Q&A: Ainsley Harriott steps out of the studio

Local treasures: Tasting Barbados in Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food.Jovial British TV chef Ainsley Harriott, 58, is best known for fronting Ready Steady Cook and Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook. For his latest nine-part series Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food, he steps out of the studio and into the heart of places such as Istanbul, Barbados and Reykjavik to see what the locals eat on a colourful journey that’s part-cooking show, part-travelogue. Just don’t mention the shark preserved in urine.

You look much younger than your Ready Steady Cook days in the 1990s. What’s your secret?

When you’re doing Ready Steady Cook for three shows a day, you’re not very active, you’re just confined to a studio whereas doing something like street food and just travelling around, it’s a really different vibe. It’s high energy.

What is about street food that’s so fascinating? It really captures the place, the people, why is that?

It’s because quite often street food is about local produce, what is immediately available. And it’s a shared food, it brings people together. When I go into these restaurants there’s a bench, people just bring their food, put it down and eat, so there’s a real relaxedness about it. People talk, they’re sharing and there’s something really wholesome about it. I found it really comforting. With food there’s no language barrier, it’s a smile, a thumbs up.

What about the more gruesome side of street food?

The worst was the shark preserved in urine in Reykjavik. It was the only time I actually retched. It was awful. Why do people eat it? I don’t think they had any choice. It was viking food and you’re talking about Iceland, at certain times of the year it’s so cold they had to find a way of preserving their fish, so they found a way of preserving it in urine. We’re talking about a long, long time ago. And yet everything that sounds disgusting [isn’t always bad] — the lamb cooked in dung tasted fantastic.

What do you feel that you bring to audiences? You put your own twists on recipes, such as mixing wasabi with mayonnaise in Osaka. 

I wanted to take one of their classics and I want to add a little bit of something to it. If I was home and I saw that, I’d think I’ll have a go at that, it’s easy enough. Sometimes MasterChef and all those programs, they blind you with science. It really is like watching a university of food, and sometimes programs like that can alienate people. We watch premiership footballers but we’re not going to play like them, but we still like watching them and that’s the reality of it. What I’ve always tried to achieve is bringing very simple ideas to people.

What do you hope audiences at home get from the show?

Street-food shows have been done before but what I [hope I] do is bring to them the warmth of me talking to people. It doesn’t matter about the language, you can just look at someone and smile and the whole thing comes alive and 10 minutes later they’re got their arm around you ‘try this, try that’. So I’d like to think that I bring to the table a sense of happiness, a sense of joy, a sense of learning and a sense of adventure.

You’ve always had a showmanship side to you. Why is that important?

My dad was a fantastic entertainer and my mum danced in the kitchen when she cooked, a bit of Nina Simone on and she would be [dances] ‘dah-dah-dah’. Probably as a baby I was sitting there in the pram thinking this was quite normal. I like bringing joy and happiness to people. I’ll never forget that lovely saying ‘People forget what you said, people forget what you did, but people never forget the way you made them feel’ and that’s what it’s all about.

Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food, SBS, Thursday (August 6), 8.30pm

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