Confused cooks will give a high five to Ainsley’s book

Emma LeeTop TV chef Ainsley Harriott is heading to Norwich for a book signing at Jarrold this Thursday.Emma Lee

'It's like going for a night out in the old days and worrying that nobody was going to ask you to dance,' laughs Ainsley Harriott.

The popular TV chef is on a whirlwind promotional tour for his latest book, Just Five Ingredients, and will be calling in at Jarrold in Norwich this Thursday.

But it's highly unlikely he'll find himself standing front of a crowd of none - thanks to his appearances on shows like Ready Steady Cook (more of which later), Ainsley is one of the most popular chefs on TV.

And what you see on screen is what you get in real life - he's great company, cracking jokes and chatting at a hundred miles an hour.

Inspired by his 'missus', his latest book is a collection of recipes that use a maximum of five ingredients - perfect for anyone on a budget (that will be most of us at the moment, then) and short of time.

'My missus finds it terribly frustrating to cook from either some of my old cookbooks or my mates' cookbooks because there's too much going on.

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'If you've got to go shopping for 12 ingredients, it can be really off-putting - have you got this or that? Even if you have to go to the shop, buying five ingredients is manageable,' he says.

'I started writing down lots of simple recipe ideas and then suddenly my friends started nicking them and I thought 'there's something in this', and I got together with my editor and did it over a course of 18 months.

'It's been quite surprising,' he adds. 'You have to challenge yourself, and one of the things I really found is that you have to let the ingredients speak for themselves'.

The result is a mouth-watering collection of recipes - just listening to Ainsley talking about them makes you feel hungry - with something for carnivores and veggies alike. There are even bread recipes - something which many cooks find too intimidating to contemplate attempting - and all the dishes are broken down into three or four stages, making them something even the biggest kitchen-phobe could attempt.

'It's for everybody,' Ainsley says. 'I didn't want to alienate anybody.'

Speaking to Ainsley, it's clear that food really is his great passion - something which was instilled in him during his childhood.

'All the encouragement came from my late mum. I think you need to do as much as possible to encourage our children,' he says.

It certainly worked for the Harriott family.

'My sister went on to become a head of her department in home technology and my brother is a good cook,' he says. 'Even my friends have recipes they learned from Mrs H.'

He says that being able to cook is an essential life skill.

'How many people bought a house because it had a beautiful kitchen and it's hardly ever been used? You have to make sure children feel comfortable in the kitchen, encourage them, say 'you can have a go at this', don't say 'stay out of the kitchen - it's a dangerous place'. It is, but then there's lots of dangerous places.

'I don't think my children are going to turn out as gourmet chefs, but my daughter, who's a vegetarian, knows how to make a nut roast.'

Ainsley's career as a foodie began when he was just 16. He's worked in some of London's top eateries, including the Dorchester and Quaglino's and has cooked for a host of famous faces.

His larger-than-life personality makes him a natural entertainer, and he also toured Europe as part of a musical double act and played London's comedy circuit.

The career cross-over came when he was asked to present More Nosh, Less Dosh for BBC radio, which was followed by his big break - becoming resident chef on the TV show Good Morning With Anne and Nick.

Ainsley's TV career started comparatively late - he's 52 now - but he believes that was an advantage.

'I think you've got to be in the right place at the right time. And when the opportunity did present itself I was mature enough to deal with it - a lot of people aren't,' he says.

'I did it because it was something different. I'm a classically trained chef, but I wanted a challenge and excitement and found that in television.

'I did Good Morning with Anne and Nick and found I was comfortable doing live TV, but 10 years earlier it wouldn't have happened.'

He's presented a string of cookery series, including Can't Cook Won't Cook, Ainsley's Meals in Minutes, Ainsley's Big Cook Out and Ainsley's Gourmet Express and his books cookbooks have sold millions of copies.

But, of course, he's most famous for the BBC2 afternoon show Ready Steady Cook.

He's been involved with the programme since it began in 1994 - he filmed the pilot show with Brian Turner - and took over hosting duties from Fern Britton nine years ago.

You know the drill - two contestants are each given a budget to buy ingredients for a chef.

They have 20 minutes to create some culinary magic - then the audience has to decide which dish is best.

'It still appeals to the public - it's like that classic car. It's still going and you don't want to give it up,' Ainsley says. 'The viewers still tune in and the chefs are still up for it. I think we have to protect things like that - in TV, things only last five minutes.'

Ainsley's about to be whisked off to another appointment, and makes his apologies, but there's just time to sneak in one more question.

So, if he was having a dinner party, and could invite anybody he liked, who would be on the guest list?

'It's a bit obvious, but Obama - he would be fun. And Arsene Wenger, because I think he's a bit cool, Maya Angelou. And… Halle Berry,' he says.

Ainsley Harriott will be at Jarrold, London Street, Norwich, this Thursday from 6.30pm. The event includes a question and answer session and a book signing. Tickets cost �5, available in-store from Jarrold customer services, or phone 01603 660661. His new book, Just Five Ingredients, is out now.