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P
Pa
November 27, 2020

Five minutes with… Andi Oliver

Sports

P
Pa
November 27, 2020

After four series as a Great British Menu judge, Andi Oliver has a new role. The enigmatic broadcaster and chef, 56, is hosting the upcoming Christmas special of the BBC Two cooking competition, which will take place over seven episodes. In more exciting news, she will also present the 16th series, which will air in 2021.

Replacing Oliver on the panel for Great British Christmas Menu — alongside Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton — is comedian Kerry Godliman. Meanwhile, a different guest, related to the series’ theme of supporting key workers, will join each week to complete the judging line-up.

Together, the four will decide which culinary titans get to serve up their creative dishes as part of a six-course festive feast — and it’s over to Oliver in the event of a tie. Here, we chat to Oliver (who also used to be in a band with Eighties pop icon Neneh Cherry) about the joy of presenting, and how cooking has helped her through a difficult year.

CAN YOU TELL US WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE GREAT BRITISH CHRISTMAS MENU?

The Christmas special is a hoot! The brief is to say thank you to our key workers, who have literally been the backbone of this country throughout the last year. People have lost their lives, people are risking their lives on a daily basis, just to keep us safe, and being able to do something that, in some small way, shows the gratitude we all feel for them is huge for us. And the chefs really rose to the occasion.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO FILM?

It’s so joyful, the whole thing. We’ve got veterans back in the kitchen as well; we’ve got Tommy Banks, Tom Aikens, amongst some others as well — some surprise ones who I’ll keep up my sleeves.

We’ve got some Great British Menu favourites. Some of the stars from the last couple of years are cooking with veterans who were judging them before, so that’s hilarious fun. Some of the veterans are like, ‘Oh my god, I forgot how hard it is in this kitchen!’

HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU WERE ASKED TO TAKE THE ROLE OF HOST?

At first, I really wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to do it, because I loved being a judge on Great British Menu so much, and I just was a little nervous about leaving that behind. I love Oliver and Matthew, and I was like, ‘Oh, I won’t be with Oliver and Matthew anymore!’ I had a little bit of separation anxiety, I think. But it’s been an absolute joy, I have to say.

TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT WHAT THE NEW ROLE IS LIKE…

Getting to know the chefs, watching them go through the emotional journey throughout the week, has been a complete revelation. I knew it would be interesting, getting to work with the chefs more closely and see how the dishes evolve and develop.

It’s just a joy to watch their imagination spark. Honestly, one of the chefs last week impressed me so much. The changes they made to a dish from the Monday, to the time they got to the judging table on Friday… I was absolutely gobsmacked.

YOU USHER THE CHEFS THROUGH THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF THE COMPETITION. YOU’RE A BIT LIKE A THERAPIST TOO…

I’m like the kitchen shrink — absolutely! We’ve started filming the new, main series as well now; some of them have been here before, but most of them are brand new to the competition — they don’t even know what to expect. And even the ones who have been before and are now coming again, they know what to expect, but they all say that it’s not any easier.

Actually, sometimes, knowing what to expect can make it even more stressful because you know how hard it is and you know the arcs and the peaks and the troughs in the week ahead of you. It’s like if you go back out with a boyfriend you’ve been out with before or something!

HAVE YOU BEEN COOKING A LOT IN LOCKDOWN?

All the time! It’s a really lovely thing for my mental health. It’s a really important form of creativity for me, my cooking. [In April] my daughter [TV and radio presenter, Miquita Oliver] and I started an Instagram series called, ‘What’s for dinner mummy?’; us cooking and dancing and playing music. It was like a little window into our family life. And then we decided to do a pop-up restaurant, at the top of my road; it was really odd suddenly having this time on my hands, and I’m not good at sitting on my hands.

I’ve got like five or six big Weber BBQ things, and my friend’s got a pub at the top of my road, so we wheeled them up and set it all up in his giant pub garden, and we did a Caribbean BBQ takeaway, and a little takeaway bar. We had the time of our lives! And everybody in our local neighbourhood absolutely loved it.

IT MUST HAVE BEEN GREAT TO HAVE SOMETHING TO KEEP YOU BUSY…

My boyfriend was very funny, because the moment I decided to do a pop-up, I suddenly got a spring in my step because I’m not used to waiting for others or for people to give me permission to do things, so it just felt like taking back power in my own life.

I think, in lockdown, there are obviously so many difficult things — not seeing your loved ones, not seeing your family, all of that stuff is really hard — but I think one of the things that’s hardest about it is feeling disempowered as well.

There’s a fragility to everyone’s mental health that’s really evident, so, for me, getting on with something and doing something that I could share with other people, and that thing being feeding people, it just felt like being back in the saddle. And it just felt like a really lovely thing to do. The Great British Christmas Menu starts on BBC Two on Tuesday, December 1.