me with the sort of exuberant singing you can’t help but smile at (first it’s a rendition of Ray Charles’ Georgia On My Mind, then it’s Midnight Train To Georgia by Gladys Knight & The Pips).
I joke we need to find a song about “Ainsley” now and the Londoner – who’s been on our screens for more than three decades – excitedly retorts: “Craig David mentions me in his new track!”
With such a joyful, lively attitude, it makes sense that we are getting a dose of Harriott on telly this Christmas Day. Summarising the ITV show – Ainsley’s Festive Food We Love – he says it’s just him “in the kitchen, a few Christmas decorations, some fabulous guests, talking about things”. Simple – but effective.
It’s a Christmas edition of his Saturday morning show, Ainsley’s Food We Love (in which he reminisces with guests about their favourite meals) and includes recipes such as a lovely and light Christmassy Thai turkey broth, “because we’ve all had that heavy food and we just want something really good for the digestive system”.
The programme also sees him rustle up coriander scones, plus chocolate bread and butter pudding with spiced cherries. Drinks expert Olly Smith is on hand too, mixing up tipples like a boozy chocolate milkshake, The Biggins, made in honour of guest Christopher Biggins (Martin McCutcheon and Brian Turner also join the line-up).
Father-of-two Harriott, whose parents were born in Jamaica, notes he feels lucky to be working during the Covid-19 pandemic, as he’s “got far too many friends who have struggled”. “Any time I get a little bit down about things, I take my dog for a walk,” he says, when asked how he stays positive. “When I speak to friends, I want to introduce a positiveness into them, and people who are struggling with it, they tend to phone me up for that kind of energy.
“I think we all find a way in life, don’t we, and I think sometimes there are people you go to that give you that energy, and there are other friends that you phone up and you think, ‘I’ve got to be prepared here because they’re going to be a bit down’.”
Harriott admits one thing he’s finding difficult as he gets older is he gets “a bit forgetful”. “I went upstairs a couple of weeks ago and I sat on my bed and I was too embarrassed to go back down because I was there for about 15/20 minutes thinking, ‘What did I come up here for?!’ I couldn’t remember.” With one of his infectious, throaty laughs, he adds: “Then it’s really reassuring when you speak to your mates and they say, ‘Oh, I do that all the time!’”
There’s something incredibly approachable about both Harriot, and his cooking. As he points out, Covid-19 has meant we haven’t been able to go out to restaurants like we used to, and so we have “relied a little bit more on hanging around the kitchen and cooking at home”. With the kitchen at the heart of the home, it’s a place where people come together to chat; somewhere you lose your inhibitions, suggests Harriot. “You’re not frightened to share something with someone and it kind of opens you up,” he says. “I think it’s one of the reasons why we still get blown away with cooking programmes; whether it’s my little one, Great British Bake Off or MasterChef, it engages us, it pulls us in.
“It’s a bit of a secret that we’re letting you into – and you’re revealing a little bit of yourself.”
We’re in an age full of various cooks gracing our TV screens and the star admits himself “there was a dip” in his career. But, while there may have been reinventions along the way, he’s always stayed true to himself. “I never lost self-belief in my style; just having a little bit of fun with people,” he notes. “And, as I keep reminding people all the time, it’s a meal – and guess what, there will be another one in five or six hours! We don’t need to blind people with science all the time.
“I think it’s wonderful to watch cooking programmes where they’ve got five or six different sauces and they’re decorating everything and making it look fabulous; that’s great. But 99.9% of the time, you ain’t doing that at home!”
Each of the chefs we love watching seems to have their own unique style, such as the sultry Nigella Lawson. “Every time you see her you think she’s going to put her finger in a bowl of cream and lick it, don’t you?” exclaims Harriott, who’s laughing again. “It’s going to be a saucy moment; you think, ‘Go on then!’”
His catchphrases are something Harriott is famous for. “People do like a bit of Percy Pepper and Suzie Salt, don’t they?!” he says, referring to the names he gave condiments when filming Ready Steady Cook – the BBC cooking contest he presented from 2000 to 2010. He has had some of his funniest TV appearances go viral; in particular, there was the “Why Hello Jill” moment in 2018. A regular contributor on This Morning, Harriott was part of the team from the daytime TV show who turned up live on air to surprise pensioner Jill Hatton.
She looked rather overwhelmed by the whole situation – especially when Harriott burst into the room, frying pan in hand (he was there to cook up a meal) uttering, ‘Why hello Jill!’ in his inimitable sing-song voice. The clip quickly became famous, partly thanks to Radio 1 DJ Greg James sharing it far and wide. Discussing his internet fame, Harriott shares that when he was awarded his MBE, the Prince of Wales said to him: ‘A lot of people like your sayings’.
“It seems everybody knows about it,” he chuckles. “I’m perhaps getting the royal seal of approval.” No-one could sound more pleased about that than Harriott.
Watch Ainsley’s Festive Food We Love on ITV on Christmas Day.
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