Charming singing Chef Ainsley Harriott has been on TV turning the kitchen into the heart of our homes since the 1990s. And now his new BBC Lifestyle (DStv channel 174) cooking series, Ainsley’s Food We Love, is the ultimate comfort viewing – particularly in 2021.

Ainsley started work on the series at peak pandemic time in 2020. “Considering what was going on worldwide, I think we all felt a little bit more homely. Something quite comforting was required because we were really all in a bit of a state of shock,” he explains. “As time passes, I think we'll all discover how it messed us up a little bit. When your rhythms change, you become very unbalanced. You couldn't express yourself the way you wanted to because everything that was there to hold you together or to hold life together, it just crumbled away for so many of us. I think it was a bit of a shock.”

But Ainsley had a plan. “I got together with the executive producer and my food stylist and our PA and we just started talking about what we missed, and we missed comfort food. We missed those things that reminded us of going home and sitting down with a loved one and your dad preparing you soup or your mom baking a cake. This is why we had things (in the show) like coconut jam sponge and all those things that we used to have at school.”

From school food to mom and gran’s special dinners, to the food we serve our friends, Food We Love is a sweet reminder of happy occasions and good company. And Ainsley will be welcoming some friendly celebs into his kitchen to help dish up the delights and have a little natter, too.

“Recently, I've been watching the Food We Love and I really enjoyed it because it's so homely,” says Ainsley. “It's just having a chat in the kitchen, having a chat with some people at home. There's a genuine warmth and there is something really nice about it. All the best parties are in the kitchen and as we know, the heart of the home is in the kitchen.”

Only, that’s not really Ainsley’s kitchen! Read on as Ainsley takes us behind the scenes of his show, looks back on his TV career, and talks about what he loves about visiting South Africa…

Watch Ainsley’s Food We Love Watch BBC Lifestyle

Ainsley’s kitchen & Jungle Bob

Ainsley's real kitchen, as seen in his Instagram account, is rather less fancy and camera ready than his studio kitchen for the show. But the studio kitchen does have 1 thing in abundance – photos of his dog, Bobby, an audience favourite and a dedicated recipe tester. “I took a few in and you know how it is – you take your camera, you go snap, and then 2 minutes later it could be coming out the back of a printer. We had quite a few of them. I was delighted. When the series started going out here in Britain, people loved it. They loved the fact that Bobby was up there because on my Instagram, I often have pictures of me walking along the river. Or if he's by the river going through the leaves, I start singing a song like “Jungle, jungle, Jungle Bob! Jungle, jungle…” Ainsley laughs. “And his tail is wagging like mad.”

“I would very much liked to have done it in my own kitchen, but you’d just see the back of my head,” jokes Ainsley, whose home kitchen stove faces the wall. “We wanted something where you could have the stove in the middle. So the camera could be there, you turn around and go to the fridge, pull out 1 or 2 things, bring them in and engage with the audience. I have a house up in Chester, and I have that same setup, whereby people come over and they can sit on the bar while I'm cooking. And it's really lovely. It's a lovely thing to do. I likened it to that.”

As for walking onto the kitchen set itself for the first time, Ainsley reveals, “Because of COVID there were inspectors there when we arrived in the morning, and it felt a little bit strange. But I was pretty happy, especially when they started popping up pictures of Bobby all over because he wasn't with me at the time. It became my home kitchen very, very quickly. It was a very small crew and within a matter of days we became like a little family really. We were all in that bubble together (as part of the filming protocol for shooting during COVID). We had to respect that.”

“The production team were very much part of making things as easy as possible. Because they were masked up the whole time it was about communication. We started to understand each other's dynamic and our body language and stuff like that. A look says a lot.”


Spot the picture of Bobby!

Be my guest

Asked which of the season’s guests he found most intriguing, Ainsley muses, “Kimberly (Kaye Wyatt) from Pussycat Dolls. We have this image of someone being a pop star, but not being able to be a mum and be at home with their kids cooking. She made these little wraps, and it was just the casualness of it. She looked completely funky. She had a little pair of boots on and she was dressed in such a way that said, ‘I'm a pop star!’ But it was lovely because we got on really, really well that day. I made some fabulous chocolate brownies. I gave her a box of chocolate brownies for the kids and she took it over. They absolutely loved it. And her hubby, who's a bit of a model himself, said they were the best brownies he'd ever eaten. There's a real sort of sentimental feeling about the whole thing, but I really enjoyed it”.

Memory layer cake

On the theme of comfort food, we asked Ainsley to walk us down memory lane, back to his very first day on TV, working as a chef in the BBC breakfast TV show, Good Morning With Anne & Nick in 1992.

