The term ‘larger than life’ is often used to describe Ainsley Harriott, because, quite honestly, there are few other ways to sum him up.
Not only does the telly chef tower over us at 6ft 3in, but he has the kind of infectious energy and Cheshire Cat grin that makes you instantly warm to him.
Within minutes, we’re chatting away like we’ve known each other for years.
He’s predictably perky and still on a high from filming his ITV series Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen earlier this year, a whirlwind culinary tour of the tropical islands inspired by his heritage (both his parents were from Jamaica).
And he’s already in talks to follow it up with another exotic food-themed travelogue.
It’s not a bad way to make a living.
‘You’re right, and I’ve loved it.
'It’s been a dream and it’s great to start thinking about doing another one.
'I fully intend to go somewhere hot just as it’s getting cold here.
'I’ll be like, “Byeeeee!”’ he says, giving a smug little wave before bursting into laughter.
First, though, Ainsley is back in Blighty to promote his new Caribbean Kitchen cookbook, which contains all of the recipes featured in the TV show.
He hopes it will show everyone that Caribbean food is much more than just jerk chicken, rice and peas.
‘Of course those dishes are amazingly tasty, and I’ve still featured them.
'But there is so much more to it.
'It’s like saying that food in Britain is all about a hotpot or a shepherd’s pie,’ he says.
‘All the islands offer something different, they’re a melting pot of identities.
'And it’s their individual personalities that influence the cooking.’
His book is full of easy-to-make, feel-good dishes, and Ainsley says that’s what he’s all about.
Food should be accessible and his aim is never to blind people with science or create ridiculous Instagram-worthy works of art.
‘People can identify with the idea of me as a cook.
'I’ve always tried to make food simple.
'Sometimes when it looks intricate it’s off-putting and you can’t be bothered to make it yourself.
'You watch things like MasterChef and think, “Oh, I can never do that!”
'But I don’t think food has to be about pretty pictures on plates.
'I love that casual and wild style, and that’s very much reflected in my book.’
He confides that this is how he approaches food when’s he’s at home at his house in Wandsworth, southwest London.
He’s a fan of dishes that can be put in the middle of the table for everyone to dig into.
'Ainsley is divorced, having split from his wife of 23 years, Clare Fellows, in 2012, and has two grown-up kids – Jimmy, 27, and Maddie, 24 – but his home is always a hive of activity, and he’s often hosting dinners.
When he’s on his own, though, he’s partial to a naughty dinner on his lap.
‘I love beans on toast with a poached egg on top. And sometimes I’ll order in pizza and have that on my lap while watching an Arsenal game,’ says the chef, who is a lifelong fan of the Gunners.
‘I love stuff like that – I’m normal.
'It’s when we can find the time to do a little bit of cooking, we should, but it’s about keeping it simple.’
It’s this no-fuss approach to food that was at the heart of Ainsley’s long-running teatime show Ready Steady Cook, which he hosted from 1994 to 2010 on BBC2.
It was axed after 21 series and a whopping nine celebrity ones, but he’s currently in talks with the show’s former resident chef James Martin to try to revive it.
‘Me and James have been discussing it recently.
'He is at the forefront of the production side of things and is saying that people are talking about it,’ says Ainsley.
‘Fingers crossed they go for it.
'There’s nothing else like it on TV.
'We’ve got things like Sunday Brunch, where the food is already half-made, but we always took the produce and cooked it from fresh from the beginning and it gave everyone a sense of timing and what was achievable.
'Programmes like that contributed to us being more food savvy, to us knowing a bit more.’
It was Ready Steady Cook that made Ainsley famous and he went on to front Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook, Something For The Weekend and Ainsley’s Big Cook Out.
But becoming a chef wasn’t his first career choice.
‘My late mother wanted me to be a doctor, but I was never bright enough.
'Academia wasn’t really my thing,’ he says.
‘I always used to fantasise about being a tennis player and I still play today – it’s one of the ways I try to keep fit.
'It would have been great to travel around playing tennis.
'And I did imagine being some kind of performer, because my dad was an entertainer – he was a pianist.
'I reckoned I’d be good on stage.’
Ainsley has dabbled in acting over the years, with bit-parts in shows such as Red Dwarf and My Family, and he fulfilled his dream to be a performer when he took part in Strictly Come Dancing in 2015.
He finished in 12th place – something he is still a little miffed about.
‘I always considered myself a good dancer, then, going on there, I realised ballroom and Latin were disciplines.
'It was a different thing entirely,’ he says.
‘But I loved it and I felt that I had more to offer when I was voted out.
'I thought we were going to go through, but the judges said it wasn’t good enough.
'But that’s always the way.
'How many times have you watched Strictly and thought, “That’s a great dance,” and then they’ve been voted off?
'I took it with a pinch of salt.’
Ainsley’s biggest fans, he reveals, are his children.
They watch most of his shows and text him with words of support, as well as giving him tips on using social media to promote his projects.
But he still has his ‘embarrassing dad’ moments.
‘I’m a sensitive soul and could cry at a commercial.
'If something gets to me, off I go.
'And my daughter Maddie is forever throwing cushions at me when we’re watching TV because I’ll be sobbing so loudly.
'She’ll be like, “Stop it, Daddy, shut up!”’
Ainsley is still one of the most recognisable faces on British TV, but he says he’s always surprised when he gets spotted in far-flung places.
He was recently in Australia, in Port Campbell National Park, Victoria, to film a series called Ainsley’s Market Kitchen, and was accosted by a coach-load of Japanese tourists who wanted selfies with him.
And fans regularly talk to him in inappropriate places.
‘People strike up conversations with me in toilets – and they want to shake my hand!
'That’s so weird.
'I’m like, “No, give me some privacy please,”’ he laughs.
With so many projects on the go, we’ll be seeing plenty of him in the coming months.
Ainsley’s Market Kitchen, which has already gone out in Oz, will be making its UK debut later this year, and he’s just voiced a new series of the hit CBBC show My World Kitchen too.
‘That’s been a phenomenal success.
'Children invite their friends from school to their home and cook something that celebrates their heritage.
'This is our third series and we’ve had a BAFTA nomination, which is just great.
Source: Read Full Article