Home Comforts: Keeping It Real With Chris Baber

Whether it’s hearty comfort food, local produce or spending time with his parents in Hexham during lockdown, home is where the heart is for North East chef, Chris Baber...
Home Comforts: Keeping It Real With Chris Baber

You may have seen him on the TV, you may have come across him on Instagram, or you may recognise his face from local fashion campaigns from his modelling days.

However you see Chris, the words humble and homebird spring to mind, as we catch up during lockdown over Zoom.

At the time of writing, Chris is enjoying life in his hometown of Hexham – the place where he grew up and spent much of his life before chasing his dreams in the big smoke.

“I’m loving lockdown life in Hexham at the moment, but I’m usually based in London. I love it down there, but at the start of the pandemic, I just wanted to be around the family,” Chris explains.

“And to be able to enjoy the outdoors in Northumberland is just an absolute joy,” he adds.

Chris and I share stories about returning to our hometown and remembering why it will always be home. He talks about his childhood and, although life has presented many different career moves over the years, it’s clear that food has played a pivotal role in his journey to now.

I mean, it’s a pretty big part of all of our lives, of course, but for Chris, it was his calling – something that has shaped him as a person.

“I always had a love and passion for it,” says Chris.

“A feeling I’m sure many chefs and foodies will share; but I remember, as a child, coming in from school and wanting to make dinner for my parents.

“For me, it was always about reaction. Seeing smiles on faces and getting around the table at the end of the day, there’s just nothing better.”

Having worked in busy kitchens, upscale restaurants and even putting a competitive head on for a TV cooking show, home is still where the heart is for Chris.

“It’s all about home cooking for me,” he says, with a smile.

“It’s something that has always been instilled in me, and I guess that’s where my love of food came from.

“It was more, what can I do at home to create a nice family experience? What can I do with these raw ingredients? I’ve always been obsessed with it.

“But I never had the urge to go out and work in a restaurant, to be completely honest. I loved to cook at home, but I never really expected it to go any further.

“It sounds a bit of a cliche, but my mum says she always said I’d make money from food, but for me, it was never really part of the plan.”

Fast forward a few years, a couple of sales jobs, a modelling career and a catapult moment on TV (we’ll come back to that), here he is, the new face of Marks & Spencer, encouraging people to cook at home – and enjoy every minute of it.

There’s never been a better time to tap into the culinary imaginations of the nation. During lockdown, many of us have spent more time at home, more time with our families, more time scrolling through social media, more time seeking out inspiration.

For Chris – pandemic aside – it’s been a great time to educate and inspire. Food is our friend, and we should enjoy it!

“When I was younger, living in Northumberland, the food scene wasn’t what it is today – and with no social media, it was difficult to share your thoughts and ideas with the wider world. I wasn’t quite sure how I would go about beginning a career in food that didn’t involve serving it on a plate in a restaurant.

“But with the evolution of social media, we’re in a great place to share, inspire and ultimately create kitchen confidence in homes across the country.

“It all started because my friends would say to me, ‘Chris, stop texting me pictures of your food!’

“So I joined Instagram, which gave me a platform to start sharing my recipes. What I love most about it is I’ll get a message from someone I don’t know saying ‘I made this with the kids last night, they ate all the veg, they loved it’ – that, for me, is what I crave. Motivating others is my motivation.”

So, how did Chris find his place in the food world? How do you go from big foodie to big foodie figure? How does a successful Instagram page turn into a following of over 130k, an M&S contract and a cookbook on the horizon? How did he go from household cook to household name?

Chris’s catapult moment came in 2016 when he took part in BBC One cooking competition, Yes Chef. He went on to win the show, fighting off thousands of other applicants and contestants.

“That was the pivotal moment for me. I’d been sharing recipes on Instagram for about a year. I was doing alright, I had about 10k followers, but then I got a message from a guy who invited me to join a home cooks competition.

“I thought, ‘why not – I’ll give it a go’. The show was like a stripped-down version of Master Chef. On the application they asked me who my favourite chef was and I’d said Atul Kochhar. You had to come up with a signature dish on the day – I’d actually based mine on one of his recipes.

