Another 'forgotten interview' from 2008...
The television personality and chef Ainsley Harriott has made a career out of the lighter side of food. As well as helping people to learn how to cook, his shows are all about relaxing and having fun. But his participation in a recent BBC documentary about genealogy forced him to face up to some uncomfortable truths about his family’s past. He spoke to James Brennan about the experience, his career and his critics.
Tell us about your involvement with the festival of Taste.
I’m coming down there to do several food demonstrations, hang out with the chefs, and get people involved with food a little bit more. I think that’s what food festivals are all about. Just remind them that there are lots of dishes that are accessible. Sometimes these things can be a little bit far-fetched - people think “oh my god, unless I’ve got a certain type of stove, unless I’m making a reduction here and doing this there...” They feel like they can’t do it. My philosophy has always been accessible food - food that people want to cook. And at the same time trying to incorporate a bit of fun into the show. People can relax and have a go. They don’t go into their kitchens feeling tense.
Do you see yourself more as a performer or as a chef?
I think both. I’ve just done the programme Who Do You Think You Are, which traces your family history. On my mother’s side, my grandfather cooked at the White House, he was a fabulous chef. My mum always cooked and always encouraged us to cook, hence me being a chef and my brother being the main cook at home, and my sister is a cookery teacher in her school, so we all felt very comfortable in the kitchen. And yet my dad ended up as this incredible international performer, a pianist that performed all over the world. So I think I combine the two. I like to see myself as a cook with an entertaining slant, which is slightly different from the other guys.
You uncovered some uncomfortable truths about your family history. How did that experience affect your life?
I think it grounded me more than I was before, and I’m a pretty solid guy. If you look at a tree, it grows and becomes more grand when the roots are embedded. And with a programme like that you discover all about your roots, and what your make up is. Why am I like this caring person? There were teachers, a policeman... My grandfather went out and started the first school in Sierra Leone. There were seven kids and now the same school has 700 kids.
That’s very positive, but there was also the negative side with links to the slave trade...
I don’t think that’s too negative. That’s part of our history. There was something like 300 years of slavery in the Caribbean, so it’s inevitable that when you start researching it you’re going to come up against it. What I didn’t expect was - even though I’d seen pictures of my great grandfather Ebeneezer, he looked like my children - the mixed race look. But I discovered that his father James Gordon Harriott was white. And there was an another generation of Harriotts that came from Scotland in the early 1700s - so I’m Scottish, but I’m not going to be wearing a kilt! And I don’t think you’ve got a sporran big enough for me out there in Dubai (laughs)!
People like Gordon Ramsay are less than complimentary about celebrity chefs like you. What would you say to people like that?
Well, it takes everybody. A lot of people go for the serious angle because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the only way of cooking. When you look at people cooking in Britain - and Dubai too - they’re not that adventurous, they need to be encouraged somehow. And not everybody needs to be shouted at. I went through my training at Westminster College, I worked in some nice hotels and restaurants. I didn’t get those breaks because in those days as a black chef because even though I was really well qualified they didn’t want a black guy fronting their restaurant. And I can understand that. It wasn’t a major thing with me because it wasn’t done in a disgraceful way. But that’s the way it was then. Things have changed because I’ve propelled myself into the media world and I’ve been able to get my style of cooking across with my personality. Not with Gordon’s personality or Jamie’s - all of them great chefs in their own right. In terms of what Gordon does, he just likes to do that. I remember him having a go at Gino D’Acampo about something and Gino got very upset. Gordon said he only did it for the cameras. He was aggressive in his tone and it was refreshing at first, but after a while people become uncomfortable with it. But I’m a warm person and I like people to feel comfortable - if they’re comfortable they’re going to relax and cook and feel good.
Do you think there will be a time when the public has had enough of celebrity chefs?
No, I don’t ever think that will happen. Unlike DIY or gardening - which are other lifestyle things - food is something that we deal with all of our lives. Two or three meals a day for a lot of people. I don’t think we’re ever going to tire of it.