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We visit the set of The Big Family Cooking Showdown to meet its arm-wrestling stars

AT a converted barn outside of London, one that has been magically transformed into the cosiest of kitchens replete with mason jars and high-end stoves, I watch Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain arm wrestle. And they are taking it very seriously. Both are giggling furiously, but it’s evident that they’re in it to win it. Meanwhile, Giorgio Locatelli and Rosemary Shrager stand behind them like parents watching the kids at play. Then suddenly, the cameras are rolling and the four of them jump into a line, preparing to send a family home. Because, despite the intimate vibes at play between these four television presenters, we are, in fact, on the set of BBC2’s Big Family Cooking Showdown.

In a world where cooking competitions are blazing trails in television ratings and our beloved Great British Bake Off has moved to Channel Four (who knows what will happen with that new line-up), the pressure is on when it comes to producing the most popular cookery-based reality television.

Sixteen families are set challenges by judges Giorgio Locatelli and Rosemary Shrager (Zoe and Nadiya are the presenters). We see them cooking in their own homes and in the studio, yet ‘it’s the least competitive competition ever,’ Nadiya assures me. ‘They’re all willing each other to do well, and they’re really supportive of each other.’

Zoe adds: ‘The dynamics between each family are very different. There’s one where so and so thinks they’re in charge, and there’s the person everyone turns to. With some families everyone is brilliant and, with others, there’s a leader or a chopper — and you get to see their little adventures from where they first start. We all got very close and you do get emotionally involved.’

While the ladies admit they’ve done a huge amount of eating since filming began in January (‘that’s the dangerous thing about doing a show like this,’ exclaims Zoe, ‘they are just constantly driving the food out!’), it’s evident the presenters and judges have become a family in their own right. Zoe and Nadiya have a fantastic bond.

Zoe jokes that she’s been presenting television ‘for about 472 years’, while Nadiya has been at it for less than two years. And yet, there was no doubt for either of them when the opportunity arose. Nadiya admits this was intimidating for her, yet the experience of presenting, rather than competing (she notoriously won Great British Bake Off in 2015), was enticing:

‘I like being a presenter as opposed to a judge,’ she tells me, ‘because I’m not good at telling people I don’t like things. This scared the life out of me but I wanted to give it a go and I’m loving it.’

For Zoe, it was also a no-brainer: ‘They rang me and said ‘‘do you want to work with Nadiya from Bake Off?’’ — and I said ‘‘yes!’’ They didn’t even finish the sentence and I was in.

I, like everyone else, cried my eyes out when she won. It was actually the first series I watched! And then I guess the idea that maybe I might pick up some tips also helped.’

It seems kitchen skills are one thing the ladies don’t have in common.

‘I’m the polar opposite of Nadiya,’ laughs Zoe, ‘but since we started filming, I’ve gone home and said: ‘‘now come on, let’s do something more than bake cakes. But Woody doesn’t want to cook in the kitchen with me. He’s 16!’

So what does she cook to bring her family together?

‘Spaghetti Bolognese, and I use a recipe by Ferran Adria (the revered Spanish chef behind El Bulli). His recipe is incredible and my kids love it.’

And Nadiya? According to Zoe, ‘her kids are amazing — they make focaccia.’

Nadiya admits: ‘They are really good cooks and I suppose, because I’m Bangladeshi, our family staple would have to be rice and curry. If my kids could have it every day of the week, they would. We like one pot dishes because they are so easy and we all have less time together, don’t we?’

Which hits at the heart of this new show. As families living in a busy, modern world, we have less time together than ever — so spending precious moments together cooking is, sadly, a rarity.

Zoe agrees that ‘a lot of families don’t get the chance to cook together, but you can see here that when they do, they become really close.’

This is a closeness mirrored by Zoe, Nadiya, Rosemary and Giorgio. Before I leave, the girls inform me that it is, in fact, Rosemary Shrager who rules at arm wrestling: ‘She took me down,’ laughs Zoe. ‘She just offered me another one and I said ‘‘no, I’m not taking you on again!’’ We are our very own little cookery program’s dysfunctional family. Nadiya agrees: ‘Zoe is the crazy auntie!’

The Big Family Cooking Showdown is on Tuesdays on BBC Two at 8pm; Nadiya’s British Food Adventure £20

Zoe’s favourite ferran adria’s pasta bolognese

This may seem a lot, but you can split it into portions and freeze it for up to six months, ready for a quick supper.

To make 2.5kg of bolognese sauce

■ 225g butter

■ 1.2kg minced beef

■ 350g pork sausage meat

■ 500g onions

■ 150g celery

■ 400g carrots

■ 150ml extra virgin olive oil

■ 12g tomato purée

■ 1.6kg tinned chopped tomatoes

■ 1 pinch sugar

1. Put a large pan over a medium-high heat, then add the butter and let it melt. Add the beef mince, fry until it has changed colour, then add the sausage meat.

2. Cook for a few more minutes, season with salt and pepper, then cook for 15 minutes longer, stirring frequently, until dark golden brown.

3. Meanwhile, finely chop the onions and celery. Finely chop the carrots.

4. Put another pan over a low heat, then pour in the olive oil. Fry the vegetables gently until softened (about 12 minutes).

5. Add the meat to the vegetables and mix everything together well.

6. Add the chopped tomatoes and the tomato purée. Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Simmer the sauce for 1½ hours until the meat is very tender.

For the pasta bolognese (serves six)

■ 540g bolognese sauce

■ 3L water

■ 30g salt

■ 540g penne pasta

■ 120ml extra virgin olive oil

■ 180g grated Parmesan cheese

1. Put 540g of the bolognese sauce into a large pan over a medium heat. Bring to a simmer.

2. Bring the water to the boil in a large pan, season with the salt, then add the penne. Boil the pasta for 8-10 minutes. Then drain.

3. Tip it back into the pan and stir in the olive oil then serve the pasta topped with a large spoonful of the bolognese sauce.

4. Serve the Parmesan cheese separately for everyone to sprinkle their own.

From The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià, by Ferran Adrià (Phaidon), £21.99

Nadiya’s favourite prawn and orange curry with basmati rice

Serves 3

For the prawn and orange curry

■ 3 tablespoons olive oil

■ 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

■ 1 small onion, chopped

■ 1 small green chilli, chopped

■ ¼ teaspoon turmeric

■ ½ teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning

■ 1 teaspoon ground cumin

■ 2 teaspoon paprika

■ 200ml water

■ zest and juice of 1 large orange

■ 300g raw shelled tiger prawns

■ A handful of fresh coriander, chopped

For the basmati rice

■ 225g basmati rice

■ 500ml cold water

1. Put the olive oil in a pan and place on a medium heat. Add the crushed garlic and cook for a minute.

2. Add the chopped onion and green chilli and cook for a further three minutes, allowing the onions to soften.

3. Stir in the turmeric, salt, cumin and paprika. Add the water, orange zest and juice. Stir again and allow the whole thing to cook gently for about 12-15 minutes.

4. While the sauce is simmering, place the rice in a medium pan so the grains have room to move while boiling. Add the water and bring to the boil over a high heat, stirring after five minutes. Let it boil for another five minutes and then stir again. The water should have almost entirely evaporated.

5. Put the pan on the lowest setting on your hob, cover and leave to steam for five minutes.

6. The curry sauce should now have reduced and thickened. Check the seasoning, then go ahead and add your prawns. Cook for as little as three to four minutes or just until they have gone pink.

7. Take off the heat and stir in the coriander. Serve the curry with the hot rice.

■ From Nadiya’s British Food Adventure (Michael Joseph). RRP £20