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Ainsley Harriott: 'I've become an online meme sensation, which is phenomenal'

Ainsley Harriott
'When I look back at old photographs I see that cheeky smile, and nothing’s changed' Credit: Andrew Crowley

We asked the chef and broadcaster, 62, what his younger self would make of him today...

I still live in Wandsworth, South London, about half a mile from where I grew up. And I still have friends that I went to primary school with.

I’ve travelled all over the world with work and lived in New York when I had my show, but home is England, London, Wandsworth. I love home. I love the humour of the British and I love the countryside.

I don’t even mind the weather.  When I look back at old photographs I see that cheeky smile, and nothing’s changed. I think you are what you are, really. I was always the one at school making my friends laugh.

From an early age I was cooking for my mates. Mum would come in and see half of my schoolmates and say: “You’re going to eat me out of house and home!” To which I’d say: “It’s your fault for teaching me to cook!”

It’s interesting that my sister became a food technology teacher and my brother, who married a Persian woman, cooks the most wonderful food from all over the world. Mum taught us the love of food. And food brings people together. 

Harriott as a young child with his mother Peppy

I got the performing side of my personality from my father, who was a musician. We were fortunate because Dad was in showbusiness, so there was a little bit of money around. It meant when I got home from school my mum was there, which isn’t always the case for kids. Sadly they broke up when I was eight. 

My mum wanted me to be a doctor because she worked in nursing. So she was quite disappointed when I came back from a holiday in France, and said I wanted to be a chef. She knew that I loved cooking, but she felt that it was  a bit demeaning. Back then you didn’t see that many black faces in the kitchen. 

When I spoke to my house master, Mr King, about it he said: “You’re far too bright for that, Harriott.” And I thought, what is brightness? Surely it’s about finding out what one wants to do in life and having a passion for it. It’s interesting how we look at education now: it’s about finding out about a child’s strengths and pushing them in that direction. 

Performing has always been instinctive to me. I remember people saying, ‘he doesn’t know if he’s a chef or an entertainer’. But what’s wrong with being both? It’s like saying you can’t run the 100 and the 200 metres.

Harriott competed in Strictly Come Dancing in 2015 Credit: Guy Levy

When I look back, I do think: “Wow, what a life!” I was in the Calypso Twins with my friend Paul, performing in Miami and at the Comedy Store. We had a hit single! And then to be on television.

Growing up, a black face on TV was really rare. There was Earl Cameron, and when he came on TV we screamed at each other: ‘There’s another black man on TV!’ Then there was Rusty Lee. And then I came along.

When Ready, Steady, Cook was at its peak we only had a handful of TV channels, so people did come home and tune into it. I never forget Sir Peter Bazalgette, or Baz as we called him, saying to me: “It’s going to work. You were very forgiving. You asked the chef the questions, which you knew the answer to. But that’s what they want to know at home.”

Now of course we’re all into food. We all know what quinoa and a jus is. We’ve all got a snob value attached to us now. We’re not all great cooks, but we’re great diners. I’m thrilled to have been part of that generation where we took British food forward. 

I didn’t expect to get married and divorced. Nobody does. Especially when you’ve been together 20-odd years. But the most important thing is the relationship you have with your ex and your children. I’m glad that ours is really good.  I feel grateful to still be on the journey I’m on. The best part is not knowing where it’s going.

I’ve always felt I was born to do what I’m doing. People say to me: “You’ve been quiet for a while.” But it’s somebody else’s turn now. I was moved by the response to my Caribbean series on ITV, though. That was lovely. It was people saying: “We remember you and we like what you did.”

The thing I didn’t expect was for the younger generation to know who I am. But I’ve become a meme sensation online, which is phenomenal. I visit friends with teenagers and some of them go: “Oh my God, it’s Ainsley Harriott!” It seems there’s a whole new generation of people who are into me, and that’s crazy. But it’s infectious and it’s lovely. And I really don’t mind. 

Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen by Ainsley Harriott (Ebury, £20) is available for £16.99 from books.telegraph.co.uk