Ainsley Harriott: ‘I talk to my ingredients when I’m cooking’

Growing up, television was the only form of entertainment at home, apart from our Encyclopedia Britannica volumes, which were so enormous and packed with so many thin pages that we only reluctantly referred to them for schoolwork. Otherwise, we used to congregate as a family in the dining area, where there was a television. I was the youngest of three and that’s where we used to watch all our shows.

Probably the biggest influence on me was Animal Magic with Johnny Morris. It really stuck with me because I loved the way that he talked to the animals, a little bit like Dr Dolittle, and educate us about their lives. It was amazing to see the animals in different parts of the world, too – it somehow made them seem a lot friendlier to us and, for me, it began a lifelong connection with animals and pets.

As a child, we had rabbits and, later on, dogs. I’ve got a golden labrador now, called Bobby, and I sometimes talk to Bobby just like Johnny Morris. His was one of those voices that we instantly associated with something – like David Attenborough – and it has stuck with me, so much so that I sometimes do it with food, too. I have a conversation with the ingredients when I’m cooking in the kitchen!

Later on, I began to discover and love anything that was mildly related to cooking. I didn’t manage to get into Fanny Cradock and her shows, but I used to watch the chef Graham Kerr and his programme The Galloping Gourmet, which was an import from Canada. I still have one of his books in my study.

I was absolutely taken by the enthusiastic way he cooked and the way that he always looked at the camera to engage us in the food. He dressed flamboyantly, in a bright jacket or suit, and would jump around the set – he was so enthusiastic and he made it all seem so glamorous. The payoff at the end of the show was to invite someone from the studio audience on stage to taste the food – and the expression on their face always gave me great pleasure. It made me want to taste the same things and bring that same pleasure to others.

My mother was a fabulous cook and, because my dad was an entertainer, she was always having people over for dinner. As a child, I used to sit under this big piano we had and observe the people that came round, and the joy that my mother’s plates of food would bring them. I remember the looks on people’s faces when were telling her it tasted gorgeous. All of that certainly contributed to me wanting to become a cook, because of the instant satisfaction and gratification you can get from what you’ve just done.