Food & Drink

Big Zuu on food poverty, representation on TV and respect for black cuisines

Big Zuu says too many people are missing out on good food (Simon Jacobs and PinPep/PA)
Big Zuu says too many people are missing out on good food (Simon Jacobs and PinPep/PA)

“There was a lot of old stew in my fridge at home,” says larger-than-life chef and TV personality Big Zuu, who is slouched in an office chair, unhurried, and matter-of-factly explaining the type of food he would find in his kitchen, while growing up in a single-parent West African home on Mozart Estate in west London.

“I’m from Sierra Leone [and Lebanon] so it will be the rice and stew that was made three days ago, and maybe something in the freezer from a week ago. There were a lot of tins in the cupboard, too.

“My mum tried, we’ll have fruit as well. So much fruit. I think it’s what my mum spent most of her money on. She loves fruit. I used to wish we had juice in the fridge, and would get excited whenever we did. But it was mostly water from old bottles filled up with tap water.”

Around the age of nine, the 27-year-old’s mum fell pregnant with his younger brother, at the time when Zuu was also battling with preadolescent boredom. “I noticed she would get very tired at times and offered to start cooking to help her out, starting with breakfast.”

Big Zuu
Big Zuu learnt how to cook at school (Simon Jacobs and PinPep/PA) (Simon Jacobs, Simon Jacobs/PinPep/Simon Jacobs/PinPep)

When he went to secondary school and had food tech lessons, where he learnt how to make things such as roux and tomato sauce, “that elevated my cooking from something fun to something that I actually love”.

Zuu – real name Zuhair Hassan – knows he was “really lucky” to have a kitchen in his school, and how important it is for food technology to still be a part of the curriculum. “If I never had that kitchen, if I never had food tech, and never learnt how to cook those things, I just might not be doing what I do now,” he admits.

For example, his BAFTA award-winning comedy cooking show called Big Zuu’s Big Eats, which will be back again soon for series four with eight new guests, was created with his two friends Tubsey and Hyder, who also attended his secondary school.

“We need more of this representation on screen, to inspire more people to get into cooking,” says Zuu. “We don’t cook crazy dishes on our show, or tell people they need truffle and a specific olive oil that was imported from Italy. If you don’t have truffles, use seasoning. If you don’t have all the seasoning, use a Maggi or stock cube. If you don’t have olive oil, use any oil.”

Speaking of the representation of black chefs on TV got Zuu also thinking about the representation of black cuisines in Britain. “The narrative is definitely changing, especially with more African restaurants like Enish being opened on Oxford Street. It’s about respecting people’s backgrounds and not looking at their food and saying ‘eww’.

“I remember people used to laugh at me for eating fufu and dried fish, and said my house smells like ogiri [a flavouring made of fermented oil seeds, such as sesame seeds or egusi seeds]. But these are the things that make our food amazing.

“Someone has even asked me why I eat meat and fish together, but I put the question back to them and asked why they eat surf and turf,” the ex-youth worker goes on to say. “Isn’t that lobster and steak? Why isn’t that weird? Let’s start respecting black chefs and black cuisines more. I think social media is a powerful tool that is already helping to break down these stereotypes and misconceptions.”

We’re at The SPACE, a west London charity, co-founded by CEO Samia Badani, set up in 2018 after the Grenfell Tower fire, to provide the local community with food, basic essentials, baby items and equipment. It’s where Zuu is filming his new campaign with KFC and FareShare, the UK’s leading food redistribution charity.

Big Zuu and community chefs
Big Zuu is joining other chefs to campaign against hunger (Simon Jacobs and PinPep/PA) (Simon Jacobs, Simon Jacobs/PinPep/Simon Jacobs/PinPep)

He’ll be cooking fried rice, jalapeno coleslaw and KFC fried chicken, with two community kitchen chefs, Zahra Sul and Anthony Julius, after our conversation. It’s for a video to crowdsource the nation’s favourite chicken recipes to inspire community kitchen chefs with new ways of cooking meals that incorporate fried chicken, provided by KFC, for people going hungry this summer.

The British grime artist will be picking 10 of the best recipes from the public to be rolled out across the country.

According to new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), between February and May this year, cases of food poverty have increased, with 5% of adults saying they have run out of food and have been unable to afford more, due to the cost-of-living crisis.

“It shouldn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or what you’re going through – everyone deserves access to food. It isn’t only about sustenance; it brings people together. But right now, too many people are missing out on the joy of a good meal, because of circumstances beyond their control. It’s not right – and that’s what this campaign wants to change.

Fried rice and KFC chicken
A fried chicken dish created by Big Zuu (Simon Jacobs and PinPep/PA) (Simon Jacobs, Simon Jacobs/PinPep/Simon Jacobs/PinPep)

“I come from a working-class background and have experienced food poverty myself – even though I didn’t know it at the time – so I understand. Food poverty isn’t just about how much you eat, it’s about what you eat. And people eat every day. They need to eat, it’s part of surviving.”

The relationship Zuu has with food has improved and that’s reflected in what he now keeps in his fridge.

“I like to use things that coincide,” he says. “So I have my base ingredients, the stuff that you can use for different types of recipes. I love a lot of spring onions, coriander, red chilli – those are the main foods you will find in my fridge, because they go with everything. You can make Mexican food, Caribbean food, Italian food, Thai food, you can even just sprinkle it on top of your food at the end. You can make anything.

“But something that’s always in my fridge is fruit, like my mum. Basically, we’re the same. I love fruit salad and make it every day.”

Big Zuu has teamed up with FareShare and KFC to call upon the public to share their favourite chicken recipes on Instagram, TikTok or Twitter using the hashtag #DishUp and tagging @KFC_UKI. The competition closes September 3, 2023 and 10 winning recipe contributors will be invited to cook their recipes with Big Zuu in a local community kitchen.