Why I Loved Ready Steady Cook

A friend sent a challenge to a Whatsapp group I’m part of the other day that read: ‘top 3 cooking programmes – go.’ Some of us went for Two Fat Ladies and Far Flung Floyd, others Come Dine With Me and The Trip. I felt I had to include Ready Steady Cook… let me explain why.

RSC was pretty ridiculous but oh, I was obsessed. Every afternoon after school in the early ’90’s I’d be curled into my dad’s armchair glued to Fern Britton asking the audience if it would be Green Peppers or Red Tomatoes. The triumphant, trumpeting theme tune would start and I would always have a snack in hand.

For those with hazy memories the show pit two chefs against each other – one in the Green Pepper kitchen and the other the Red Tomato. Two ‘contestants’ would each bring a carrier bag full of ingredients they’d bought adding up to the value of £5 and the chefs would cook several dishes using them – all in 20 minutes. The ‘reveal’ of ingredients produced some great TV moments and would say a lot about contestants. Would they have chosen ingredients that go together? ‘I’ve brought along tofu, iceberg lettuce, jam, chocolate and a carrot, Fern!’ Would they have some odd dietary requirement? Not nearly so much of a ‘thing’ back then when ‘health food’ meant carob and bags of musty sunflower seeds. Mostly, though, they’d just want ‘some new ideas’ which kind of made sense because nobody had Google. In fact, I don’t think we even had the internet at home.

Fern would then have some semi-awkward bants with the contestants before they put their aprons on and proceeded to spend the entire 20 minutes peeling one potato. It was genuinely impressive though, the amount and quality of food the chefs produced. They were fully paid up members of the TV Chef Gang, these men (for they were almost entirely men). There was Ainsley Harriot (who would later present the show); Anthony Worrall Thompson; Brian Turner; James Martin and Nick Nairn, to name a few. There was Phil Vickery, who Fern eventually married and there was Ross Burden, who has since sadly passed away.

There were classic dishes that would come out time and time again: James Martin never stopped spinning sugar and it basically wasn’t an episode unless he was frantically flicking strands over the top of a rolling pin; someone would make a stuffed pepper; there would definitely be a soup; something on toast; herbed couscous; tempura; a dipping sauce. At the end, there would be an audience vote and one of the chefs would win.

The thing is, despite the silliness, the cheesy catchphrases and the ‘Susie Salt and Percy Pepper’ bullshit from Ainsley, I learned a huge amount about cooking from RSC. A huge amount. I was 14 when the show started and had no idea what my first career would be yet let alone this, my second. The show sparked an interest in food that would become my life and my obsession. It was all so innocent. Fern seemed to be genuinely interested in the guests, while the chefs tried to make their best dishes simply to win ‘the show’. It was all round good, clean fun albeit seriously competitive. Its influence should also not be underestimated – here’s Kate Winslet on the show after she’d been in Titanic.

I also can’t underestimate its effect on me and the way my life has turned out, and when I think of it now I feel nothing but warmth. I was being quite the little bitch at that age – bunking off school, bored with academic stuff and doing what I was told, rebelling in many ways. What was always consistent however was RSC. I don’t think I ever missed an episode. And here I am.

For those of you now filled with nostalgia like me, check out these anecdotes from the chefs on the show which include a squid to Fern’s face and Brian Turner calling Anthony Worrall-Thompson a ‘half-sized person.’  There are various articles online suggesting that the show will return with James Martin as presenter but I dunno, these are different times. The show would be more cynical, surely. The contestants would be less innocent and James definitely wouldn’t get away with wearing a bandana. I think it’s best to leave RSC where it is – in the BBC archives and all over Youtube. And with that, I’m off to fall down an RSC-shaped internet-hole.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Miss South March 13, 2018 at 8:48 pm

    I hated RSC to begin with and then I got really ill and had to drop out of school and was so bored having to lie on the sofa all day barely abe to move and it became a highlight. I started learning how to cook from it (couscous all the way!) and having something to focus on and feel like I was achieving something as my whole life plans had fallen apart.

    I had had a raging eating disorder up to that point and only ate dry cereal but RSC was a huge part in recovery for me as well as teaching me cooking skills that have got me a career in writing cookbooks down the line and many chances to impress people over the years.

