|Photo: c/o Jeremy Hicks Associates|
You only have to say the name ‘Ainsley’ and instantly, everyone knows you’re referring to Ainsley Harriott, such is his kudos. For the past 20 years, fun loving Ainsley has brought cookery to the masses through our TV screens in an entertaining, informative and accessible way.
In fact, I have had the pleasure of cooking with Ainsley when back in 2004 I was a contestant on BBC1’s Ready Steady Cook with my friend Lucy. He was genuinely one of the nicest celebrities I have ever met, he was utterly charming during our day recording with him and I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since.
His career started out by working at London venues such as The Strand Palace, The Dorchester and Brown’s where he created food on a stellar scale for VIP patrons including Elton John and Princess Margaret. In the early 1990’s whilst working as Head Chef of the Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground, he was asked to present More Nosh, Less Dosh for BBC Radio 5 which then led to him becoming resident chef for BBC TV’s Good Morning with Anne & Nick.
Many other shows followed such as Can’t Cook Won’t Cook, The Great British Food Revival, The Ainsley Harriott Show for NBC in the US and of course Ready Steady Cook.
Outside of the TV arena, Ainsley has written many best-selling books such as In The Kitchen, The Olympic Cookbook and Ainsley’s Barbeque Bible which have all enjoyed worldwide success. Retail-wise, Ainsley’s own branded food products grace the shelves of major supermarkets and include his flavoured couscous and soups ranges.
|Photo: c/o Jeremy Hicks Associates|
Fresh from the dance floor of BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing this year, Ainsley has waltzed his way into a new programme alongside Strictly judge Len Goodman called Len and Ainsley’s Big Food Adventure (currently available to view on BBC iPlayer).
With Len looking to wake up his old-fashioned food palate and Ainsley acting as his guide/mentor, they have travelled in their special street food van visiting a number of towns across the UK in a bid to sample as many different foods as possible. Together they have visited some of Britain’s most vibrant multi-cultural communities combining their new findings with fascinating food and social history facts.
I loved their episode filmed in my home city of Birmingham and I was thrilled when they visited one of my favourite haunts – The Karczma, a Polish restaurant which has gained a lot of plaudits in the past few years. A nod to my Polish heritage roots, I love dining at The Karczma when I can and enjoy having their pierogi (stuffed dumplings – like ravioli) so it was great to see Ainsley trying them out and making a batch for himself on the show!
With Ainsley’s passion for international cuisine together with his well-documented Jamaican heritage (which he traced on BBC1’s genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?), I am delighted he has taken the time to partake in my Food Roots Interview series to talk more about his family and food memories and what they mean to him.
Growing up in the UK, how important was it for you to keep your Jamaican roots alive and how important is that today? How much of that was expressed through food?
It was and is important for me to keep my Jamaican roots alive because it’s part of my history. I was born and brought up in South London and was surrounded by people from all over the world. I was experiencing the most amazing cuisine from the other families in the area who obviously felt the same and we learnt so much from each other because of it. All growing up with those lovely smells in the house. I don’t eat West Indian food every week but I do enjoy it when I have it.
What are your memories of eating Jamaican food at home and how nostaglic (if at all) does it make you feel?
I don’t really feel nostalgic about it because it’s just what we had. I suppose Sundays were quite special – Mum would do a feast and the beauty of it was us all going down the market to buy the West Indian fruit and veg from Ronnie Fraser’s stall. My late mum introduced us to the flavours and made sure we kept the passion alive by cooking such delights as Caribbean style breakfasts (a favourite of mine at Christmas).
How important is food in Jamaican culture and do you celebrate calendared Jamaican/Caribbean festivals with any particular kind of feasting?
Any culture’s food is important – because the produce is home grown; what they grow is what sustains them. I don’t celebrate any festivals, we just celebrate being able to get together. I don’t get that hit at home so much anymore as my sister doesn’t live close by and my mum and dad are both gone now, but family is important and we have made it a ritual to get together when we can, cook some food and celebrate our heritage and our folks.
What vegetarian dishes could you recommend when dining at a Jamaican feast and/or restaurant?
You’ve got to try rice ‘n’ peas with a jerk sauce, fried plantain chips - mmm hmm. A vegetable curry – they’ll often have things like sweet potato and black beans in them. Sip on a fruity Rum Punch. If it’s breakfast time – cornmeal porridge is a Caribbean classic.
What would be your 'must have' pantry items to replicate a Jamaican/Caribbean kitchen?
It’s all about the seasoning – allspice, chilli peppers, black pepper, thyme and jerk seasoning.
Notes & My Thanks:
I would like to thank Ainsley Harriott for his time in participating in the interview.
Len and Ainsley's Big Food Adventure is currently available to watch on