Ainsley Harriott goes back to his roots

Ainsley Harriott’s new book explores his Caribbean heritage – though he also has family links to Sheffield. Catherine Scott reports.

Ainsley Harriott: Photography by Dan Jones.
Ainsley Harriott: Photography by Dan Jones.

It is more than ten years since Ainsley Harriott last published a cookery book.

And it isn’t any old cookery book, it is a book that goes back to Harriott’s roots.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Ainsley Caribbean Kitchen which accompanies the ITV series of the same name, sees Harriott cooking the food of his heritage,

Ainsley's Caribbean Kitchen: Photography by Dan Jones.

And it has been an emotional journey.

“As you get a bit older you start to reflect a bit more, you get to grips with your roots and you want to know more about your parents and their parents.”

As a result when he was approached by the production company (which just happens to be owned by his old Ready Steady Cook mate James Martin) to do the programme, it was the right time.

He had already done the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are which had whetted his appetite to find out more about his family.

Ainsley Harriott and Natalie Lowe in Strictly Come Dancing: (Photo by Richard Stonehouse/Getty Images)

“You start digging in you history but you just don’t know what you are going to find.”

Harriott’s family can be traced back to the Caribbean islands of both Jamaica and Barbados.

His parents moved to London from Jamaica in the 1950s and Harriott was born and brought up in London.

So when he was offered the chance to go back to the Caribbean he jumped at the chance.

Ainsley Harriott attends the red carpet launch of "Strictly Come Dancing 2015" at Elstree Studios. (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)

“The amazing thing about the Caribbean is that it is so diverse.

“Caribbean cuisine is all about fresh, vibrant, tasty food,” says the chef who made his name on television on Ready Steady Cook alongside a young James Martin.

Not only did he go back to his own Caribbean roots but he also explored islands he had never been to before and discovered how the cuisine of each island differs.

“People think Caribbean food is all jerk chicken and the like, but every island has its own cuisine as well as its own culture, it is fascinating,” he says.

“In Trinidad and Tobago the food is heavily influenced by East India and includes spicy sauces and leavened breads; in Grenada, ‘Spice Island’, the national symbol is nutmeg, which is included in many of the dishes; and in Dominica, ‘Nature’s Island’, the influences are Creole and French and dishes include lots of fresh herbs, peppers, spices and freshly caught fish.

“Food is an integral part of Caribbean life and, as such, was an important part of my childhood.

“I have wonderful memories of helping my mum cook and experiencing the patience and love that went into the food. Our house was always busy with family, visiting relatives and friends.

“They were welcomed and brought with them laughter and music. We would all sit down to enjoy mum’s delicious Caribbean spiced food and it was always a generous and shared experience. Seeing all those happy people enjoying the food together is probably the main reason I became a chef.”

Although Harriott still has family in the Caribbean he regrets that he didn’t get the chance to catch up with them.

“They are getting on a bit now and when I told my uncle who is 88 that I was coming, he said ‘that’s nice’. I don’t think he really got it.”

As for Harriott himself, he has two children, Jimmy , 27, and Maddie , 24, to former costume designer Clare Fellows, sister of comedian Graham Fellows, from Sheffield.

The pair have since divorced but remain friends. And the chef is very much looking forward to returning to Sheffield at the weekend for a book signing, but also to catch up with family.

“I am still very much in contact with my sister-in-law,” he says. “She has MS (multiple sclerosis) but does incredibly well. I will be popping into see them while I am in Yorkshire.”

After growing up in a household where food was important, his sister taught cooking for 30 years, and his brother ‘was always cooking’, it isn’t surprising a young Ainsley decided he wanted to be a chef.

“Mum gave us belief to be able to cook with a freedom that transferred over to all of us.

“We all felt very at home in the kitchen. She made us understand that food brings people together.”

Harriott trained at Westminster Kingsway College (formerly Westminster Technical College), and obtained an apprenticeship at Verrey’s restaurant in the West End, later working as a commis chef.

He became head chef at the Long Room of Lord’s Cricket Ground and was asked to present More Nosh, Less Dosh on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Harriott started his television career as a chef on Good Morning With Anne And Nick, then Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook.

In 2000, he replaced Fern Britton as the host of BBC show Ready 
Steady Cook which was axed a decade later.

There are rumours that the hit live BBC cooking show could be revived.

“It was really the first programme of its type,” says Harriott.

“We were cooking in real time and that really doesn’t happen very often.

“Even the likes of the Great British Bake Off and MasterChef are all recorded. It was something a bit different and the first of its kind.

“James and I have been talking about the possibility of resurrecting it, and I would love that, but it was a show of its time. But never say never.”

In 2015 he took part in Strictly Come Dancing and was partnered with professional dancer Natalie Lowe, they came twelfth, being 
the fourth couple voted of the BBC show.