Food: Chris Baber on learning to cook from TV and why Northeast food is the best

The popular Instagram cook talks to Prudence Wade about her debut book, Easy.

Growing up in the North East of England, Chris Baber was always obsessed with food – but he never thought he could make a career out of it.

“I don’t come from a big foodie family,” he admits. “We had good homemade food, but it was by no means MasterChef – it was spag bol, cottage pie, roast dinners – the classics.”

Baber has fond memories of food, especially going to his grandpa’s on weekends. He remembers being in the kitchen with him – “and I guarantee you there would be music, he would have a great time cooking, dancing, enjoying it. I could see he was enjoying the process, and I loved being a part of it. I could see how satisfied he was serving us as a family,” adds Baber.

But his food education does not come from his family. As Baber explains, “I was self-taught, through what I gathered on TV – I’d come home from school and watch stuff like Ready Steady Cook, I was obsessed with cooking shows. I saw things and after watching, go into the kitchen and experiment” – and it “naturally evolved” for Baber to learn to cook.

A lifelong fan of cooking shows, Baber quickly found himself on one – BBC One’s Yes Chef, which he won in 2016. He calls it a “surreal” experience – and one who was a long way from his life in Hexham, Northumberland – but adds that “once I started it felt like I finally found what I love to do”.

It was then that his life completely changed. His foodie hero, Atul Kochhar, was a judge on the show and invited Baber to come to London and work in the kitchen at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Benares. Looking back, he says it was “absolutely crazy, but the most amazing experience”.

And as a home cook, it was a real trial by fire. “I’ve probably never worked so hard, but I’ve probably never learned so much in such a short time,” admits Baber.

His future, however, was not in professional kitchens. Instead, Baber wanted to translate what he had learned into simple tips and tricks for people at home – and he did so in his first cookbook, Easy.

Throughout the book you’ll find the odd recipe from the North East 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’s delicious and easy to prepare,” says Baber. “There’s so much food out there, and we’re lucky to have access to the most amazing ingredients from around the world, which is fantastic. But I also think there are recipes like panacalty – that’s is a Northeastern delicacy – if people aren’t not making it, I feel like some of these recipes may end up dying out.

“It’s something I grew up with and have fond memories of eating it,” he adds. “And I have the opportunity here to share it with people who aren’t just in the northeast, and to shed some new light on this dish.”

Baber thinks outsiders might think northeast food is “cheap and basic – but in fact, I’d say it’s wholesome, hearty food that’s designed to fill people up and keep you satisfied, but with tons of flavor and not much noise”.

Many of these delicacies have been passed down through working-class families, and they “offer taste — but also ease and cost,” he notes.

And Baber certainly seems to be onto something – celebrities such as Tom Daley, Alan Carr and Gordon Ramsay are fans, his YouTube videos have had over 4.5 million views and he has some 161,000 Instagram followers.

“When I was younger I thought food was a passion – I will never work in it, or maybe I will lose the passion for it. But I was so wrong – I learned to love it even more when I started working in it.”

And whether it’s cooking a roast for his family or making time for porridge in the morning: “I love food,” says Baber. “It’s one of life’s greatest joys.”

Easy by Chris Baber is published by Ebury Press, priced at £16.99. Photography by Haarala Hamilton. Available now.