“I just loved curry. It was something I always used to love making at home – experimenting with spices and getting the whole family around the table. Atul, at the time, was a total icon. You’d see him on Saturday Kitchen – he was the first Indian chef in the UK to have a Michelin star. And I just loved watching him on TV because he’s such a nice guy.

“I turned up for filming in Manchester and they said, ‘today’s guest judge is Atul Kochhar’. At the time, I’m living in Hexham, I’d never seen a celebrity – never mind one of my idols. He walks in the room and I just remember him looking at the ingredients on my worktop. He looked up at me and said, ‘well I know what you’re going to be making today’.

“I thought to myself, this is either going to go really well, or be the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life. Anyway… I made this coconut, pan-fried sea bass curry and I just remember being so nervous to take it over for him to taste. It was just bizarre, the whole thing.

“He ate some, looked at me and said, ‘you’ve absolutely nailed it’. I’ll never forget the words. It totally changed my mentality and boosted my confidence.

“I went on to win the show and afterwards Atul gave me his details so we could keep in touch. I thought I’d never hear from him again, but sure enough, I was back up in Hexham and the phone rang; he asked me to stop whatever I was doing to go and work with him in London.

“I’d never taken any risks in life. I lived in Hexham until I was 25. I didn’t go to university. I’d never been travelling. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. And I just thought, ‘do you know what, I love food, I’ve won this TV show, my hero is calling me up, what have I got to lose?’. So I packed up and was working in his restaurant in Mayfair within weeks.

“It was a whirlwind experience that totally changed my life.”

Following his TV success, Chris trained with Atul at Benares, his contemporary Berkeley Square restaurant. It was here when the homebird from Hexham really got to grips with life in a commercial kitchen.

“It was absolutely bonkers,” Chris laughs.

“I’d never envisaged working in a restaurant, but I needed to elevate my skills and embrace every minute of it. Atul really is a gentleman – we’re still close friends – he really took me under his wing and threw me in at the deep end. I genuinely learnt so much. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done, but there was just this adrenaline buzz, I loved it.

“After six months or so, I was at a point where I’d learnt a lot, and I was serving this Michelin-starred food on a plate, but what I was missing was that connection with the customer. It really made me realise what it is I love about food, and it’s inspiring other people to cook at home. I’ve got so much respect and admiration for restaurant chefs, but I made the decision to leave Benares because I was at the stage where I either started climbing the ladder there, or I took the plunge and pursued what it is I’m really passionate about.”

Chris is a big believer in going back to basics. There’s no doubt about it, as a country – and as a region – we’ve got tons of top restaurants and bucket-list experiences at our feet, but if being in lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t be afraid to strip things back a little and work on what we already know.

We’re all creatures of habit in our own ways – and if we can avoid creeping out of comfort zones, we will – whether that’s in work, health, fitness, food or relationships.

But what Chris is trying to do is to take our daily lifestyle and work on it. Mixing up our weekly menus. Thinking about what we love to eat at home. Making it happen – and making it fun!

“The first step is to achieve kitchen confidence,” explains Chris.

“I cooked at my home for years. My parents, yes they could cook, but I wouldn’t really let them, you know, because it’s what I loved to do. When I left home, my dad started using all of my recipes – and he’d gone from never really cooking, to now, telling me what to do. It’s really just about challenging yourself and proving you can do it. It’s an education thing, I guess.

“I want to make food accessible and affordable. I want to inspire people to fall in love with food and the taste, but also the process of making it – bringing people back around the table, and enjoying the whole experience.

“My food is pretty simple, but it’s food you want to eat for dinner. It’s a proper meal. That’s what I’m all about.

“The lockdown period has been an exceptional time on social media for me. People have been at home, they’ve had more time to explore new recipes and be a little bit creative.”

As well as his vibrant Insta feed, Chris has been working with food champions, M&S, on a campaign that shares his honest, home cooking principles.

“The real reason I’m there is to come up with recipes that people want to make at home for dinner. It’s all about making home cooking easier and more accessible. Giving people that inspiration every week using the best quality ingredients from M&S.

“We’ve launched a new cookbook too, which includes a range called Cook With – focusing on products designed to make cooking easier. Things like curry paste and spiced rubs. The whole book is based on recipes using easy-solution products. Ways to liven up midweek meals.

