Backstage at Ready Steady Cook with Tony Tobin

PUBLISHED: 21:06 14 May 2012 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013

Ainsley Harriott and Tony Tobin enjoying Surrey Life in the Ready Steady Cook kitchen

Ainsley Harriott and Tony Tobin enjoying Surrey Life in the Ready Steady Cook kitchen

In a special edition of his popular column, resident celebrity chef Tony Tobin takes us backstage at the BBC's hit TV show, Ready Steady Cook, on which he has been appearing for over a decade, revealing a few of the show's secrets along the way

This month, I thought I would take Surrey Life readers behind the scenes at RSC - and I'm not talking about the Royal Shakespeare Company. No, it's far more dramatic than that! I'm talking, of course, about the BBC's Ready Steady Cook.

I first appeared on RSC when I was 29. I had recently been appointed head chef at the Dining Room in Reigate and my chance came when I struck up conversation with a fellow guest at a wedding who obviously knew his food and restaurants inside out. He turned out to own the company that produces RSC and asked me if I'd be interested in having a go. When I said yes, he asked me when he could turn up at the Dining Room with a bag of surprise ingredients to put me to the test! Luckily, it wasn't a difficult bag; I kept my cool and chatted away, he was impressed and nearly 13 years later I'm still there.

Now, there are two questions that everyone who watches the show wants to know: 1) Is it really a surprise when you open the ingredients bag or are you told beforehand? And 2) Is Ainsley really that nice? Both are easy.

First, none of the chefs on the programme have any idea what is in the bag - and if I had a pound for every time I've been asked that question then there would be many more Tony Tobin restaurants out there! It is a genuine challenge. Personally, I always long for fish when I open it because the RSC kitchens have plenty of oils and dressing ingredients that can be used to tart up a piece of fish. It is also one of the quickest ingredients to prepare. To get technical for a second, the reason it can be cooked much faster than meat is that it contains no elastins. As a result, you only have to cook fish long enough to 'set' the proteins rather than to tenderise it, as you do with any other meat. So if you're doing a dinner party and know you'll be pressed for time, pan-fry some fish. Easy.

Second, Ainsley really is one of the nicest blokes you could ever hope to meet. He is exactly as he appears and he took me under his wing when I was a newbie on RSC for which I'll always be grateful. I've learned lots about food and cooking from him but the most important thing he taught me early on was how to talk and cook at the same time. Sounds silly but lots of great chefs just can't do TV because they need to concentrate to produce great food. To hold an audience while chopping, frying, mixing and mashing takes a bit of practice but it's also something wannabe chefs need to do well at dinner parties. No-one has a really great evening when the chef is silent putting together his magnum opus! Better to go for something simpler and chat with your guests.

Finally, before moving on to this month's reader question, I have to say that RSC may look friendly - and all the chefs are great friends - but deep down each of us really really wants to win. There's no silver medal in competitive cooking so if you ever see me crack a smile when I haven't won, it doesn't go very deep.

So, this month's Surrey Life reader question comes from R Giles of Reigate, who says: "We have an ongoing dispute in our household over whether you can eat the skin of aubergines or whether it is poisonous - can you advise? Also, do you have any ideas for a nice recipe using aubergines?" The easy answers are no and yes! Aubergine skins aren't poisonous but, to be edible, aubergines have to be cooked well. Chefs love them for the deep purple colour but there is no 'flash in the pan' cooking technique for an aubergine. Give them plenty of baking, frying or stewing time or you may find it's your last dinner party. My favourite aubergine recipe is a Turkish dish called Imam Biyaldi. To make it, cut four medium onions into thin slices, brown them in olive oil with four cloves of peeled garlic. Add two large chopped tomatoes and cook on medium heat until the onions are done. Then slice four medium aubergines in half length-ways. Put the slices into a separate pan with some oil and fry on a medium heat until lightly browned. Arrange them side by side in a baking dish. Slice a cut in the middle and insert a filling (spicy lamb works well) into each half-aubergine and top this with slices of a green pepper. Sprinkle salt and sugar on top. Then add a little water on top of the filling until it just covers it and starts to soak in. Place in a hot oven uncovered until cooked, then remove the dish and let it cool a little before serving. Delicious!

  • Tony Tobin has been a regular on the BBC's Ready Steady Cook for over a decade, competing on the show over 200 times. He has also hosted shows for the Carlton Food Channel and is a favourite at major events such as The Ideal Home Show. He runs two acclaimed restaurants in Surrey: The Dining Room in Reigate and POST in Banstead.

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