Hardeep’s perfect serving of culinary comedy and adventure

Food, football, scientology and growing up as the child of Indian immigrants in Glasgow – entertainments writer Wayne Savage talks to Hardeep Singh Kohli

AT least there’s one Scotsman who’ll be sad that England are out of the World Cup.

We were still a nation full of hope when I caught up with Glaswegian-raised broadcaster, raconteur, writer, cook and massive Arsenal fan Hardeep Singh Kohli.

“I’m very excited about the Germany game,” he says, neither of us knowing the disappointment around the corner.

“I think it shows the maturity of the Scottish nation now that we can wish the English well. I’m not one of those Scots that wants England to lose, I’d like them to do well; but I have a problem with English media reporting the football with an expectation the team’s going to win with every World Cup it goes to. I think if they get beyond the quarter finals they’ve done well.”

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The Celebrity Masterchef runner-up is heading to the region with an extended two-course version of his hit 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival show The Nearly Naked Chef, combining his culinary and comedic skills in an evening of anecdotes and inventive cuisine.

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“I cook a starter and a main in the first half just sort of explain how I’ve ended up on stage cooking food and tell stories about growing up, my love of food, stories about Masterchef; that sort of thing.”

His success on the BBC show led to two series for UKTV Food, New British Kitchen and Chefs and the City. He’s the author of the Independent Book Award nominated Indian Takeaway and has written about food for Olive, Observer Food Monthly, The Spectator, The Times, The Sunday Times and various other publications.

“Food has been my primary passion the whole of my life really and it’s lovely to share that with the public. It’s been present ever since I can remember, but I thinking doing the first series of Celebrity Masterchef really took it on to another level and it just keeps snowballing.”

What he cooks on the night depends on the audience, who are asked to e-mail ingredient suggestions to the theatre or Hardeep’s website when booking tickets. He then hits the local shops on the day.

“People have suggested impractical things like kangaroo, which you just can’t get hold of; but I cooked a strawberry salsa with some pan-fried mackerel once which surprised everyone because it tasted alright,” he laughs, seemingly surprised by his own talents.

“I’m forever playing with food, trying new things. It would be easier if I cooked the same thing every night but it would be really boring for me and I think the audience enjoy that sense of adventure each night.”

His modest upbringing and learning to cook with his mum are key ingredients not just in the show, but obviously in what’s made him the man he is.

“When you’re a child and an immigrant food’s really important because it’s a link to your parents’ homeland and it was the only thing growing up in Glasgow in the 70s that you didn’t get a hard time for. It wasn’t cool to be brown ordinarily, so it was something I latched on to.”

He says that, in a sense, food talks about both sides of his heritage.

“In the day time I’d be having Scottish food at school and Indian food every night. I think people are really open to different types of food now; when I was waiting tables in Indian restaurants there’d always be a steak and chips or omelette and chips delivered to a table of eight, now people are experimenting and looking for different curries.

“A mate of mine’s biggest complaint is that whenever he goes to a restaurant he never orders a thing he likes because he wants to try other things. It has become such a mainstay of British culture. It’s quite an incredible phenomenon, I can’t think of another country in the world that’s adopted a cuisine quite the way the British have adopted Indian food.”

So, does cooking really not get harder than Masterchef?

“It was the most joyous experience of my life, I’ve only just managed to start watching the show again after years because I got very upset that I wasn’t still doing it,” he says.

“Cooking, meeting amazing people like the Roux brothers for example, cooking at La Gavroche. If you imagine, some people spend the whole of their life wanting to eat there and I’ve cooked there. You cook in amazing places and I’ve got a lot of chef friends now like Gordon Ramsay, Angela Hartnett, Jamie Oliver - I get invited to restaurants and seldom have to pay now,” he jokes.

Food has opened many doors for the Question Time, This Week and Newsnight Review contributor.