“Alongside the cookbook, I’ve been creating weekly recipes using fresh M&S products and other stock cupboard ingredients from the store. The Fresh Market Update has been running on ITV. We visited six of M&S’ British food producers – everything from strawberries and raspberries, to Scottish salmon and Isle of Wight tomatoes. It was really just to show people where this amazing produce comes from. I’d be there, on the farm, cooking and sharing recipes.

“It’s all about giving people inspiration and changing people’s perceptions of M&S as a ‘special occasion’ shop.

“It really is my dream job, and I’m so grateful that my very varied career moves have led me to this place.

“One thing I’ve always lived by is, if it doesn’t feel like me, then don’t do it. And right now, I know what I’m doing is me. It’s what I love, and I hope that comes across in my work.”

Whether it’s family feasting, weekend fakeaways, one-pan wonders or easy mid-week meals, it’s clear that Chris’s food comes down to sharing, socialising and switching off for quality time in the humble home kitchen.

It’s all about comfort food and the concept of a shared experience with loved ones. That’s why we host dinner parties after all, right? A chance to relax, catch-up and share stories and ideas over a home cooked meal. Bliss.

But after spending time with some of the country’s top chefs in some of the finest fine dining restaurants in the country, why does everything lead him back home?

“I think it all stems from my own home – my upbringing; the familiarity and the fond memories,” Chris smiles.

“One of the things I love most about where I’m from is the sense of community – and that goes for my family life as well as within the wider community in Northumberland.

“Growing up, it was always about getting the whole gang around the table. Everything was based around socialising and sharing good, local food – which we are so very lucky to have a lot of in this region.

“There’s some incredible seafood in the North East. Our coastline is unbelievable. “The food scene up here has changed a lot in four years. My favourite place at the moment is Whitley Bay’s Spanish City. Trenchers, the fish and chip restaurant there, is just incredible. Locally-caught fish and chips, a squeeze of lemon, enjoyed outside on the beach… there’s just nothing better!

“I’ve travelled a little bit with food and I’ve eaten out at some amazing restaurants in London, but do you know what? I haven’t missed it at all during lockdown, because I think for me, it’s all about the experience, and I’m just loving being home at the moment, putting my energy into cooking for my family.

“When I’m in London, I’ll make my dinner and I’ll enjoy the process, but actually, what’s missing is someone sitting at the other side of the table to share it with.

“I’m blown away by incredible food and I have so much respect for some of the chefs and restaurants in this country, but I’ll be more than happy eating incredible fish and chips back home – with loads of salt and vinegar, out in the fresh air. You’ve just got to get the balance right, haven’t you?

“Sometimes the simple things in life are the things that make you happiest.”

So, what’s next for the 29-year-old, home-taught chef? A post-pandemic world is calling for dinner parties with old friends, exciting M&S campaigns and working towards the launch of his very own cookbook.

“At the moment, I just can’t wait to get my friends around the table again – just a catch-up over a curry – something low and slow in the oven.

“Following that, I’m sure I’ll be heading back to London in the not too distant future, where I’ll be doing more work with M&S and I’ll be looking into producing my own cookbook. I just want to make sure the time is right – maybe next year.

“I’ve actually been flat out working in my home kitchen in Hexham. Seeing me in my family kitchen just seems to resonate with people. It’s worked really well in recent weeks and months – but I’m looking forward to getting back in amongst it and getting some new projects underway when the world goes back to normal.

“See you on the other side, and remember – kitchen confidence is key.”

Chris’s top tips for kitchen confidence

Have fun with it:

Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. For me, I love having the music on in the kitchen – I have it absolutely blasting. Get the family involved, do it together. Try and enjoy the process.

Be excited by your menus:

Plan to eat meals that really excite you. Think about the stuff that you like eating in restaurants, spend a bit of time researching new recipes and give it a go.

Don’t stress:

It’s not always perfect, but that’s how we learn. Atul used to say to me, ‘Chris, it’s only your dinner’. If things go wrong, have a laugh about it and move on to the next challenge.

Family focus:

For me, good food is served best in good company. Old fashioned family time is the best medicine – get around the table and catch-up over some delicious, home-cooked food. There’s honestly nothing better.


chrisbaber.co.uk

Related Stories