Meet Andi Oliver, restau­ra­teur and Great Bri­tish Menu judge who grew up in Bury St Ed­munds

Linda Duf­fin talks to chef-restau­ra­teur Andi Oliver about judg­ing Great Bri­tish Menu and grow­ing up in Bury St Ed­munds

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE -

Mod­ern Bri­tish

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.

“I think they wanted to cast some­body very dif­fer­ent to Prue, and I take my hat off to them for that”

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.”

Left : Andi and busi­ness part­ner Kelly Miles

Above : Andi Oliver Photographer: An­drew Hayes-Watkins

Great Bri­tish Menu (L-R) Oliver Pey­ton, Andi Oliver, Matthew Fort - (C) Op­tomen TV - Photographer: An­drew Hayes-Watkins

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