I call my real “father” TMWCTMB – “The Man Who Contributed Towards My Birth”. He didn’t come into my life until I was 45 and I discovered all the half-brothers and half-sisters [25 in total] he’d had with other women. But we stayed with my uncle when I was young. We’d gone into a refuge after I was born, but I don’t remember that. My earliest memories are of being at the house of a friend in Stoke Newington. He lived next door to a Jewish family who had a plum tree that leaned over the back garden and dropped plums, which we ate. I said: “We should knock on the door and ask to stand on the wall and take plums off the tree too.” The neighbour didn’t reply but nodded yes at us ruffians and looked quite fatherly and proud standing at his french windows.
My mother put me into a competition in Clacton-on-Sea in which people attempted to be the quickest eater of 100 Jacob’s Cream Crackers with no water allowed. I had half a packet before spitting dust. It took all the moisture out of my body.
We film The Repair Shop five days a week and travel down to Chichester on Sundays, then have breakfasts, lunches and dinners together at a swanky hotel – experts and crew. We became accustomed to what each other liked – Suzie [Fletcher]’s goat’s cheese salad; Steven [Fletcher]’s curry or steak; Will [Kirk]’s Wagamama, brought in; the teddy bear ladies’ baked beans and nothing else… We’re just normal people; nothing too fancy. But the producers make sure I’ve got all of the biscuits and sweets I like to eat. They’re always there. They look after me.
The item I prize in the kitchen is the mixing bowl, which can represent the start of something beautiful. You can mix many things in there; it recalls the beginning of a cake made by my aunt; or you can wash a chicken in one; or you can season it. Just a simple plastic mixing bowl, like my mother used to make dumplings in.
School had two big influences on me. First, the racism I received – being called names and having eight people out to get me at lunchtime – and second the food. I was excited to be in line for lunch. The constant noise. Lots of talking, which we weren’t allowed in classes. To hear the dinner ladies with their big spoons against metal trays. And I used to get lots of food given me, from people who were being bullied and wanted protecting. I remember once sitting, like Henry VIII, with six sponge puddings in front of me.
I started drinking Babycham, moved up to Cherry B, then Thunderbird wine – which was extremely strong and it beat me up. I’d be sitting down and feeling absolutely fine, then stand up and my legs wouldn’t correspond with what my brain was telling me I was doing. I’d just fall over. Once you’re playing with something that gets the better of you, you need to leave it to one side. To me it was a rude awakening.
But talking about unusual concoctions, there was Mr Tea, as he was called, at the charity Oxford Cyrenians. He added, to his Weetabix, teabags, coffee and sometimes sugar. But he enjoyed it, that’s the main thing. It made no sense to me but every sense to him. For all I know he could be another Blanc or Ramsay.
The only thing I remember eating that was different in Barbados – because my auntie Annie there made the same food as I was used to – was the really beautiful fried chicken from a chain called Chefette. No one cooks chicken like that.
Probably the least I’ve eaten was when I had a can of five plum tomatoes and cut them up to last me five days – a bit of one for breakfast and the bulk of one at dinnertime.
At the time of my breakdown the only thing I was eating was a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s in the car park where I was sleeping for about a week. When you’ve been in that state – call it a no man’s land, because a future can’t be seen – people say, “Why don’t you snap out of it?” The answer is: I didn’t even know most of the time that I was alive, never mind being able to talk about it. Also, when I reached rock bottom, I was a pillar of the community, helping a number of young people, families, fathers, people in prison. If I’d said, “I’m broken. Can you help me?”, they’d have looked at me and said, “Can we help you?”
I wasn’t aware of how important food was until I was at real rock bottom. When I was 46, I sat in a room and ate a box of Farley’s Rusks and it was joyous. It fed the soul. It took me back to my childhood. I can actually eat Farley’s Rusks and it will bring back all those happy emotions.
Food hell would be a place with absolutely no food. Because I like a lot of food, including food I didn’t even think I would ever like – oysters, mussels, jellied eels. When I first ate boiled tripe with cabbage, cooked for me by an Irish family, I thought: ‘Wow. This is the future.”
Corned beef and rice makes me feel very homely. With onions, peppered, marinaded up, with a hint of tinned tomatoes; add rice and eaten with dumplings. A joy. That’s the go-to I think of.
A Jack & Tina. It’s Jack Daniel’s mixed with Tia Maria and it’s unbelievably sweet and unbelievably strong. Some say it tastes like a Black Russian. I made up the Jack & Tina name, which until now was only known by people at the hotels I’ve stayed in when filming.
I first went to Wong Kei in Chinatown, London, when I was 15. A group of models and photographers took me to eat and I had a bit of everything on the table. But I most loved sweet and sour pork Hong Kong style, with special fried rice. I’ve been going to Wong Kei for that ever since.
Ackee and saltfish, like I cooked on MasterChef. I don’t cook often though. And I’ve never wooed with food. I’m not that sort of guy. If I cooked for a date, I’d probably lose her.
Making It: How Love, Kindness and Community Helped Me Repair My Life by Jay Blades is out now (Bluebird, £16.99)