It’s all change for the matriarchal umpires on TV cooking shows. Mary Berry’s departure from The Great British Bake Off made headline news; Prue Leith’s subsequent arrival on the show gained similar headlines; and now Andi Oliver, who people will know from Radio 4’s joyous Kitchen Cabinet, has replaced Leith on Great British Menu.
Oliver, 53, is welcoming and expansive. I arrive in her eponymous north London restaurant and am immediately made to feel at home, with a cup of tea, a salted caramel and chocolate cake, and a seat on the bench in the back garden, which is full of flowers, fairy lights and cool-looking people.
She laughs when I ask her why she thinks the BBC selected her to join food critic Matthew Fort and restaurateur Oliver Peyton at the top table. “Well, one of the reasons is because I’m a black woman, and not only that, I’m a middle-aged black woman. So hooray for being a middle aged woman on TV, for a start. But a middle-aged black woman on TV, double hooray!”
And to cynics who might shout tokenism, she has this to say: “I know what I’m talking about. I’m passionate about my subject, so I don’t think it is tokenism. I’m there for a real reason and there for the whole picture. And I’m really happy about that.”
Born and bred in London, Oliver has been cooking all her life. Having her own restaurant is a new venture, but she has been running professional kitchens for years. “I learnt to cook at home, with my mum, auntie and uncles. I’ve been lucky enough to be around very beautiful people who love to create wonderful things. It’s not just cooking, it’s life. An extension of family and conviviality, warmth and welcome. I’m weirdly old-fashioned in that way.”
Andi with fellow Great British Menu judges Oliver Peyton and Matthew Fort
Her food, it has to be said, is not. The menu at Andi’s is hipster to its mashed avocado core.
“Well, I have always eaten things like mashed avocados,” she snorts. “Maybe everyone else has just caught up! My family are from Antigua and out there, we eat a lot of avocados, with salt fish and soused pork and plantain. There is some sort of hip crossover, I will give you that, but perhaps it’s because the time is right! My menu is full of things that I want to eat myself.”
She is definitely not a fan of the “clean eating” trend. “I hate the whole notion of it, because food is not dirty. The implication that half the time what you are doing is some dirty, shameful thing is quite damaging. I think eating healthily and nourishing your body is a brilliant thing and teaching young people how to eat well and enjoy it is good.”
She is a big fan of 2013 Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh, who made headlines recently after criticising chefs like Tom Kerridge and Jamie Oliver for cashing in on clean eating. “People struggle with their weight, and I understand why they latch on to certain ideas. I feel fabulous, but I understand why people reach for things that they think are going to help them finally crack the all-encompassing weight issue. I just don’t think that living in some Spartan way is a good way forward.”
Oliver has not always been a chef. She’s also been a pop star. When she was 17 she and 80s pop icon Neneh Cherry were in a band together, Rip Rig and Panic, which fused free jazz with a post-punk, funky sound. Something that not even the omni-tasking Prue Leith can boast about. “We had the best time, Neneh and I. We didn’t really care what the industry thought. It was a sort of free, really expressive and amazing thing to have been involved with at a young age, because it taught me freedom of spirit.”
At the age of 20 she had her daughter Miquita (below), who presented Popworld with Simon Amstell and is now working on a film idea with her mum. And something with “Grimmy”. Who is that, I ask, idiotically. “Nick Grimshaw from Radio 1,” says Oliver, kindly. Of course it is.
Andi’s TV presenter daughter Miquita Oliver
Oliver’s steamroller enthusiasm might well have a cathartic effect not only on Great British Menu but also on any middle-aged viewer keen to try something new. “I’m 53 and on a whole new route in my life,” she declares. “I feel like a newborn thing and I think at this age, a lot of people expect the opposite. I think it’s luck, but also it’s passion. If you give everything you have got, you will find a way through. I have never trained for anything.”
Even so, this is prime-time BBC2, which is quite a different spring-board from Radio 4. “I was over the moon to be asked. I felt nervous, but when I walked in and sat down with Oliver and Matthew, it was like a dream. They are so lovely! Matthew is so posh! Oliver is so kind, too, and they have both really gone above and beyond.”
Does she think her predecessor has picked up a poisoned chalice over on Channel 4?
“Prue? Not at all. She’s a very clever woman and she will bring her brilliant judgement and humour to whatever she does. Bake Off is going to be wonderful. People will judge it, of course, but quite quickly they will forget about the past and it will do really well.”
This year’s Great British Menu theme is Wimbledon. “Ooh, I’m so excited about it,” says Oliver, who by now I realise is excited about every single minute encompassed by the show. “Tim Henman is on it,” she enthuses. “Tim Henman, PS: hilarious. Who knew? No disrespect, but I thought he was going to be a bit boring, but he is so funny. It was a real surprise.”
Before she goes completely gooey about the former British tennis number one, I ask her about the future. Will her arrival in the BBC mainstream mean a downsizing of her restaurant ambitions? Not at all. She wants to create a chain of Andi’s. “I’m never going to leave my kitchen. It’s my happy place. And I’m used to doing loads of things at one time. I’m quite hyperactive, so it’s good for me to have lots of jobs, because it shuts me up.”
Luckily for now, she has plenty to say as we have another cup of tea, and a laugh.
Great British Menu is on Tuesday – Friday on BBC2