Loyle Carner: ‘I grew up with ADHD, and for me cooking is close to meditation’

The rapper and cookery teacher on the lyrics for his track Ottolenghi, table tennis with Heston and the karma of the kitchen

My mother worries about cows and methane. She’s been vegetarian since she was 20, for moral, global reasons, and I was brought up on amazing things like Mum’s Quorn mince risotto until I was about 14.

The first time I ate meat – jerk chicken – was at a barbecue for lots of relatives I didn’t know with my biological father, who had left when I was two. I threw up from all the spice. I was really embarrassed. At my mother’s parents’ house, down the road in West Norwood, I developed my love for meat in secret. My nan used to have little pre-cooked chicken strips and I’d creep into her kitchen, take some out of the packet, do a fry-up and then clean up and put everything back together again, like it never happened. My grand-parents knew, but I didn’t know they knew. Then one day I got caught by mum eating a bacon sandwich made by her father. It all gave me a moral compass, of sorts.

Mum was up at the crack of dawn to work as a special needs teacher. I grew up with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Mum asked when it was that I felt most at peace. I replied “doing physical things like football” and so she encouraged my cooking. It’s all encompassing, cooking. You’re distracted by lots of colours of spices and everything but the kinetic energy all feeds back into the same thing – what you’re cooking. [The Buddhist monk] Jeong Kwan says that cookery is the closest to meditation.

For a while I was made to take Concerta, a drug like Ritalin, to help bridge the gaps between my synapses, to make me focus on one thing, but I was a zombie on it, just numb. I wasn’t making jokes, I wasn’t creative, I wasn’t eating, I lost weight. I realised that ADHD was the worst and the best thing I had and I needed it.

As a dyslexic but a lover of cooking I am forced to, but I’m keen to, read and learn words in cookbooks. For me the most bright and colourful and filled with little photos and little anecdotes and bitty-bits is Fuck,That’s Delicious by the rapper Action Ronson. The book I’ve most struggled with – which is a shame as he’s one of my favourite chefs – is Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers, because it has so many words, is so lyrically dense and beautifully written, I spend all my time getting my head around it. I wouldn’t change the book though; just my brain.

Back when I was at The Brit School in Selhurst I was treated like an adult and allowed out at lunch. The canteen at The Brit School was kinda shit and it was a big food experience on the high street, aged 14. I went to a chicken shop for the first time and had doner meat and chips, and curried goat or stew chicken from a Caribbean restaurant. It was chicken, chicken, bacon and chicken, beef, bacon, chicken, more chicken, more bacon, and anything I could get my hands on – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I felt grown-up.

I’m allergic to nuts and sesame seeds. I can’t eat tahini or any nuts, so I avoid desserts, which has kept me thin. I don’t like mussels. I want to, because my girlfriend loves them, but I can’t.

I watch cookery and football on television – that’s about all. I’ve watched every cookery programme. Antonio Carluccio was maybe my favourite. He was like a father figure to me, in so far as he was teaching philosophy, wisdom. I have this wicked Carluccio book in which he says: “We Italians treat vegetables like it’s the main course.” For me it was amazing.

I was reading Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem on the train, on the way to the studio, and these two guys started effing and blinding and one said: “Why the fuck are you reading that? You know you can get in trouble for reading that around here?.” I said “It’s a cookbook. A Bible of sorts, to me”. They started taking the piss but – thank God – got off the train. Then a mother and daughter got on and the mum explained: “You have to have rain, otherwise things wouldn’t grow.” After arriving at the studio I wrote the lyrics for Ottolenghi in one stream of consciousness.

Ottolenghi by Loyle Carner

Now I’m able to text Ottolenghi and he texts me back. Him and Heston Blumenthal are incredible chefs. Heston, who has ADHD, taught me loads of things, including a sick steak tip, when we hung out at his house. We’ve played table tennis and he’s made me the most amazing mango lassi I’ve ever had – just ice, mango pulp, coconut yogurt plus his secret ingredients.

Being a rapper is wicked – it means I can have ADHD and make money, something not everybody gets to do. But there are loads of restaurants and not enough chefs and you can work your way up at 16 and in your 20s own a restaurant. I started my Chilli Con Carner cookery school [for people with learning or social difficulties] three years ago with Mikey Krzyzanowski and it’s never been better. We especially love making pasta.

A few months ago I got a place with my girlfriend, which she’s filled with my cookbooks. She is also a teacher, so I understand what she goes through. She’s a big fan of Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein. She’s a good cook and a better cook than me. She’s a knack for it. She picks simple recipes and always pulls them off. I sort of work the background and stop things from burning; we’re a good team. And there’s always an extra finish to her dishes. She does this wicked thing where she makes a simple pasta and then sprinkles onto it, in the oven, a breadcrumb mix she does, with finely chopped-up stale bread and parsley and parmesan. It makes something that’s OK into something incredible.

My favourite things

I used to be fascinated by making little volcanos with my finger in the foam of my stepfather’s Guinness. Now I love freshly squeezed orange juice with fizzy water, ice, a piece of lemon and a little bit of ginger.

Homeslice Fitzrovia (in London), who helped out in a big way for my cooking school, teaching the kids how to make pizza dough, sauce and everything. And Lardo in Hackney. If they run out of peaches, the salad evolves into a raspberry salad. It’s beautiful.

Signature dish
All my friends are veggies right now, but I’m very good at making an Italian stew with simple tomato sauce and loads of cuts of meat – beef ribs, sausages, chops – put on a really low heat for six hours. Then you cook up spaghetti with the rest of the sauce. Two beautiful dishes plus bread and salad. Incredible.


John Hind

The GuardianTramp

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