Recipes: Chris Baber on learning to cook from the TV, and why food from the northeast is the best
I was self-taught, through what I was gathering on TV – I'd come in from school and watch stuff like Ready Steady Cook, I was obsessed with cookery shows. I'd see things and after watching, go in the kitchen and experiment
CHRIS BABER was always obsessed with food – but he never thought he'd actually be able to make it into a career.
“I'm not from a massive foodie family,” he admits. “
We had good, home-cooked food, but by no means was it MasterChef – it was spag bol, cottage pie, roast dinners – the classics.”
Naber has fond memories of food, particularly going to his granddad's house on the weekends. He recalls being in the kitchen with him – “and I guarantee there'd be music, he'd be having a good time cooking, dancing, enjoying it. I could see he enjoyed the process, and I loved being part of that. I could see how much satisfaction he got from serving us as a family,” Baber adds.
But his food education didn't come from his family. As Baber explains: “I was self-taught, through what I was gathering on TV – I'd come in from school and watch stuff like Ready Steady Cook, I was obsessed with cookery shows. I'd see things and after watching, go in the kitchen and experiment” – and this “naturally evolved” into Baber learning how to cook.
A long-time fan of cooking shows, Baber soon found himself on one – BBC One's Yes Chef, which he won in 2016. He calls it a “surreal” experience – and one that was very far from his life back in Hexham, Northumberland – but adds that “once I got started, it was like I finally found what it is I love to do”.
This is when his life completely changed. His food hero, Atul Kochhar, was a judge on the show, and invited Baber to come to London and work in the kitchen of his Michelin-starred restaurant, Benares. Looking back now, he says it was “absolutely bonkers, but the most incredible experience”.
And as a home cook, it was a real trial by fire. “I've probably never worked so hard, but I've also probably never learned so much in such a short space of time,” Baber admits.
His future wasn't to be in professional kitchens, however. Instead, Baber wanted to translate what he learned into simple tips and tricks for people at home – and that's what he's done in his debut cookbook, Easy.
Throughout the book, you'll find the odd recipe from the northeast of England, such as singing hinnies (pan-fried scones), or panacalty (a type of corned beef pie).
“It was really important to me – first of all, because it tastes delicious and it's easy to make,” Baber explains. “There's so much food out there, and we're lucky enough to have access to the most amazing ingredients from around the world, which is fantastic. But I also think there are some recipes like panacalty – it's a northeast delicacy – if people aren't making it, I feel like some of these recipes can eventually die out.
“It's something I grew up with and I've got great memories eating it,” he adds. “And I've got an opportunity here to share it with people who aren't just in the northeast, and shed new light on it as a dish.”
Baber muses that outsiders might think food from the northeast is “cheap and basic – but actually, I would say it's wholesome, hearty food that is designed to fill people up and satisfy you, but with tonnes of flavour and not much fuss”.
Many of these delicacies have been passed down in working-class families, and they “deliver on taste – but also ease and cost as well”, he notes.
And Baber certainly seems to be onto something – celebrities including Tom Daley, Alan Carr and Gordon Ramsay are fans, his YouTube videos have been viewed over 4.5 million times, and he has some 161k Instagram followers.
“When I was younger, I thought food's a passion – I'll never work in it, or maybe I'll lose the passion for it. But I was so wrong – I just grew to love it even more as I began to work in it.”
And whether it's cooking a roast for his family or taking the time to make porridge for himself in the morning: “I just love food,” says Baber. “It's one of the greatest joys in life.”
Easy by Chris Baber is published by Ebury Press, priced £16.99. Photography by Haarala Hamilton. Available now. Below are three recipes for you to try at home...
FIVE-SPICE HOISIN DUCK AND RICE BOWLS
2tbsp dark soy sauce
2 duck breasts
2tsp Chinese five-spice
250g jasmine rice
½ cucumber, diced
4 spring onions, finely chopped
2tsp toasted sesame oil
2tbsp hoisin sauce
Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan. In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce and honey to make a glaze. Set aside. Use a sharp knife to score the skin of the duck in a chequerboard pattern. Be careful not to score into the flesh. Pat the duck dry with kitchen paper. Season with salt and evenly coat in the Chinese five-spice. Cook the rice according to the packet instructions. Put the duck into a cold pan, skin-side down. Turn the heat to medium and cook for three to five minutes until the skin is golden and crispy. Turn the duck over. Pour over the glaze to evenly coat the duck. If your pan is ovenproof, transfer it straight into the oven. If it's not, put the duck on a preheated baking tray. Cook for eight to 10 minutes for blushing pink meat or slightly longer for well done. Remove from the oven. Leave to rest for five minutes, then cut into thin slices. Serve on top of the rice with the cucumber and spring onions. Drizzle with the sesame oil and hoisin sauce. Give it all a good mix together before getting stuck in.
PESTO BAKED EGGS
1tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
1 garlic clove, sliced
400g can cherry tomatoes
3tbsp basil pesto
Salt and pepper
Bread, to serve
Heat the oil in a small frying pan over a medium–high heat. Fry the garlic for 30 seconds, then stir in the tomatoes and two tablespoons of the pesto and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium, cover loosely and simmer for eight to 10 minutes until you have a fairly thick sauce. Use a spoon to make two wells in the tomatoes. Crack an egg into each well, cover and cook for about five minutes or until the whites are set and the yolks are still soft. Take off the heat, spoon over the remaining pesto and drizzle with a little more oil. Serve with bread to dip in the egg yolk and sauce.
SUMMER STRAWBERRY AND RASPBERRY CRUMBLE
100g light muscovado or caster sugar
100g ground almonds
175g plain flour
75g cold butter, diced
100g flaked almonds
Clotted cream, to serve
Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan.
Remove the stalks from the strawberries and cut any larger ones in half. Put the strawberries and raspberries into an ovenproof dish. Scatter over one tablespoon of the sugar, then scatter over the ground almonds.
Put the flour and butter into a mixing bowl. Use your fingertips to rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the remaining sugar and flaked almonds.
Scatter the mixture evenly over the fruit.
Bake for 30–35 minutes until lightly golden.
Serve with clotted cream.