An interview with Andi Oliver
PUBLISHED: 11:30 27 June 2017 | UPDATED: 11:30 27 June 2017
Linda Duffin talks to chef-restaurateur Andi Oliver about judging Great British Menu and growing up in Bury St Edmunds
My conversation with Andi Oliver is punctuated by loud and raucous laughter . . . hers and mine. You’d have to be an iceberg not to warm to this woman. She’s funny, friendly and articulate and has a highly infectious laugh, somewhere between a guffaw and a cackle.
When we meet in the wisteria-draped garden of her new restaurant in Stoke Newington in north London, she has just finished filming for the BBC’s Great British Menu, where she has taken over from Prue Leith on the judging panel. She’s about to appear on Saturday Kitchen, she and business partner Kelly Miles are still fine-tuning the restaurant menu, she’s planning a cookery book and at the end of summer filming begins for next year’s GBM. A suggestion that she is a bit of an under-achiever gets me another belly laugh.
“I’m absolutely exhausted, but I’m so happy,” she says. Andi seems on the surface to have had a blessed career. She sang with her close friend, Neneh Cherry, in the post-punk band Rip Rig and Panic before moving apparently effortlessly into broadcasting and the restaurant business (she was cooking dinner parties at the age of 10). But her success is down to hard graft and a good deal of grit.
Andi, now 53, was born in London but brought up in Bury St Edmunds from the age of 10. Her father served in the air force and was based at RAF Honington. Her mother taught at a Bury primary school.
Both of her parents originated in Antigua and growing up as a black child in Suffolk in the 1970s wasn’t easy.
“I was the only black girl for quite a mile. I experienced massive amounts of racism. Horrible stuff went on and I was really unhappy for a lot of it. But also two of my dearest, closest friends, who I’m still really close to, I grew up with in Bury, so I’ve got a funny duality about it.
“Part of it was just painful and I never wanted to go back, although my mum still lives in Bury and loves it. As an adult I came to appreciate the beauty and the lovely things that are in Suffolk, but it took me quite a long time and there is still a part of me that resents what I went through and finds it quite hard to let that go. I don’t forgive.”
Her new role on Great British Menu saw her having to defend suggestions of tokenism – black, middle aged and generously proportioned, she’s not the archetypal skinny blonde female TV presenter.
“If I wasn’t good at my job and able to properly analyse food I wouldn’t be there,” she says, definitively.
“I think they wanted to cast somebody very different to Prue, and I take my hat off to them for that. I don’t think that’s tokenism, I think that’s just being imaginative. I’m damn’ good at what I do, I know food inside out and I’m articulate – and I can stand my ground with the two boys [fellow judges Oliver Peyton and Matthew Fort]. I think audiences have a lot more imagination than sometimes broadcasters give them credit for, and want to see the world they live in reflected on TV.”
This year’s show culminated in a banquet to celebrate Wimbledon’s 140th birthday in July, with chefs from around the country competing to cook a course.
“It’s difficult, because each of the dishes is not just about the food on the plate, it’s about the chef who’s behind it,” says Andi. “I find it incredibly inspiring to see people at the height of their creativity pouring so much love and passion and care into something, so it’s heart-breaking to have to send someone home. But we chose well. The reception on the night of the banquet was glorious and I’m thrilled to have been asked back next year.”