Hardeep’s in demand as an after dinner speaker and awards host and has recently branched out into business and motivational speaking - including a new project he’s devised to foster team-building through cooking.

“I thought there’s no hierarchy in cooking, the editor of your newspaper wouldn’t be miffed if the office junior was a better cook than him. If you can bring teams together, make them relate in a different way through food it’s a great leveller. If you’ve got your sleeves rolled up and you’re chopping onions with somebody you get to know them better.”

TV has been a big part of Hardeep’s career. He wrote and presented the BAFTA award-winning In Search of the Tartan Turban for Channel 4 which led to the critically-acclaimed and award-winning Hardeep Does... for the same channel.

He also wrote and presented the seminal three-part gambling series 50 says you’ll watch this and presented a ground-breaking documentary about scientology, The Beginners Guide To L.Ron Hubbard.

What does he make of the philosophy cum religion?

“There’s a church of scientology which is almost like a multi-national corporation, that has decided to interpret scientology in a way to suit its purposes.

“What’s so interesting about looking at scientology is the philosophy, whether you believe or find it risible or not, ultimately the function of religion is to improve the quality of people’s lives on this earth.

“I’ve met people in the free zone, the non-scientology part of scientology, who find Hubbard’s writings and his work incredibly helpful; I’ve seen how it’s improved the quality of their lives. Therefore it’s disingenuous and churlish to belittle that,” he stresses.

“Much as it’s disingenuous and churlish to belittle Islam that’s improving the quality of people’s lives, but there again there’s a definite dichotomy between fundamental militant Islam and most of the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world who are kind, peace-loving, charitable generous people,

“The great irony about Afghanistan and Iraq is there’re wars going on there, but equally you will be shown no greater hospitality anywhere else in the world than you’ll be shown in those countries. What I ultimately discovered about scientology is if it makes you happy who am I to say don’t do it?”

Talk of the Middle East brings us back on to the topic of food and Hardeep’s desire to head out and taste its riches.

“I’d love to go look at the food out there, I’m obsessed with Persian food. A friend of mine has just gone over to Iran to make a food programme and they’re over the moon somebody wants to come and not talk about fundamentalism and nuclear weapons,” he adds.

“I think the great thing about food is if you understand the food of a culture you understand the people. You will never go penniless in Kabul, you will never go hungry; someone will always look after you because that’s the sort of people they are.

“There’s a code of hospitality in Afghanistan that puts the West to shame in many ways, so I’d love to go over there and try a different angle. I think they’re defined by the conflict, it’s an incredible country and shame we don’t see those parts of it.”

As a journalist, his column in Scotland on Sunday - Hardeep Is Your Love - has seen him nominated twice for Scottish Columnist of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards and he is also contributing editor on the Spectator Magazine, has written for the Independent on Sunday, The Times, Observer Woman and Conde Nast Traveller to name but a few.

Having started his broadcasting career in radio he still holds the wireless very dear, presenting extensively across Radio 4 from primetime slots like Midweek, Saturday Live to The Food Programme.

He has made a wealth of documentaries for Radio 4 on subjects as diverse as the Partitioning of India and Great British Rivers to tight-rope walking. He’s also made documentaries for Radio 2 and 3 and presented across Radio 5 Live.

Until recently, he was probably best known for his work on The One Show. Hardeep was part of the original team on the highly successful BBC1 programme, reporting the length and breadth of the country on all manner of stories.

With Adrian Chiles having joined ITV and now Christine Bleakley joining GMTV could the gang be reunited?

“I had a lovely time on the show. Adrian, Christine and me felt like part of a family, obviously I’ve started doing a bit of work for GMTV and I hope to do a bit more so we might get back together again. The show’s been a big part of my journey but it was always the beginning,” he says.

Hardeep Singh Kohli - The Nearly Naked Chef will be at the Ipswich Corn Exchange on July 7 as part of Ip-art 2010 and the Cambridge Comedy Festival on July 11.

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