“I was in touch with Anne Diamond the other day and I was talking to her about my very first live TV gig,” Ainsley recalls excitedly. “Nowadays, normally people are put into a situation on TV where it's pre-recorded, so if anything goes wrong, you can edit it. But this was live, and I was a bit panicky. I heated up all my pans, thinking, ‘just in case’. A chef likes to have a warm pan so things cook quickly. And instantly when you put something in the pan, you’d get the sizzle – all those elements that make food interesting on TV. So I thought I'd better heat up a pan. Anne came out, said, “Oh, that's a nice pan!’, grabs hold of it, and burnt her hand. Well… I thought that was the end of my career! I could not believe it. It was 1 of those quick-touch things but still I was just petrified. It taught me a lesson about explaining things (to the audience and the studio), ‘And so please don't touch’. I think it taught us both the lesson.”

“It's not so demanding now because we all have cameras with videos on them. We’re taking pictures and selfies all the time, or we're doing a little video clip or something like that. People are getting used to cameras being pointed at them. But in those days, for a lot of people a camera being pointed at you was incredibly intimidating. What I've been able to achieve over a period of time is the camera and me smile together. I look at the camera like it's a person. You could have a little bit of a chat and stuff like that. It’s a kind of warmth that I think if you can get that across. You know when sometimes you watch TV and you see people it's like you're looking at a cardboard? If there's no energy, there's nothing. But I think I always wanted to engage with people, perhaps I am a bit of a show off.”

Ainsley’s South African flavour

Since we were walking down memory lane, we asked Ainsley about his memories of cooking in South Africa, particularly on his series Ainsley’s Barbecue Bible (2012) and Off The Menu (2005). He immediately broke into his improvised bobotie song!

“Ba ba ba ba-boo-tie. Booty Baba,” he sings, “Oh, I've got too many. I've got memories from the ’90s, just seeing the warm welcome when you’d go to a shopping centre. There's thousands of people there. There's pictures in newspapers and stuff that I've kept. And the sunshine people. People are colourful in every walk of life. Beautiful fresh produce. And people reciprocate in such a lovely, lovely way. ‘Oh, you must come and do this!’ And they mean it. I went to several people's houses besides going to lots of different restaurants. And I had the best time. Any time I'm down there, it doesn't matter whether I'm in Durban or I'm in Cape Town, or I'm up in Joburg, I have nothing but lovely, lovely memories. Give my love to everybody down there. I hope to see you all down in South Africa very soon. I could even go up to the spice county up there in Durban and share a little bit of love.”

Singing in the kitchen

Ainsley doesn’t just season his dishes with love and charm, he pours on the music, too, with favourite dishes getting their own impromptu ditties. “I think it's something that my mum used to do,” explains Ainsley. “She's a big fan of Nina Simone and people like that. She used to stand there, and her backside used to move like this (Ainsley mines a tick-tock motion while singing My Baby Just Cares For Me). It was wonderful, right. It reminds me of cooking at home. It reminds me of seeing my mum in the kitchen doing a little bit of a shuffle and stuff like that. It relaxes me. I think when you burst into song, it could be about anything. Of course, we have all these different (music) rights now that you're not allowed to sing the actual words of the song. So I make up my own little thing, whether it be a Tiramisu song or what. You don't need to say anything. Sometimes it's just a little song, a little happiness, a little joy along the way. I don't plan it, it's just like you're sitting in my kitchen with me and I decided to have a little bit of a crooning moment. Sometimes it doesn't rhyme. Does it matter? Just to enjoy it. That’s what life's about.”

Easy does it

Ainsley himself is in a different time of his life, too. And his young self might find that just as strange as he’d find today’s TV landscape. “I think what would probably surprise me is the calmness. I'm in the 60s now, so life changes,” says Ainsley. “I went through a period early on when you're so desperate to make a good impression that we might have been a bit energetic. Maybe it's also to do with how people perceive you. With the exception of Ready Steady Cook, which was live, it's about the way the producer or the editors or anybody sees you, and they edit it accordingly. You know this is what they want, and they want a little bit of outrageousness. It’s about getting the balance, right? I think what I've learnt now is how to just give off that energy when you need to, and how to pull it back. How to hold it, creating that intimate moment when you can just look at the camera and talk with someone and be engaged with them, or laugh with them, smile with them, all of those different things. 30 years is a long, long time, but it teaches you how to manage everything a little bit better, I think,” says Ainsley.


Watch Ainsley’s Food We Love S1 Tuesdays on BBC Lifestyle (DStv channel 174) at 20:00

NB! BBC Lifestyle (DStv channel 174 is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus and Compact. To get DStv or to upgrade your package, click here

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