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Ainsley Harriott: TV freed me from racist London restaurants

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Ainsley Harriott talks about kitchen racism in the 1980s, living with the memes and his new cookery show about Malta

Britons are spoiled for TV legends: Lineker for footy, Hammond for brekky, and the resurgence of Winklemen as girlboss on The Traitors. But none offer the singular IV drip of joy that is Ainsley Harriott.

Beginning his career as the guest cook on BBC’s Good Morning with Anne and Nick in 1995, Harriott went on to make his name presenting Ready, Steady Cook until it went off air in 2010. Then, over the past half decade, videos of him farting about on TV in the nineties have made him arguably more famous than he ever was, reaching international audiences as one of the most memed British celebrities. T-shirts with the chef grinning read “give your meat a little rub”; others reference the “hello Jill!” frying pan sequence from morning TV, and there are tens more endearing homages that have now trickled down to the children (heck, probably grandchildren) of the ones who watched Harriott on daytime TV.

“There’s nothing in the script that says ‘Ainsley you should do a dance here,’ or ‘you should do something there,’” he tells City A.M. “I never know. I just go into a situation and there’s a nice moment. People who watch my programmes know that I’m a little bit different.”

Growing up in Balham, south London, to parents born in Jamaica, his mother was a cook and his father worked in entertainment. But it was his mother’s influence that lit the fuse for the hip gyrations on Ready, Steady Cook that now pervade digital culture (and T-shirts around the world.) “I like to add a bit of my mum into it,” he says of his style.

“Bless her, she’s gone many years now but she would be stirring something and her shoulders would go, or her hips. She used to make bread for us, and sprinkling the flour, she would say ‘go on Pudda’, which is what she called me, and I would throw it in the air and we would look at each other and laugh. I’ve got that in my DNA. I never know when I’m gonna start doing a dance.”

One video on TikTok entitled “The day our lives changed forever” features Harriott thrusting a frying pan in the direction an elderly lady called Jill’s face – it has racked up over two million views; another captioned “hehe boi” of that famous meat rubbing scene has over 1.2 million. “All the memes, you can’t do anything about it,” reflects Harriott. “Other people make you a meme. You can’t say, ‘I’m going to be a meme now.’ A lot of people don’t even know me for the cooking, they know me for the memes. When I was out in Malta someone came up and said Oh, you’re the meme guy.’ You can’t do anything, you just smile.”

Harriott pauses. “Do you know what, they all have a smile, and that means more to me than anything else. It makes them happy. All you’ve got to do is look at breaking news every half hour. It pops up on your phone and you get depressed, you know.”

The latest attempt by Ainsley Harriott to have us in stitches (and maybe learn something about cooking) is an ITV show about Malta, airing on ITV and ITV Player from 5 February. In the show Harriott meets Maltese locals to learn about the country’s heritage and cuisine. He hangs out with potato farmers, cafe owners, and some of his old friends who have been living on the island for three decades.

He has said he wants to slow down with the workload, but shows like this one “stimulate your mind.” One trend he observed in Malta that is happening worldwide is the weakening of inter-generational kitchens; how younger generations, with the advent of the internet and endless possibilities, don’t want to work in their family’s restaurant anymore. In the UK, Chinese restaurants and Indian restaurants are shuttering because the kids, understandably, don’t want to work the backbreaking hours their parents did.

“Maybe it’s something to do with the internet, people can see how you can change and what’s achievable and they don’t want those handcuffs on. They want to be free to explore and open up their minds. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily want to follow in their mother or father’s footsteps. It’s just the world, we’re changing, and the pace we’re changing at is phenomenal.”

The racism was pretty bad – people didn’t want a black head chef in their restaurant, they just didn’t want it. I don’t know what it’s like now but I don’t think it’s fantastic. There’s a few of us who have broken the mould and been on TV

One upside, reckons Harriott, is that kitchens are becoming more diverse. There’s another: innovation. He says of the likes of Deliveroo and the diversity of the London food scene: “The stuff that comes every day, delivered to the door, is amazing.”

Before TV Harriott worked in fine dining kitchens during the 1980s, notably at the Westbury Hotel in London. But he experienced racism when he looked for work and says kitchens would be up-front about it. “I was vibrant, energetic, enthusiastic, but places would just say ‘We don’t want a black face in the kitchen’. It was totally obvious and you just had to deal with that.

“It was pretty bad – people didn’t want a black head chef in their restaurant, they just didn’t want it. I don’t know what it’s like now but I don’t think it’s fantastic. There’s a few of us who have broken the mould and been on TV, encouraging a younger generation. We hope when someone walks in they’ll look at their ability to run a kitchen as opposed to the colour of their skin. Yeah there was a bit of racism but there still is a bit of racism – that’s what I’m saying. It’s not about me, it’s about the people who come after. ”

He says of the chance to move into TV: “An opportunity came along and I grasped it.” Combining his mother and father’s skill-sets, the presenter “felt quite free. I fitted into a little slot. Maybe I came along at the right time. On a live TV programme there’s nowhere to hide, it’s there, bang, in your face.”

Harriott has two children, both in their twenties, and lives in Wandsworth. The day we speak, he apologises for calling me late. He’d popped to the supermarket and the “lovely people of Wandsworth” had stopped him for photos as they often do. He’d learned years ago that when you live inside a family’s TV set you are part of their lives, and he feels you should honour that.

The Ainsley Harriott we see on TV isn’t a far cry from the real man, then – or at least the version of him he puts on display in supermarkets in south-west London. “I like giving out positive energy. It’d be boring if we were all the same. If you bring something different to the table it’s because you are different, it’s because you are that person, and I like that, I like that connection. I like what I am. “

He ruminates on that thought then does a big belly laugh. “You have to live with yourself every day. It’d be horrible getting up, looking in the mirror and going, ‘Ooh f***ing hell, go back to bed!’”

Ainsley’s Taste of Malta airs on ITV and ITV Player on 5 February and you can follow Ainsley Harriott on Instagram

Read more: City Social at 10, London restaurant review: Good food, Vodka Revs vibe

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