Are insects the future of food?
The inspirational Great British Menu host gives us a raw, vulnerable and joyful look at her last 60 years and opens up about her ‘hellish’ childhood
Andi Oliver is in one of her trademark frocks. Today’s dress is a hot, bright coral accessorised, as ever, with a huge pair of cat-eye glasses that she perches on her newly shaven head. She is also, rather unexpectedly, wearing a blue sling because the TV chef has just fallen down a flight of stairs and had surgery to repair a tendon in her shoulder.
‘Getting old is not for sissies,’ she sighs, ‘but what’s the alternative? It’s not a good one. I’m always amazed to have survived another year…’ And then she starts to laugh because, right now, in the run-up to her 60th birthday (‘my jubilee as I like to think of it’), she is having the time of her life.
The presenter of BBC Two’s Great British Menu and a contributing chef on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen, Andi also presents foodie programmes for Channel 4 and serves up a side order of literature on Sky Arts’ Book Club Live.
Earlier this year, she and her daughter Miquita Oliver went in search of their Caribbean heritage for a critically acclaimed BBC Two two-parter The Caribbean with Andi and Miquita, and now she is publishing her first ever cookbook, The Pepperpot Diaries.
‘I was dangerously ill, sitting in the dark, crying, wanting to die, unable to stop myself eating’
‘There’s something about garnering success as you get older that means you’re ready for it,’ she says. ‘I feel a lot of things would have been overwhelming when I was younger.’
Andi will be 60 on 26 May and is planning 12 months of celebrations with her boyfriend of 30 years Garfield Hackett, Miquita, and a girls’ trip to Bali with her friend, the singer Neneh Cherry. (The two women fronted Eighties band Rip Rig + Panic.) ‘I’ll be eating a lot of food I love with the people I love across the year,’ she says.
Some will be Caribbean – a stout-braised oxtail is one of her go-to traditional dishes, ‘the kind of cooking handed down through stories and families and generations’ – but ask about her guilty pleasure and that’s the umami crunch of a Marmite rice cracker. ‘Preferably buttered,’ she confesses.
It’s not a snack you’ll find in The Pepperpot Diaries, which is crammed with Caribbean classics, such as Green Banana and Coconut Dumplings and Pork Belly Souse, and is ‘a bit of a love letter to my grandmother and my family and friends, because it encapsulates all the things that have made me who I am.’
She’s already working on another cookbook and at the time of writing is about to announce a joint project with Miquita and a mum-daughter podcast following on from the success of her own Radio 4 podcast, One Dish. Professionally, she is truly in her prime – despite having had major surgery, a hysterectomy, last July.
‘I was in a terrible state with ten fibroids, it was like I’d been walking around five months pregnant for a couple of years,’ she remembers. ‘The operation was an exercise in surrender, which is not characteristic of me, but I think the things you find hardest are the things you learn most from in the end. Immediately afterwards Miquita said: “Come here, Mummy”, and I went to stay with her, and she made me healing teas from a hanging herb garden on her balcony. Then my cousin moved in for two months as I couldn’t drive. I felt very loved. These are the circumstances where you find out a lot about the people around you.’
Recovery was supposed to take six months. Andi gave herself six weeks, her only concession was a little room with a bed, duvet and fridge, created for her on the set of the Great British Menu in case she needed to retreat from filming for an hour or two.
It sounds tough, but Andi is a great believer in the old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She traces it back to her childhood in the Suffolk market town of Bury St Edmunds where she was the only black girl in her school. ‘It was pretty hellish but the Seventies were a long time ago,’ she says. ‘I believe the horror taught me empathy. I learned to not be a bully or a bigot. I step in today when I see someone vulnerable because no one stepped in for me back then.’
At the time, she kept her distress from her parents. They were coping with the sickle cell anaemia suffered by her brother Sean, who later died of the disease when he was just 27. She was fractured by his loss and developed a compulsive eating disorder that saw her enter residential care for three months when she was 30.
‘I was dangerously ill, sitting in the dark, crying, wanting to die, not being able to stop myself eating,’ she recalls. ‘I was in a scary place for quite some time.’ She talks about it openly today because, she says, ‘So much shame goes hand in hand with an eating disorder, with addiction of any kind. It’s very lonely because you don’t know how to talk to anybody. I didn’t know I had an eating disorder, I just thought I was disgusting. Whenever I talk about it now I am still inundated with people saying, “I thought it was just me.”’
She still considers herself to be in recovery and has weekly therapy when her work schedule permits. It sounds as though her extended trip to Antigua researching The Pepperpot Diaries had a therapeutic element too – certainly it sated a hunger and was nourishing in more than just the culinary sense. Andi’s parents arrived in the UK from the Caribbean in their early twenties and she was born here, in touch with her island roots but not deeply familiar with them until her recent trip.
‘I love having a bald head but also sometimes it gets a bit boring’
‘It was so gladdening to feel connected to the island and my heritage in a strong, clear way,’ she says. ‘It was good to explore who I am as a black British woman of Antiguan heritage, and what that means to me as a cook.’
Andi’s parents divorced when she was 15. She says her late father was ‘a terrible dad though great in the kitchen, really flamboyant’. Her mother Maria is now 86 and lives with Andi and Garfield, 55. ‘She is very independent, impressive, she has her trainers and a little backpack and most days she’s just gone,’ says Andi fondly.
They live in east London, 20 minutes from Miquita. They’re mulling over a move to East Sussex when the cost-of-living squeeze stabilises and I wonder if she won’t miss her daughter. ‘I am nearly 60, she is nearly 40, we need to get a grip,’ she guffaws. Andi and Garfield, a cultural curator, have been together since Miquita was 11 but have never married. Even the prospect of another great dress, a wedding dress, isn’t enough to change Andi’s mind – ‘I can wear a great dress just on a Tuesday to go down the shops,’ she points out. ‘Garfield would like to get married. I, on the other hand, not so much.’ So it’s an open offer? ‘I haven’t checked. He may have rescinded it!’
So for now she’s going to stick to shopping for more glasses, fans and everyday frocks, though she might grow her hair soon so she can have traditional Caribbean canerows. ‘I love having a bald head but also sometimes it gets a bit boring – you look in the mirror and think, “Hmm. This. Again.”’
Frankly though, there’s nothing boring about Andi Oliver, whose 60th year is set to be as well seasoned and just as celebratory as, well, a Caribbean pepperpot.
The Pepperpot Diaries: Stories From My Caribbean Table by Andi Oliver (DK, £27) is out on 27 April.
This article first appeared in the May 2023 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine for just £5 today.