Big Zuu & His Culinary Journey To TV Stardom

Words: James Keith

If you’ve been following Big Zuu’s socials for even a minute, you’ll know the guy is deeply passionate about food. From kofta wraps and chickpea curry to Mexican chilli fries and mac n’ cheese, the Ladbroke Grove MC-turned-chef has made it a point of pride to incorporate cuisine from all corners of the world into his impressive repertoire.

You may also know that he’s now got his own TV show, Big Zuu’s Big Eats, starting May 15 on the Sky channel Dave. Each week, Zuu and two friends he’s known since school, Tubzy and Hyder, will cook a meal for a different guest (mostly British comedians), taking inspiration from their background and presenting them with a fresh take on a dish or cuisine that’s close to their heart.

Obviously, Zuu is also one of the most talented grime MCs this country has to offer and even with his culinary/TV career taking off, he’s still one of the most prolific. He assures us the two sides to his creativity will be able to exist in tandem, but even if the music were to drop off a little, it would be hard to be mad at him. Ever since his first appearances on radio, first as a guest then as a host, it was clear as day that Zuu was a born entertainer with bags of charisma, a disarming charm and a laugh that could level a building.

Ahead of tomorrow’s debut episode, we caught up with Zuu on the phone to talk about the first meals he cooked with his mum, his road to TV stardom and his dream to cook for Gordon Ramsay. Often with cooking shows, the focus tends to be on French and European cuisine with the rest of the world either being neglected or misunderstood. Having spoken to Zuu about his extensive knowledge of spices and seasonings from South America, West Africa, South and East Asia and beyond, it looks as if Big Zuu’s Big Eats will be the perfect antithesis of Eurocentric cooking shows.

“I’d love to cook for Gordon Ramsay. It’s probably what everyone says, but I’d love to cook for him because if he starts swearing at me I’d tell him to shut up!”

We’ve all been admiring your cooking skills across social media these past few months, but what got you into cooking in the first place?

From when I was young, I’ve always been a fat boy! I’m not gonna lie. So, because of my fatness, I’ve always been interested in cooking. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do and something I’ve always wanted to be good at. When I was young, my mum gave me the opportunity to cook in my house and make little, simple meals. At first, it was boiling pasta, heating up sauce in the microwave, then cooking some eggs and baked beans, and it just progressed from there.

Was there a particular style of cooking she would teach you when you got onto the more advanced stuff?

Well, because my mum’s from West Africa, she would teach me West African dishes, but I used to want to make more European food—like Italian cuisine, and the typical home staples. You know, one of the main dishes I used to cook all the time was fajitas. I used to love making them so that’s what my mum was used to and then she started making them all the time.

So you’re teaching each other stuff now?

Yeah, for sure. She’s teaching me West African dishes now—how to make jollof rice, okra soup—and I’d show her European dishes, like how to make a roast dinner without putting everything in one tin, which is what people love doing. Disclaimer to anyone who does that: I’m not cussing you!

Don’t worry about it. I still haven’t got the hang of roasts!

I’ll give you the tips, I got you.

That was going to be one of my questions: I’ve had people asking me to get a list of all the spices you use. So what’s an essential spice or seasoning that you can’t live without?

For me, it’s the Maggi cube. It’s an African seasoning and you can literally put it on anything and it’ll taste peng! Ask your local butcher and they’ll have it.

What was it like working with your two good friends on the show?

My brothers Tubzy and Hyder, they’re my co-hosts. We went to school together and they’re the proof that you can do anything you want. They didn’t have no Instagram, no Twitter, they’re not influencers. They’re just two lads, two of my good friends, who love cooking and took an opportunity that will take their life to whole other dimension. This was definitely not planned for them to become television presenters and they’re running with it right now. Nothing can stop them and nothing will stop them. I’m very proud of them. They’ve exceeded everyone’s expectations and they’re proof that no one can stop you from doing what you want to do in life. They’re absolute quality, mate.

You’ve got some big guests on the show, too, but who was your favourite?

I think making food for Rosie Jones was probably the best for me because we reminded her of her childhood. Her nana’s from Spain and she’s from Bridlington and she lives near the sea, so we made her fish and chips with a Spanish twist, combining those two elements. When we brought it out, she was absolutely ecstatic. It really touched me, seeing that reaction to food that I cooked. She’d done a long show, she’s tired, she just wanted to go to her hotel room and lie down. So to see her get so happy made it really special for me.

So do the guests tell you the kind of food they want you to cook or are you introducing them to new stuff?

We do an interview before it and we ask them what kind of food they like, what’s your favourite cuisine, what’s your no-go. From there, we go and build up a menu and then go round and try and get as much local produce as possible. We cook it for them while they’re doing their show and then they come round and enjoy it.

Apart from the guests you’ve had, alive or dead, who would you most like to cook for?

I know it’s a bait one, but I’d love to cook for Gordon Ramsay. It’s probably what everyone says, but I’d love to cook for him because if he starts swearing at me I’d tell him to shut up!

He’d respect that.

I’d be ready for him. I’d have 16 bars of revenge. If Gordon wants to start a cussing match, I’ll make him feel like a proper wasteman. Bro, eat the food! He’s one of my biggest inspirations though, and his personality is amazing. If I was able to cook for him, that’s definitely bucket list stuff.

It’s funny you mention Gordon Ramsay. Me and my girlfriend have been binge-watching Hell’s Kitchen USA.

Bruv! His energy’s crazy! That’s the thing: it’s his energy, his passion, his style of presenting. That’s definitely influenced me a lot.

Outside of cooking, was presenting and being in front of the camera something you always wanted to do?

