After winning BBC’s Yes Chef in 2016 and training with Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar, Chris Baber is the nation’s new favourite chef. We chatted with Chris to discuss all things food, life and what’s next in his journey.
Chris Baber interview by Jenny Medlicott
Hey Chris, as a massive foodie, I’m super stoked to chat with you for this piece. The first thing I’d love to know, is how your passion for cooking started at such a young age? Making dinner for your entire family by age eight is quite the skill!
Great to chat with you today. Glad to hear you’re a massive foodie. I really think food is one of the topics that is the easiest to talk about with new people. Anyone at uni, if you’re looking for a conversation starter, start talking about food.
I used to get in from school, I’d watch stuff like Ready, Steady, Cook, and feel inspired to jump in the kitchen and give it a go myself. I always found it a fun process. I’d go round to my grandad’s, he’s a good home cook – by no means a chef – and we’d open this tiny little kitchen door, it’d be like a steam room in there, but he’d always have the music on. I always remember that. He’d be singing and dancing and making a Sunday roast for us. I could see how happy he was making it and to serve it up to us, all enjoying it around the table. I’d wake up the next morning and be in the kitchen with him making fry-ups and proper fried bread. It was always a fun process.
When I was at home, I’d come in from school, and I had really busy parents. My mum was in the NHS for 40 years, my dad had a demanding job. I would just watch a bit of telly and jump in the kitchen and give it a go. It was seeing the smile it put on my family’s face. To be honest, food is almost a selfish hobby or passion to have because you really get your kick out of seeing other people enjoy it and that’s what made me fall in love with it.
How did your passion for cooking develop over the years, did you always know you wanted to pursue a career in cooking?
I never thought I’d work in food. It was always a passion of mine; I grew up in a small market town in the countryside and I never really aspired to be a Michelin star chef or anything like that. My experience was very much home cooking, seeing people on Ready, Steady, Cook, having fun doing it. I always had in the back of my mind that it would be a dream to do that sort of thing and inspire other people to cook in the way they’d inspired me. But I never thought there’d be an opportunity for me. This was a time before social media and growing up in a market town. The passion was always there; I always loved it.
I worked in loads of jobs that I wasn’t that passionate about. I’ve modelled, I’ve worked in sales. The one thing I’d always come back to is cooking and I’d get real enjoyment from it. I was on these modelling shoots and I’d be talking about my food, showing people pictures of it and they’d be like, ‘Chris, get on social media. You should share this with the world.’
It took a bit of a push to get me on there about six, seven years ago when I started sharing recipes on Instagram. It started from there and that’s when someone from the BBC got in touch about this TV show, Yes Chef. My passion evolved over the years from being a child into my early twenties by trying new things, experimenting, and it just grew and grew and grew and turned into what I do now. I think that’s often a great way to fall into a career, when you do what you’re passionate about and it naturally turns into it.
I imagine that winning BBC’s Yes Chef was a huge turning point in your career, what was it like being on the show and going on to win?
It was absolutely crazy! This was a daytime show for home cooks, over five days. Each day there’d be four different home cooks competing to go into a final on the Friday. Every day there was a different Michelin star chef judge. I turned up and on the application form it said, ‘Who’s your favourite chef?’ I’d written Atul Kochhar as one of them, who was the first chef to get a Michelin star. Absolutely love the guy.
On the day, you had to cook a signature dish, and mine was based on one of his that I’d grown up watching on Saturday Kitchen. It was a seabass and coconut curry. The first task, I’m stood there with my ingredients for this signature dish, and then they announced the guest judge on the show was Atul. He walked out and I couldn’t believe it. At this point, I’d never stepped in a TV studio, never seen lights, cameras, directors. I’d never met a celebrity. I was totally in awe; it was a surreal experience.
The turning point for me was when I served him this food, I remember he walked down and saw the raw ingredients and could tell what I was going to cook. He had a bit of a smile on his face. I remember serving him this dish. He took a mouthful of it and I was absolutely petrified. He said nothing for about 10 seconds and then went, ‘Chris, you’ve absolutely nailed it.’ That moment still gives me goosebumps. Going from the validation of friends and family saying I could cook, to one of my heroes saying it. It gave me the self-confidence and belief that I should be doing this.
