Delia Smith on quitting TV, pork pies and why the Pope would be her dream dinner guest

"The one thing I know, probably better than anyone, is that cooking has to be taught."

Congratulations on receiving a Bafta special award. Did it come as a surprise?
Absolutely! I hadn’t realised that people were awarded Baftas when they weren’t in movies but it was a great honour and a great privilege.

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Do you worry that cookery shows like MasterChef intimidate rather than inspire?
Yes, I would never be a judge on that. They used to ask me but I could never criticise people: my job is to make them feel they can do it.

Which TV cooks have taken up your mantle?
The Hairy Bikers. They make it funny and yet they make you think: “I’d like to make that”. That’s very clever.

You’ve criticised modern food programmes for entertaining more than they educate. Why?
Food isn’t theatre and to make it into theatre is wrong. It can speak for itself and it’s wonderful and it’s beautiful and it’s art – it’s everything. I don’t think it needs that kind of embellishment. Our problem is we don’t think highly enough of it, and so we think we’ve got to wrap it up in all kinds of other things.

What was it like filming your first series – Family Fare – in 1973?
They asked me to film it in the weather studio, which was tiny. The nearest running water was the ladies’ loo so we used to fill two buckets with water – one with soap, one for rinsing – and have them under the counter where I worked. They didn’t have the money for editing so I had to do 25 minutes 40 seconds all in one go; if I made a mistake I had to start at the top. And they didn’t do any close-ups because my hands were shaking too much.

How does the standard of cooking in Britain today compare to when you started your career?
We’ve lost our grip on home cooking. I can see that by the way kitchen equipment shops are in decline. There are a lot of shortcuts but the main problem is that people are afraid to cook.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
A pork pie that’s really fresh is a gorgeous treat, and I can eat it like an apple as I drive along.

Has the Bafta changed your mind about retiring from TV?
No. Thank God it’s over. I couldn’t do it again. Not at my age.

So why have you started an online cookery school?
My ambition is that it will help young people and families, because nobody teaches people how to cook any more. The one thing I know, probably better than anyone, is that cooking has to be taught. You can’t just open a book, go into a kitchen; you’ve got to have some lessons.

But there’s no shortage of chefs demonstrating their trade on television…
Everybody now knows about food from around the world and what chefs do; but not everybody knows how to make an omelette. What is missing is the basics. There’s where I come in, you see; that’s what I want to try and do: fill that gap.

You’re 71 now, do you think you’ll ever fully retire?
Definitely. I’m running out of steam, but what keeps me going is that nobody else is doing it. Once it’s all online, it’ll be there forever, so I won’t feel that people are not getting the help they need any more.

What if the BBC came knocking at your door tomorrow…
I’d say: I’ll sell you what I’m doing. You can buy it and broadcast it in a five-minute slot. Why not?

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
The Pope. I would like to ask him a few questions.


QUICKFIRE Q&A

  1. Mrs Beeton or Elzabeth David? Elizabeth David
  2. Fanny Cradock or Galloping Gourmet? Neither. Food isn’t theatre.
  3. Gordon Ramsey or Heston Blumenthal? Simon Hopkinson. He’s not really a chef, he’s a cook.
  4. Masterchef or Bake Off? Bake Off
  5. Radio 2 or Radio 4? Radio 4. I love listening to the radio while I cook.

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Find Delia’s collection of online tutorials at www.deliaonline.com/how-to-cook