Big Zuu is fully aware it’s “not normal” for someone like him to be fronting a major food travelogue show.
The genre has historically been dominated by a certain type of presenter, but with his latest show, Zuu is on a mission to “change what I think a travel show should be like for someone like myself”.
Big Zuu’s 12 Dishes In 12 Hours sees the rapper, cook and presenter – real name Zuhair Hassan – travel to various cities with celebrity friends, sampling 12 local dishes in 12 hours.
Zuu, 28, brings his signature wit and bubbly personality to proceedings, as well as providing a perspective we don’t always see in travelogue shows.
He wanted to make it clear that “food is not just about what’s linked to the history and culture of a place, it’s also about the now.
“I feel like now more than ever we’re seeing people embrace the fact that different cultures are in their country. What was super sick was in the first episode, we went to Bologna and we got to talk about Ethiopian food.
“And a clip [of that] went crazy on the internet, people actually went mental. If you watch that clip, you wouldn’t even know we’re in Italy, you’d just think we’re in a random Ethiopian restaurant – but Italy has such a connection to Ethiopia because of colonisation.”
While Zuu is doing things his way, he’s still inspired by those who have come before – mentioning shows fronted by the likes of Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.
“Watching all the greats of British television do it gave me the inspiration to do it myself,” he says.
“But I just felt in terms of representation of people like me, young people from the hood – you don’t really see it. So it was sick to kind of be the first person for my generation to do something like that.
“People might feel like, oh yeah, Big Zuu – he’s been doing food stuff for years, so it’s normal. But it’s actually not normal to be part of a travel show on primetime TV.”
In 12 Dishes In 12 Hours, Zuu eats his way around cities like Bologna, Nicosia, Amsterdam and even his hometown, London – but he says Cyprus was his favourite.
“I always knew that Cyprus had good food, and being Lebanese we have that connection. But I wasn’t ready for the amount of good food they had – everything, the kebabs, the bread, the bakeries. Super fresh, super flavoursome.”
He also pushed himself out of his comfort zone – particularly thinking of the pickled herring he sampled in Amsterdam.
Bubbly and enthusiastic, you’d think Zuu liked everything he tried – but not quite. “We had cake in Bologna, certosino or something like that. It’s like a traditional Christmas cake they have out there – it just wasn’t nice. It was very dry,” he says, without mincing his words at all: “It was quite butters.”
But Bologna certainly wasn’t all bad – particularly as Zuu was joined by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 star Will Poulter, who has a bit of experience in the food world after his cameo in Hulu show, The Bear, as pastry chef Luca.
The two ate spaghetti bolognese for breakfast, tried some aged Parmesan and sampled a whole lot of gelato – and Zuu was impressed by the way Poulter spoke about food.
“I knew – especially from working on The Bear, even though he wasn’t in it for a very long time – I knew that he had some experience doing stuff in the kitchen. So for me, Will had that excellence when it came to getting his point across in a small amount of words and making you feel the emotion that he felt when he ate the food.”
The hardest thing for Zuu was actually managing to eat 12 whole dishes in 12 hours.
“I was so full. It was so tough – it wasn’t easy,” he admits. “I thought, 12 hours is not a big problem – bruh! I was done [by the end of it]. I was so done to the point of like, I started feeling sorry for myself.”
He adds with an explosive laugh: “It’s funny, because a lot of people are like, oh you’ve got the best job in the world. I definitely do, but it’s not easy… I always think of the guy from Man v. Food, and I’m like – how did he do it for all those years? He’s a very mentally strong person.”
Zuu keeps things light on camera, but he’s always got the bigger picture in mind – particularly when he thinks about how he’s pushing forward representation in the food TV space.
“Sometimes naturally, it can be a little bit overwhelming and it can feel like I’ve got a lot on my shoulders,” he says.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t make a mistake. But that’s part of the game and that’s part of what I signed up for – and I’m very happy to lead the charge when it comes to food television in terms of new things as well… I’m proud to be part of this new wave of creators.”
Big Zuu’s 12 Dishes In 12 Hours continues on ITV1/ITVX on Saturdays at 10pm.