    And I will never as a Northern Irish person forget the time Big Jim McDonald came on the show with just a live Strangford Lough lobster in his bag and put Paul Rankin right on the spot.

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves March 14, 2018 at 7:01 am

      It’s the reason we all know that cous cous is cooked by covering in boiling water and sticking a plate on top! It’s so great that it was so significant for you too. How wonderful.

      I’d forgotten about the lobster! Do you remember the time a piping bag got out of hand and squirted cream in Fern’s face?

  • Avatar
    Reply Robert March 13, 2018 at 9:44 pm

    I loved it too. As it was part of my tv routine. Though there was some odd choices including a whole salmon and nothing else. I don’t recall what was made from it though!

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves March 14, 2018 at 7:03 am

      Whaaaa? I don’t remember that! I remember they did that thing with the ‘quickie bag’ after a while but I think that happened in the Ainsley days and I was over it by then. Fern all the way.

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    Reply Niamh March 14, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    Having “the channels” back in those days was an expense us students in Ireland could ill afford, so I discovered it much later on and never really got into it. I love your story though and can absolutely see that. I was like a sponge for all things food whenever I could find it at that age too x

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves March 14, 2018 at 12:25 pm

      Absolutely! HOW I didn’t notice I was always supposed to work in food is beyond me haha x

  • Avatar
    Reply Fraser March 14, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook for me, morning TV guilty secret…

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    Reply David March 14, 2018 at 12:44 pm

    I would watch this when it was on but it turned out my granny was a massive fan and would watch it daily – when clearing her house after she died we found notepads where she’d written down who brought what what each day, what was cooked and who won There were even odd random comments like “one of the contestants had their arm in a sling so Fern had to help with the chopping”, like a diary.

    This in itself would have been quite unusual, but was made all the more so as my granny had lots of quite serious allergies (which obviously weren’t very well catered for either on the show or in the real world in those days) so she couldn’t have been trying many of the recipes herself. She just liked her daily dose of Fern and whether or not it would be Green Peppers or Red Tomatoes. I wish I’d kept the notebooks now!

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves March 14, 2018 at 2:08 pm

      Oh! How wonderful. I love this story so much, thanks, David. Such a shame you don’t have the notebooks but at least you have the story.

      • Avatar
        Reply David March 16, 2018 at 4:13 pm

        I have a weird semi-baked idea that this one day might form part of a fictionalised version of the story of my grandparents’ life, given that also my granddad was a horticulturalist who wrote a couple of books about growing tomatoes (one of which sticks out in my mind for having a huge RSC-style red tomato on the cover). One day I might manage to tie all these random strands together….

        • Avatar
          Reply Helen Graves March 16, 2018 at 4:29 pm

          I’m not sure I *quite* understand what you mean but I say run with it!

          • Avatar
            David March 16, 2018 at 4:35 pm

            Yeah me neither I have just got back from a boozy work lunch so this is pretty much stream of consciousness nonesense, just ignore me…… :S

          • Avatar
            Helen Graves March 17, 2018 at 8:10 am

            Haha! No don’t worry – we welcome boozy streams of consciousness here 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply Dan March 14, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    No mention of Masterchef? 🙂

    Oh well…


  • Avatar
    Reply attoivanen March 16, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    Thanks, Tal for the comment and suggestion.Joe

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    Reply Paul March 19, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    It started off in a warehouse in New Malden and the chefs all knew the contents of the bags and prepared trades etc.
    The woman I met started off as a dishwasher and ended up a floor manager, bossiing people about in other words. Great lady, much respect.
    My two pennorth.

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves March 19, 2018 at 3:20 pm

      THEY KNEW?! Well, that’s shattered the illusion, hasn’t it.

  • Avatar
    Reply Cate Lawrence March 20, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    In Australia, we had our own version and it was on at something like 3pm, so I’d always watch it if i was home sick from school . Now i am also going to fall down a youtube rabbit hole checking out the UK version

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves March 20, 2018 at 4:51 pm

      It’s a bit annoying as it’s mostly the later ones on there – no Fern! Well, one or two.

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