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The Big Interview with AWT

Antony Worrall Thompson talks to at home about cooking, politics, family life, and being in love…

On the plethora of celebrity chefs and programmes
At the rate it’s going the whole genre will be killed off because there are far too many cooking programmes on television at the moment. There is room for a few key cookery shows, but the number on air is totally over the top. Saying that, as a subject, cookery has lasted the course, more than the renovation, DIY and even gardening programmes, which seem to have been cut right back recently. Cookery is tried and tested and still works well on television.

What I don’t like about some celebrity chefs – and Jamie Oliver has been guilty of this recently – is the abusive and vulgar language. I really think that has got to stop.

On his television career
Ten years ago I said I didn’t think I would last this long on TV but I’m still going so I’m blessed that I’m still wanted on the small screen. I love doing the telly work – it’s great fun. What I don’t like is the term ‘celebrity chef’ – we are not celebrities like Johnny Depp for example – we are just doing a job like the local fishmonger or butcher, providing a service. I love going to work every morning and combined with the other jobs in my life, like running my restaurants, I have so much diversity. It still amazes me I’m on television – I’m short, dumpy with a smashed up face and a large waistband but I’m still getting work so I must be doing something right. I’m having a ball. We’ve had some great celebrity guests on Daily Cooks Challenge (shown on ITV1), like the swimmer Sharron Davies, Rory Bremner and Ken Livingstone and I’m trying to get the current Mayor of London Boris Johnson on too, as he’s a hoot. Each week I’m joined by two of the UK’s best chefs and they have to battle it out to win over the taste buds of the celebrity guest. It’s more interesting than Ready, Steady, Cook because the chef’s have to read the celebrity really well in order to make the winning dish. Merrilees Parker is one of the best at this – she is able to read people brilliantly and Gino D’Acampo is not bad either – he has a wonderful charm and cheekiness.

On male and female chefs
There does seem to be gender-bending in the home kitchen now, in that there are more male than female chefs out there, but I think that women have wised up to the fact that they don’t necessarily have to play the role of cook every night. Most now work full-time and don’t relish the thought of getting home at the end of the day only to start cooking – especially when there is a plethora of ready meals and take aways available. On the other hand men have discovered that cooking can be a relaxing hobby and a good pulling tool! Traditionally men rarely share household chores so at least with cooking they are able to do something domestic to help out.

On going back to food basics
In all my six restaurants we try to use locally sourced ingredients and organic produce. And judging from the ingredients that people bring in on Daily Cooks Challenge, it seems to be what the public wants, too.

Old-fashioned cooking, ‘like mum used to make’ is back in vogue, where strong tastes and honesty in the ingredients is a must. Gone is the ‘julienne’ this and ‘froth’ that malarkey. Most people who go to a restaurant want to have a relaxing evening, eating good food without their wallet being too much lighter at the end of the night. More and more consumers want local, British produce because they’re concerned about the wellbeing of animals.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver certainly shook up the public when they presented programmes about the welfare of chickens on Channel 4 – Hugh’s Chicken Run and Jamie’s Fowl Dinners.

This seemingly ‘new’ trend for basic food is actually an old trend – it’s how restaurants used to work 30 years ago, using local ingredients, but the food was generally awful to begin with. It has improved vastly since then and we’ve come full circle with renewed enthusiasm for going back to basics.

on your three tips for beating the credit crunch?
Being creative with leftovers is a start. Here are some ideas for using them up.

1) French toast is a great way to use up bread that’s going stale along with those eggs loitering in the corner – beat an egg with a splash of milk, a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt. Soak four slices of bread, in > turn, in the milk on both sides and then fry in melted butter and serve with maple syrup.

2) Cooked too much rice? Fry up chopped veggies – onions, peppers, mushrooms, add some meat such as chopped ham, bacon, chicken or even cooked prawns, then add the rice and heat through for a quick stir-fry.

3) Five-a-day omelettes – chop up and fry any vegetables lurking in your fridge or larder that have seen better days, stir into some beaten eggs and season. Then cook, top with a slice of cheese and fold over. Easy, tasty and nutritious.

