Food & Drink Andi Oliver interview: 'My dad was a terrible father...

Andi Oliver interview: 'My dad was a terrible father but really good at throwing parties'

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“It [a party] really is a direct artery back to the world. I think the easiest way to cure what ails you is other people.”

We lost “the habit of being together” during the pandemic, she says. “On Saturday everyone kept going, ‘Oh, it’s like medicine, we really needed this’”

That instinct to get people together over good food and good music is the inspiration behind her latest TV series. Andi Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts, an eight-part series for BBC Two, which starts on March 27, sees Oliver travel all over the country creating pop-up parties for communities in need of a boost. On a long table on a Cornish beach, Oliver serves dinner to 80 members of NHS staff from the local hospital; in a Bristol homeless village, she cooks up a feast for people living in temporary accommodation.

Andi Oliver makes green seasoning with Ben Arthur from Rock Jam Spice in the Cornish episode of Andi Oliver's Fabulous Feasts

For each of the feasts she plans a menu using ingredients that champion the food heritage of the area. She recruits local chefs and growers for the food, musicians and artists for the entertainment, and builds a party from scratch. It’s good old-fashioned uplifting TV bolstered by Oliver’s trademark easy warmth. As fans of the Great British Menu will know, she has a kind of natural charisma and an infectious love of food and people. Making the programme, she says, and meeting people making a difference in their communities, has given her a great deal of “hope”. “I feel so hopeful about all of us,” she says. People are quick to moan about the state of the world, but forget “they have power”. “We have power in our lives to change even just our own corner.”

Oliver has displayed a natural charisma and an infectious love of food and people during her appearances on the Great British Menu

On her travels across the country, she discovered community wherever she went. For one episode, she went back to Ladbroke Grove, where she lived with her daughter, the TV presenter Miquita Oliver, 39, at a very different time in her life, when she was a young single parent.

Going back, she found the area to be “unrecognisable”. “It used to be a really warm, deeply groovy place to be, and it’s just really not like that any more,” says Oliver, who despairs of the way people live in silos these days. “When people say they don’t know their neighbours, they never speak to them, I’m like – how?”

Still, she found people striving to maintain a sense of togetherness. “There’s this Italian family doing this beautiful thing. They do a Sunday lunch every week for people who are vulnerable, people who have no money, who have lost community. It was really a great comfort for me to know that there is still a community alive and well, underneath all the shiny stuff.”

She had Miquita, with whom she hosts the popular podcast Stirring It Up, at 20. Back then, she would turn a simple dinner at home into an event by throwing a piece of fabric on the floor and creating a spontaneous party just for the two of them. “I didn’t have money to take us out so we would do things like have a nighttime indoor picnic,” she says, recalling how she would lay out a kids’ tea set and rent a video from Blockbuster.

Andi Oliver with her daughter and fellow podcast presenter Miquita, on Lorraine

When they were approached to make a podcast together, the mother-daughter team knew it would only work if, as Miquita put it, they just did “what we’ve always done – have people over for dinner and have a nice drink and talk about life and love and joy and sadness and death and everything in between”.

Each episode, a guest (so far they’ve entertained everyone from former England goalkeeper David Seaman to actress Kathy Burke) comes over for dinner and a chat. They’re even allowed to bring someone with them. “Miquita put that in because she said people always turn up with somebody else.” The episodes leave you hankering after an invite to the Olivers.

Miquita, who first found fame at 16 when she became a presenter of Popworldwith Simon Amstell, has spoken about being lulled to sleep as a child by the sound of a raucous family party; Oliver has similar childhood memories. Her parents were from Antigua and her father served in the RAF. “My dad, who was a terrible father, was really good at throwing parties,” she says. “Wherever we lived he would be throwing parties. […] I grew up with that sound and with that energy. I always knew if that sound was in the house we were good.”

In episode one of the new show, Oliver speaks with volunteers from Community Roots, a communal garden in Truro

She counts among her most notable parties the time she and her friend Cherry spit-roasted a goat on Cherry’s New York rooftop for a Nigerian king, and the time they made pizzas for Ian Dury. That particular meal, incidentally, features highly in her list of dinner party disasters. “We decided we were making a wholemeal pizza. I mean why? It was actually disgusting. It was like a brick. Really hideous, probably a bit raw in the middle. When we talk about it we’re like what happened there? And bless him, he ate it.” 

The wholemeal pizza debacle speaks to one of Oliver’s core hosting tenets: do yourself a favour and cook everything in advance. “The most important thing is to give yourself time to make the food. Even if it’s only four people coming, still do it the day before, because then you can luxuriate in all your extra time and have a cocktail.”

She favours generous one-pot dishes that people can dive into. “I like the idea of this regal moment in the centre of the table where you bring the stew down. Stew is not the sexiest word but to me it’s one of the best things to eat in the word. All the different types of stews and curries and bubbling pots of deliciousness that there are all over the world.”

'Do yourself a favour and cook everything in advance,' advises Oliver

If the weather permits and you’re barbecuing, get everything “roasted off” the day before, she advises. “Then just glaze it up and finish it off. Make huge piles of salads with loads of roasted roots and gorgeous summer vegetables. Dress them with wonderful things, pile it all up and then bring that to the centre of the table.”

The key, she says, is picking dishes that “aren’t going to give you a massive headache”. And don’t bend to the pressure to cook everything from scratch. Shortcuts are key. “You feel like ‘I’ve got to make a sourdough baguette for the party and I have to make 24’. No. Buy the baguettes.”

Oliver maintains parties “can be all shapes and sizes”. “They’re not always 200 people and a three-day put up. Sometimes the party will happen just because it’s Saturday and you get perky. A party can be eight people or 800.”

The guest list is everything. “It sounds like such a basic thing but people are funny about parties, they think they have to invite people they think should be [there]. What? I’m not having people I don’t like in my yard. Our party on Saturday – it was like our life walking through the house.”

She doesn’t go in for elaborate decorations. “There’s usually so much food on the table you can’t see it anyway.” Instead, she likes a few candles and flowers. “Not too much – so you can still see the food.”

Her rules for hosting, then, boil down to three simple instructions: “You just need good music, good food and good lighting.” It doesn’t matter where you are, she says, “just get on the pot, get the tunes right and turn the lights down”.

Andi Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts starts on 27 March on BBC Two at 8pm and is available on iPlayer

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