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Cooking the books

Chris Baber: ‘If people don’t know about northeast delicacies like panacalty, it’ll die out’

The popular Instagram cook talks to Prudence Wade about learning to cook from TV shows – then being on one himself – and why food from the northeast is best

Wednesday 13 April 2022 08:30 BST

Growing up in the northeast of England, 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.”

Baber 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”.

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.” 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. 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 161,000 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 (published by Ebury Press, £16.99; photography by Haarala Hamilton), is available now

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