On being a nation of fatties
There is no doubt we are all getting fatter and it’s a generational thing. Jamie Oliver has been trying to change the world on this matter but it’s taken a generation to get these children hooked on junk food and I think it will take another generation to get them off again.

You are not going to change the habits of 13- and 14-year-olds so we now have to start again with our three- and four-year-olds. We need to bring in free school meals, which everyone is reluctant to do because of the cost, but that’s hardly a big problem if you compare it with the cost of treating diabetes and obesity for thousands of children in later life.

If we give children a good start, then they’ll learn the rules of eating well and how to have a balanced diet and this will stay with them for life. With free school meals, parents know that their children are getting a healthy, nutritious meal, once a day, at least The issue of obesity has arisen because parents treat their children like little adults. They should be telling their children what they should be eating, not asking them what they’d like. I’ve always done that with my kids. I’m firm about them eating what is put in front of them. Some parents just back down when their children start screaming but kids’ compliance comes from trusting their parents and they learn this by sitting with them at mealtimes three times a week and eating exactly the same food as them.

We also need to get rid of kids’ menus in restaurants – why do they have to eat chicken nuggets and chips? They should have the same options as adults but with smaller portions. You don’t need a separate menu. When children live in your house they need to be told who is in charge when it comes to food – once they leave home they can eat junk food all the time if they want, but hopefully, if you have taught them about healthy eating, they will make informed food choices of their own.

On healthy living
Obviously people need to watch what they eat but it’s about doing more sport too. My daughter Billie-Lara, 11, has shed half a stone in a few weeks because she’s doing sport every day at school, except Sundays. It needs to go back to how it was when I was a child – I was kicked out of the house and told to come back at tea-time and I had to amuse myself outside. Kids don’t know how to play outdoors any more – they are stuck in front of televisions, networking websites and computer games and they use TV to stimulate their imagination and brain and can’t do it themselves any more. When I was on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! back in 2003, we had nothing – every single method of communicating was stripped away – and it doesn’t do you any harm. You can actually function without modern technology. People need to be taught about healthy living – we can’t expect people to know. Fast food restaurants should be obliged to put the nutritional value of ingredients of their meals on the wall, for example, so it’s obvious exactly how much fat and how many calories the customers are about to consume.

On children and cooking
Children are only offered 12 lessons a lifetime in cookery, which is pathetic. They should be offered lifestyle lessons once a week, which includes how to cook but also teaches them things like how to get a mortgage, how to put air in car tyres, interior design and wine-tasting too, so they don’t go mad at 18 when they are legally allowed to drink. In France there is not a problem with teenage binge-drinking because they are introduced to it slowly and are educated about wine from an early age. I do believe alcopops are a curse in this country – they don’t have them in Spain, France or Italy. They drink sensible drinks there, not drinks that are targeted at young people.

On youth crime
In my opinion knife crime is escalating because kids are just not getting the discipline at home. Parents are letting their children get away with far too much so they simply don’t respect adults. When I was a child it was different – we were scared of the police and their authority. I do believe there is a balance that can be achieved but ultimately it’s down to children needing guidelines and that means as an adult, you have to stand your ground when it comes to discipline.

On UK politics
They really are in a shocking state and it’s because of persistently bad decisions including overspending and leaving nothing in the coffers to keep us going throughout a recession. We will all be taxed to the hilt – the legacy of the Labour Government- and that will last for a decade. There’s been a lot of poor quality decisions from the Labour party.

On Barack Obama as the new US president
I am excited but mildly terrified -?he was only a senator for four years – but he is a breath of fresh air and I admire the fact that even though everyone around him seems to be playing the race card, he isn’t himself.

His success will be down to the strength of the people around him.

He needs to harmonise relationships with China and Russia and who knows, maybe he could bring about world peace. One thing’s for sure – he has inherited lots of problems to sort out.

On finding love
I played the field for ages and jumped into two marriages because I was insecure. Getting involved with any woman who fancied me was not the best thing to do. I don’t believe in no sex before marriage though. My mum didn’t sleep with her second husband (not my dad) before she married and then found out he was gay!

