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Interview: Ainsley Harriot, The Big Lunch patron talks about food, community and inspiration

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After sixteen years of presenting the BBC classic Ready Steady Cook, churning out numerous cookbooks of high quality recipes to suit all occasions and having a brief but memorable stint on Strictly Come Dancing, you’d forgive Ainsley Harriot for taking a bit of a break.

 

Despite this, it is clear he has plenty to give back. Instantly, the bubbly warmth of his personality flows through every word when we start discussing his support of The Big Lunch, an event organised by The Eden Project and The National Lottery. Having amassed over 9.3 million supporters (14% of the population last year) to get out into their community and socialise with their neighbours, 2018’s event on 3rd June aims to go global across the entire Commonwealth.

But why is The Big Lunch so important? When I report the statistic that out of 4,000 adults surveyed by The Big Lunch, 83% of them couldn’t identify their neighbours in a police line-up, I expect Ainsley to be astonished, but he responds in a remarkably measured manner. “It’s phenomenal but not surprising.” There’s an element of wit in his answers too, “I think we’ve stopped people watching. There was a time when we loved to people-watch, nowadays it probably only happens on the beach.”

He isn’t too quick to completely cast the blame on technology however.

“I wonder what it would be like when I was a kid, if there was as much going on as nowadays. We did so much more outside like playing football with mates, running around- if I had the internet it might have cut me off.”

His honesty does come through though.

“We have to address it a bit- the fact we are becoming non-communicative.”

The Ready Steady Cook icon is especially keen to stress that

“There is a lot of isolation out there. A lot of people who don’t connect with people.Especially in the older generations. 

You can tell through the endearing personality, there lies a man who cares strongly for this issue.

"There is the argument that we need to extend friendship a bit more, to be a bit more aware of our surroundings.”

Food has always been a massive part of his life and career, and you can tell he understands the endearing quality of bringing people together through food.

“I think it is the memories” he reminisces.

“A lot of us still talk about sharing a big pot of stew and everyone tucking in. It is like breaking bread at church, the sharing is the most important thing. The trust you put into someone is a real thing too. Trusting someone with your life- ‘Here, try this!’ Once you have the experience of sharing, you realise you are all sharing from the same pot, all experiencing the same things.”

One particular memory stands out for him.

“Growing up as a child, immigrants wanted to integrate into British society and church was always open. It was a way of bringing people together- it is probably where it all began. We had the Sans, Patab Khan, the Wong family, the Scudamores, the Garveys, who all invited you to their house. They came from a background where it was important for people to eat together.”

And this has influenced his own cooking.

“I remember sometimes thinking ‘Oh my God, what’s that?’ but I think it has now influenced the diversity in my own cooking, bringing in all these different styles.”

He rightly points out the evolution in cuisine in Britain too.

“Forty to fifty years ago, garlic was seen as foreign muck. Everyone now knows what it is. Quinoa is another example- we get exposed to and experience all these different styles and they become familiar.”

There is a touch of wistfulness in his voice when he states,

“People don’t necessarily know nowadays how to cook these different things. More and more programs just skip the method, you rarely see things cooked live. Shows like Saturday Kitchen are still interesting because they show the full picture to you. And I think that it is also what made Ready Steady Cook such a huge success for fourteen years, it wasn’t just a cut to ‘One minute to go’, you saw it all.”

But if there was any negativity, it is quickly dispelled by one final question. Ainsley Harriot’s recommendation for the best thing for a Big Lunch event?

“It doesn’t have to be anything flash.” He chuckles.

“One of the things about it is that it isn’t about doing a lunch. The event takes place in Ramadan for example when Muslims will be fasting, so you could do a dinner to incorporate them. Or even just pop your head over the garden fence and offer to share a bag of Maltesers with your neighbour.”

But the twinkle in his eye and passion for food becomes evident when he really moves onto his best suggestion:

“Load up a couscous salad, Ainsley’s is piled high with puy lentils, crumbled goats cheese and vine cherry tomatoes!”

He finishes on a serious, but passionate note.

“It can be whatever you can do. Bring something to the table and have fun. It doesn’t have to be thirty people on trestle tables- just two or three people is enough. That is how the Eden Project started. The most important thing is to make something, bring people together and let’s have a great party!”

Over 1,000 events across the UK as part of 2017’s Big Lunch schedule certainly helped achieve this goal and Ainsley passionately declares the aim for 2018’s event to involve ‘All countries in the Commonwealth.” 2 million people is a steep target, but it really would make it a global affair and one to certainly remember.

You can check out more information about The Big Lunch here: https://www.edenprojectcommunities.com/thebiglunchhomepage

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