I won the show and Atul said, ‘Chris, whatever you’re doing in life, you should work in food. You can have a job in my Michelin star restaurant.’ I’d never taken a risk in my life. I didn’t go to uni, I hadn’t been travelling. Two weeks later, I packed my bags and moved to London and my journey really started then. It was a real turning point for me. I was given an opportunity but I did have to take it and follow through. Atul still remains a close friend. It was a fantastic experience for me. I’ll always remember having an ice cream out the back with him; it was absolutely surreal.
Obviously you’ve gained quite a lot of attention from celebrities recently, how does it feel to have gained the approval of chefs like Gordon Ramsay, an infamously hard-to-please chef?
Tell you what, it feels fantastic. It’s moments like that which give you so much self-belief. It’s incredibly surreal sometimes when you get feedback from someone you’ve looked up to, admired and is an idol. I think the only way to get there is to stay true to yourself and be authentic. I’m not trying to be someone I’m not. I genuinely love helping people at home cook from scratch and making it easy and accessible for everyone to cook a lovely bit of dinner every night. I adore doing that and stay true to it. Your idols can see that you’re being authentic. I feel really lucky to have worked with and gotten to know a lot of people that I’ve looked up to for so many years.
What’s it been like to see your fanbase grow so rapidly, has it impacted your life out in public?
It’s grown fairly quickly, though compared to some people I’m friends with, not that quickly at all. For me, it’s been a slightly slower growth. I’ve gradually built it up. In public, it’s fantastic. I genuinely get people stop me and tell me they’ve made my recipes, loved doing them, and thank me. It’s so kind and I’ll always have time to speak to every single person that wants to stop. It still blows my mind that people stop me in the street.
I’ve always wondered about the recipe-making process for chefs, is there anything in particular you do that makes this process unique to you?
Absolutely! There’s so many recipes out there, different types of food. In my head, I always think, how can I make this easy and accessible for everyone to try? Imagine you go on holiday and there’s the most amazing recipe from Singapore. In my head I’m going, that’s incredible and they’ve put a lot of processes in. What can I do to break this down into easier steps, using more accessible ingredients, so everyone gets to experience this? I genuinely love doing that.
London is a bit of a bubble for food; there’s so much access to ingredients and everyone seems to know a lot more about it than where I come from. In my head, I always think, what would my friends and family at home in the North East think of this recipe that I’m developing? It’s all well and good that my foodie friends in London understand but I always think back to my friends and family at home. Would they get it? Could they make it? If the answer’s yes, great. If the answer’s no, it needs more work.
Do you ever have moments when you get tired of cooking and want to order takeout?
100%! Come on, who doesn’t love a takeaway? When I grew up, it was either Chinese or Indian food. Now, there’s so much out there. When food’s your work, it can be on your mind all day, every day. Sometimes you just go, night off, have a lovely takeaway and enjoy it with your mates. Every time I go back home we have an Indian takeaway.
What was the inspiration behind writing Easy, do you think it would have happened without lockdown?
I think it would’ve happened, but maybe at a later date. Lockdown really helped me focus on what I wanted my first book to be about. There were two things in lockdown that did it. The first one, I did a cook-a-long series with loads of different celebrities, including Rylan, Vick Hope, Tom Daley, Gok Wan, Joel Dommett and Paddy McGuinness. It was incredible. The one thing we did is, I’d ask them ‘What do you want to learn to make? I’ll teach you live on Instagram.’ At the end of every single recipe, they all just went, ‘That was dead easy.’ It only really clicked at the end, all these recipes they’d requested, I made an easy version for them.
The other series I did was a cooking class for kids and parents, three nights a week. I wasn’t cooking food that is just for kids to make; it was proper family meals, real food. I thought, how could I make it easy enough for a child to make, but delicious enough for the whole family to eat? It was those two components together where I thought, I don’t need to overcomplicate it. The book needs to be called Easy. No matter who you are, I want to make it easy for you to cook something amazing every night and remove barriers to food. There shouldn’t be any barriers; not everyone’s got loads of equipment, not everyone’s got loads of money, not everyone’s got access to all the ingredients, not everyone can understand all the fancy chef words. I’ve dropped any barriers to it.
Some of the recipes from your book sound incredible, honestly, the bean chilli loaded wedges had me watering at the mouth. Do you have a favourite dish from Easy?