I was in lust for my first two marriages and when I discovered my wife, Jay it was a totally different feeling – I still get butterflies now when I haven’t seen her for a while and we have a brilliant relationship. We have our ups and downs like everyone else but we get through the lows. Your partner has got be your best friend and as you both reach middle-age it’s about companionship and being friends.

Sex does carry on of course, but communication contributes to making relationships work, too.

On his family life
It’s all good at the moment although Jay and I do seem to be rattling around in our big house right now, because our two children Toby-Jack, 13 and Billie-Lara, have just gone off to boarding school. We’re having to get to know each other again without the children around, but there haven’t been any pregnant pauses or silences – just yet! Jay has been filling her time doing things she’s wanted to do for years. The kids are back home on some weekends and in the holidays so they aren’t gone for good! It’s been 13 years since we haven’t had children in the house so it’s taking a bit of getting used to.

On his restaurants
I have six restaurants and I’m not planning to open any more because of the economic climate – I’ll leave it for a year or so. I opened a deli in Windsor in June this year but it’s hard graft trying to make money at the moment – as everyone’s experiencing in this business. I am going to stick to what I do well, which is grill-based restaurants that use as much British-sourced produce as possible.

I have managers who run my restaurants but I try to visit them all once a week.

Often Jay and I will go and eat at one of them and then make a report on the service and food. I still compose the menus for the restaurants and I teach the chefs how to make the dishes, too. I keep a strict eye on the figures as well – I am at the top of the pillar of the organisation so I have to keep an eye on everything. Luckily I am blessed with a fabulous operations director, David Wilby.

On his favourite food, ever
It’s the edible part of a sea urchin called ‘uni’, which knocks spots off caviar. It has a creamy, salty taste and more people hate it than love it but it has a unique flavour which is very difficult to describe. It’s pure magic. Another of my favourites is fresh crab and pork is my meat of choice.

On his biggest influence
On a personal level it has to be my wife Jay. I was quite closed off before I met her and now I’m a much more outgoing and warm person. I was no good at socialising and Jay turned me around and made me more sociable.

On a food level, it is the Soil Association (a UK environmental charity that promotes sustainable, organic farming) and professionally
I admire Rick Stein for his take on country cooking, as well as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for their solid and tireless campaigning.

Another chef I admire is Alice Waters, who is an organic chef into simple cooking. She was considered to be a bit whacky when she was younger, but what she has been doing for years – honest cooking – is exactly what people want right now.

On the most influential people in Britain right now?
Chef wise at the posh end of the market Gordon Ramsey and Heston Blumenthal are both influential, but at the honest end, as I like to call it, The Soil Association, Rose Prince, who is food critic for The Telegraph and Jamie Oliver for his campaigning.

On the sexiest woman alive (apart from his wife, jay)
It always has to be a woman with a brain for me and someone like the actress Jodie Foster fits the bill because she is a brilliant actress and director and there is something mysteriously sexy about her. Kate Winslet is looking unbelievable at the moment and I have a sneaking admiration for Kate Moss because she doesn’t give interviews and doesn’t seem to give a hoot what people think of her. Her natural beauty is magical.

On what will be the next big food thing in the UK
We’ve done all the nations and these days I think people want honesty in food so it will be ingredients, rather than fashion-led food styles now.

On the most annoying thing a customer can do
It’s the gold medallion type of man, trying to impress his mates with his wit, who is rude to the waiters, snapping his fingers to get attention.
The very worst are those who book a table at the six best restaurants three months ahead, just to impress and then only go to one restaurant but not let the other five know he is cancelling. I’ve had my people phone customers who’ve done this at 3am in the morning, asking if they still want us to hold the table for them!

On the best things in life
Being in love is undoubtedly the best thing. Appreciating what you have and not taking it for granted – we have this knockout country we live in, for example, which is beautiful and should be appreciated.

Having a good family around you is important. Life’s not just about money – it does help but you can live frugally and happily if you have people around you who you love and who love you.

Having great friends, too, is a treat – you shouldn’t rely on one person for everything so surround yourself with friends and nurture the relationships. Finally, being healthy is most important – you can’t ask for more than that.

First Published in At Home with Antony Worrall Thompson, December 2008

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