It was random, to be honest. I never really thought it would happen. I thought I was just going to make music. I never said I’m gonna be a TV presenter, especially not doing food programmes. It was just something that eventually happened. At first, I was presenting a music show on radio, that was the first thing I did, and then from there it expanded into other things and I just kept building it. I’m very proud of how far it’s come now and that I’ve been able to bring my friends.

I remember that radio show, so I’m glad it wasn’t the first and last time you hosted.

When Radar got cancelled and everything went mad, I was very upset because I had my show there for a year and a half. Things were moving. I put on every single grime artist that was coming up at the time—people like Novelist, AJ Tracey, even Dave was on the show—but then I got offered a show at BBC. Going to 1Xtra, that helped me take my presenting to the next level. 1Xtra, they’re champions. They gave me the opportunity to start presenting daytime, learning how to use the system. I was covering for people like DJ Target, Yasmin Evans, Jamz Supernova, I even did Mistajam’s show once. The pressure of covering those kind of shows definitely got me ready to get into TV because it wasn’t easy. Going from that to the television world was like training.

Back to the subject of food, with the lockdown and everything happening right now, people aren’t getting takeaway as much because it can get expensive, so they’re having to cook a lot more. What would be your one golden piece of advice for a total novice?

My one bit of advice would be patience. Patience is key. I used to want to rush things until I realised that when it says you have to cook it for 30 minutes, you have to cook it for 30 minutes. Recipes are proven. It’s like Ikea: if you get a cupboard from Ikea and you try to skip from step 1 to step 15, your cupboard’s going to break [laughs]. It’s a weird analogy but it’s the truth! I don’t really follow recipes. I don’t really like measuring stuff, so I just like to do things by eye. But in cooking, I’ve realised that recipes are proven. They’re something that’s been developed over a long time and it’s there to help you. If you have patience, you will get the results. The other thing is heat control—learning to control the heat of your food. A lot of people just turn the cooker on and whack it on high and they wonder why the food doesn’t come out how they wanted it. It’s because you cooked it on 6 for the whole time! I’ve got a normal electric oven, I don’t have a fancy gas cooker. Sometimes when you watch these cooking programmes, you might get thrown off because you don’t have the equipment, but just learning how to control the heat of your pan definitely helps with cooking stuff the right way and not burning it.

You’ve toured a lot in your career and been pretty much all over the planet. Is there a particular country or region that you’d say has the best food in the world?

Obviously, I’ve gotta put on for my West African people. I recently came back from Sierra Leone and the food was unbelievable. The food I was eating out there was top-notch. The freshness, the quality. I know I’m being biased towards my people, but if I’m going to be real, I went to Rome last year and it changed my life. Rome, oh my god! The food there is special. Them Italian people are eating something different to us every day. The freshness of the tomatoes, the love that goes into the food—everything! Top-notch.

Yeah, I’ve been a few times. I love that their equivalent of a greasy spoon caf is better than the best Italian restaurant you’ve ever been to.

There we go! That’s what I’m saying! You literally go to a little tiny caf where you think nothing’s happening and you go in and… Oh my god. You want to cry.

So what are the Sierra Leonean specialities? Is it sweet, spicy?

It’s West African so a lot of it is cooked with greens, okra, cassava, potatoes. They’ve got so many different types of greens they love to eat with their food. They definitely eat a lot of healthy food and they love their stews, rice, garri, and fufu. They love their fufu and their plantain. One thing about them is their fruits are so fresh because of the weather. In Africa, they have the dry season for half the year and then it’s raining half the year. They got fruits growing all over the place! Fresh mango, bananas and stuff like that. Over there, the fruit doesn’t have any preservatives or things getting added to it—nothing, just straight love in the fruit.

That’s the key: the freshness and the passion. So, beyond this series you have done, is there another series planned, obviously after the lockdown?

It’s gonna be up to the guys UK TV and Dave to decide. I think we’ll get the answer after the first series and we’ll see how the first series does. I put a lot of love into it so I’m just praying when this programme comes out, they’ll realise that I’m a product of them and if they can get behind it and support me. Hopefully, this will move on to other series and other opportunities on television.

I hope so. So is this something you want to keep pursuing, doing more TV stuff and cooking shows?

Yeah, but I’m always gonna keep making music. I’m never gonna stop. I’ll always keep barring. Even through 10 episodes of a TV programme, I’ve still been consistent with music. This year, I’ve already dropped three singles and I’m gonna drop another single soon. Projects are coming. So yeah, I can handle it. One thing I think I’ve proven to myself is that I don’t have to choose one—I can do all of it. In America, I think people are more used to musicians taking different routes. In America, a lot of musicians get into acting and go into to TV and movies and they have programmes and stuff, but in England it’s not been a thing that really happens. One of the biggest examples is Big Narstie. It’s one of them things where if more people do it, we’ll definitely get there. You’ve got people like Dave that definitely prove you can do both; he had a big part in Top Boy and, at the same time he was killing that, his album was doing bits and he was touring the world. So if Dave can do it and he’s at the top of the game, I think people can realise if I want to pursue that, then I can as well. No one’s gonna stop me.

Was acting ever something you ever wanted to get into or is that not really your lane?

I’m so bad at remembering lines. Even though I’m a grime MC, I can remember hella bars—like I can spit for an hour of bars off the top of my dome, not freestyling but different lyrics for an hour or even two hours—but as soon as you tell me “can you just read this line”, oh my god my brain starts going crazy [laughs]. It’s something I won’t mind doing in the future, but it’s gonna take time to work on it.

Have you ever thought about opening up a restaurant or your own street food spot?

I mean, it’s all in time, init. It’s definitely something I thought about. It’s always something I wanted to do. We gotta take time, we gotta see how the food programme goes and go from there. One step at a time.

Big Zuu’s Big Eats airs Friday 15th May at 10pm on Dave.

Posted on May 14, 2020