You’ve got to try the Bean Chilli Loaded Wedges! Absolutely lush, stick it on the table, meat-free, doesn’t cost a lot of money. Trying to pick a favourite recipe is like trying to pick a favourite child, not that I’ve got kids yet. There’s food for different occasions. Some of my favourites, in the front there’s a Chimichurri Steak Sandwich and it’s so simple. There’s a Jalapeño Chilli Cheese Toastie – you can’t beat a cheese toastie. Crispy Chilli Beef from the Fakeaway section is good. Spicy Sausage Tacos for breakfast. The Chocolate and Raspberry Fudge Brownie cake is a winner, so easy to do, always a crowd pleaser. There’s so much, I can’t pick a favourite!
I think for the student community, it can be hard to know where to start with cooking. Do you have any advice for students struggling to combat this initial hurdle?
I definitely do! I once read a saying which I think applies to everything in life: The start is what stops most people. You’ve literally just got to start. That’s where my book comes in because I’ve removed the barriers. If you open a cookbook and you can’t understand the words or you haven’t got the equipment or you can’t get the ingredients, those are all barriers. It’s picking a book like this where you open it, you know you’ll understand, you know you’ll be able to get the ingredients, you know you won’t need fancy, expensive mixers, that is the first thing to do.
Another tip, always choose a recipe that you know you’ve got time to cook so you can enjoy it. Get the radio on – the more you enjoy it, the more you do it. If you’ve got your favourite playlist on, that’s a good start. Get everything prepped before you get started. Take a bit of time chopping everything up; it’s fun, you’ve got the radio on. Get cooking and don’t stress. Taste as you go. I guarantee the first time you eat something, or you cook it for your flatmates, girlfriend, boyfriend, and it puts a smile on their face, that will be the moment that you realise, that was easy and I’m going to keep doing it.
And finally, what’s next for you Chris, are there any particular goals you want to achieve in the coming years?
I’m a massive believer in writing your goals down. Every year, I’ve got a list of things I want to achieve. I want to get working on book number two. I want my own TV show. I’d love to do more radio; I have an idea for an incredible radio show based around food. I want to work in America at some point, I want to collaborate with some of my favourite chefs and celebrities on social media and I want to travel the world and experience new foods and cultures. On a personal note, have fun doing it all. You’ve got to enjoy the journey!
Chris Baber | Bean Chilli Loaded Wedges Recipe
Serves 4-6/50 minutes
6 sweet potatoes, skin on, cut into thick wedges
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 red onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, grated or crushed
2 celery sticks, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 red peppers, diced
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp chilli powder (optional)
400g can kidney beans
400g can chickpeas
2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
2 tsp brown sugar
100g Cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and pepper
To serve (optional)
1 avocado, sliced
6 spring onions, chopped
2 tbsp soured cream or yoghurt
1 lime, cut into wedges
My loaded wedges make veg the star of the show. Bang them in the middle of the table and let everyone dive in. Pick and choose any toppings you like. The more the merrier for me! I love the contrast of creamy avo and soured cream against the rich spicy chilli and for some extra indulgence, don’t hold back on the cheese.
- Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan.
- Put the wedges into a baking tray. Drizzle in 1 tbsp oil, season and toss together. Bake for 30–40 minutes until slightly golden and cooked through.
- Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp oil in a large pan over a medium–high heat. Add the onions, garlic, celery, carrots and peppers. Season and fry for 10–12 minutes until the veg has softened and taken on a little colour.
- Add the paprika, cumin and chilli powder and stir for 30 seconds.
- Add the beans and chickpeas with the liquid from the cans along with the chopped tomatoes and sugar. Season and bring to the boil.
- Cover loosely and simmer for 30 minutes until you have a thick, rich sauce. If the pan becomes dry during cooking, add a splash of water. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
- Pour the chilli over the cooked wedges, then scatter over the cheese. Return to the oven for 5 minutes or until the cheese has melted.
- Scatter over your chosen toppings and serve.
Recipe extracted from Easy by Chris Baber (Ebury, £16.99), published April 7th 2022.
Chris Baber’s new book Easy is out April 7th 2022 and available for purchase on Ebury for £16.99. Food photography by Haraala Hamilton.
Chris Baber interview by Jenny Medlicott