With more than 30 years under his belt, British celebrity chef Ed Baines has an artillery of anecdotes from his colourful life. During MultiChoice’s African Showcase 2014, Debashine Thangevelo got to savour some of those stories and find out more about his upcoming show, Chefs: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, on BBC Lifestyle…
TO SAY Ed Baines is a charismatic personality is like saying Joan Rivers is sarcastic. It would be stating the obvious when there is much more to the person.
Baines is not just someone who tantalises taste buds – he flavours the imagination with his storytelling. Combine those two ingredients and you will appreciate why it’s not just the camera that loves him.
Besides myriad TV shows, some with the BBC brand and others with ITV Network, he also has two books to his name.
I caught up with him after his fascinating cooking demonstration, during which he whipped up some interesting dishes with the chicken, fish, herbs and spices he procured from the local markets.
Funnily enough, he was tucking into a burger when I caught up with him. Yes, even chefs indulge in “junk food”.
Baines, who trained at The River Café in London, recalls his fondest memory in his profession.
“My first really substantial memory was when I was 19 years old. I was given the opportunity to go work in France on a very luxury sailing yacht. And being a sort of teenager, I didn’t really think about it, I just went and did it. I boarded this brand-new yacht in northern France and it sailed all the way around to Monaco. It was to be christened in Monaco’s harbour. And the day we came into the harbour, I remember standing on the deck, wearing a chef’s jacket, and it had gold braiding like an officer in the Navy. As we sailed in, all the ships’ horns were going and the sides were packed with people cheering.
“This was a very unique yacht built in France and standing on the deck as a young chef… I have never been prouder in all my life to be involved with something like that.
“Even to this day, when I think about it, I still get a tingle up and down my spine. It can only happen once in your lifetime.”
With the food landscape being transformed on TV, which is saturated with seasoned as well as a fresh crop of chefs, he told of how he balances showcasing his passion for cooking and being quite the storyteller while doing so. And he has been on the small screen for almost 18 years now.
“I have always fancied myself as a bit of a storyteller. And some of them are better than others. But, to your first question (about him finding his feet on camera), I didn’t really understand or know what I was letting myself in for. I was like, ‘yeah, I’ll do that, no problem’. But the reality is when I was I put into the spotlight, I was absolutely terrified. I was so frightened, my knees were going and I genuinely felt like I couldn’t do it. There is an awful lot more to it than I was led to believe. Of course, the whole thing about television is that it is two- dimensional capturing a three- dimensional moment and it is very easy to look wooden. You need to be a dominant person. You need to behave in a way that might be considered socially unacceptable at a dinner party. So it certainly didn’t come easy. But it was something I practiced.
“Over a period of time, your inhibition fades. When it comes to the nature of presenting, some people approach it in a very technical way. As long as what they are doing captures your interest in a certain way, you can get away with that. But if what they are doing isn’t completely fascinating, you generally will become quite bored. It is a big risk. But if you try and come up with a bit of light entertainment and humour – anecdotes being important – what you are doing (as in cooking) becomes second nature. Otherwise it looks flawed. It is important to be able to talk all the time while you are doing something. I have always found playing with the camera, flirting with the audience, is good fun.”
With a bit of history and presenting style out of the way, we chat about Chefs: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is.
He laughs: “It is the hardest TV programme I have made. It is the most demanding and challenging. It is the one show where you really need to think about what you are doing. At the end of the process, the slightest error in judgement could cost you. It is as simple as that.
“If your menu planning wasn’t right, you lose. If you bought the wrong commodity, you lose. If you spent to much money, you lose. If the way your wrote your menu wasn’t right, you lose. If you priced your menu wrong, you lose…
“You have to get every single detail right – from the financial planning, from what you make – because the client has the oppor- tunity to pay nothing at all if they didn’t think it was very nice. It is a very, very interesting format,” he pointed out.
And, yes, he admits he has had those “why am I doing this?” moments.
He explains: “You start very early in the morning and don’t finish until late at night. You have no one helping you. You start the day not knowing what you are going to do. Then there is a reveal telling you what you are going to do. You just show up at a location, you don’t know the style of food you are cooking, where you are cooking it, how many people you are cooking for. You could be cooking on the Orient Express today, or in a Turkish restaurant or at an Indian wedding.
“With shopping for all the ingredients shortly after, it is back to cooking. Depending on the number you are catering for, you might be allocated two chefs just for the prep.”
In terms of format, Baines revealed: “It is completely pioneering. It is the only cooking programme that covers every element of being a chef. You are buying and your creativity, business acumen, execution as a cook, ability to produce in the allotted time and, finally, making a profit at the end of the day. Bottom line, if you haven’t covered your basis as a professional cook – this show will show you up.”
Too many anecdotes, too little time and not enough space in this story, Baines admitted to looking at a third book soon.
He laughs: “The problem is the genre of the book keeps changing. The way publishing works very much nowadays in the UK, you need a television product and, once you get a commission for the show, the book comes with it. Besides, if you want a recipe, you can just Google it these days. Books are more about owning a piece of the person and what they are doing.”
Before ending our chat, he served this piece of advice: “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Constantly simplify. It is more about making something memorable on the palate, which isn’t easy to do. From the point of view of travel, I find it enlightens you as you tend to be- come blinkered when you are often in a kitchen. Perhaps one day I will write a book about my journey as cooking has given me so many opportunities.”
In the meantime, the chapters keep writing themselves.
• Ed Baines’ Chefs: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is airs on BBC Lifestyle (DStv Channel 174) on Mondays at 11.05am.