Ed Balls is unhappy about the mess. They say you can judge a cook by how he cleans and Britain’s one-time education minister, shadow chancellor of the exchequer and most popular Gangnam Style tribute act is surrounded by broken shells, tiramisu, pasta sauce, soup and – to his mind most offensively – runny custard in a hard pastry base. There are Le Creusets and frying pans and bowls and sieves, the detritus of any self-respecting cookery photoshoot.
“It’s very upsetting,” Balls, 54, protests, brandishing a creamy whisk. “I’m a clean-as-you-go chef. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. This is more like Yvette’s kitchen,” he adds, throwing his wife, Yvette Cooper MP, under the slovenly bus. “She’s like a snail, you can see wherever she’s been. It’s one of the reasons she doesn’t cook. At a certain point I just decided it was easier for me to do it.”
If the mess is out of character, he’s coming clean about the cooking. Balls has always been a keen home chef, the primary meal-maker for himself, Yvette and their three children, Ellie, 22, Joe, 20, and Maddy, 17. For most of his career, however, it was a private passion. Then last summer, after Covid torpedoed a documentary he planned to make about Trump’s America, he entered – and won – the BBC’s Celebrity Best Home Cook, beating a group including the comedian Ed Byrne and Rachel Johnson, journalist and sister of Boris, for the approval of Mary Berry. Over eight episodes Balls showed aptitude for a range of dishes, but the highlight was a magnificent pirate-ship birthday cake, complete with Curlywurly cordage and white chocolate sails. When Balls explained that he had always made the birthday cakes for his children, even Berry’s cockles were warmed.
In the wake of the show came the idea for a book that would expand on a collection of family recipes he collated for Ellie when she went away to university. The result is Appetite, an entertaining memoir told through food, complete with recipes for key dishes in his life. His grandma’s shepherd’s pie. A roast like the one his mother would have on the table at the family home in Norwich every Sunday in the 1970s. The all-night slow-cooked pork he served at constituency parties, and for which he was shopping on 28 April 2011, when he accidentally tweeted his own name from Castleford Asda. Rather than be embarrassed by tweeting his own name, he leant into Ed Balls Day. The British political food book is not a crowded field, aside from Nigel Lawson’s diet guide, but it’s fertile ground. Balls knows his onions.
By now we shouldn’t be surprised by Ed Balls’s extracurricular enthusiasms. In Isaiah Berlin’s formulation, people tend to be either hedgehogs, who know a lot about one thing, or foxes, who know a little about many things. For most of his life, Balls gave every impression of being a classic hedgehog, a gifted economist who read PPE at Oxford before a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard and a brief career as a leader writer for the FT. At 27 he took a job working on fiscal policy for Gordon Brown with another bright young Labour wonk, Ed Miliband. It wasn’t long before Balls was fast-tracked into becoming an MP, one of the heirs apparent to the Blair/Brown generation, and quickly elevated to the cabinet as secretary of state for children, schools and families. After Labour lost in 2010, Balls came third in the ensuing leadership contest behind the brothers Miliband, and emerged as the obvious choice to become shadow chancellor. He approached the 2015 general election reasonably confident he would be the next chancellor of the exchequer.
Everyone knows what happened next. A butterfly flapped its wing, David Cameron promised a referendum on the EU, Ed Miliband ate a bacon sandwich. Suddenly the Tories were in with a narrow majority. When the exit poll came in at 10pm on 7 May, Balls suffered one of those vertiginous reversals of fate that only politics, sport and war tend to offer. As dawn broke on a Conservative government, Balls found himself not only without a ministerial post, but seatless. A career that had looked guided on rails was suddenly off them. He was Labour’s Michael Portillo, an emblem of the changing of the guard.
In such situations politicians usually slink off, write a cathartic memoir – not always in a shepherd’s hut – and brood on what might have been. Instead, Balls threw himself into other activities with the zest he once brought to keeping Britain out of the euro. The hedgehog became distinctly foxlike. On Strictly Come Dancing, in fake tan and sequins, Balls showed BBC viewers a fun-loving, game side that hadn’t always been obvious during his political career. When he got round to the cathartic book, Speaking Out, it was more readable than the usual political doorstops, a series of life lessons presented in digestible chapters. He climbed Kilimanjaro with Shirley Ballas and Dani Dyer for Comic Relief. He played the banjo at the Royal Variety Show. “The big question about Ed Balls,” one political journalist tells me, “is how do you have that life nonstop up to the age of 48 and not end up a total psychopath? He had all these dry and busy jobs, but is also a very normal well-rounded person.”
When Balls is done pretending to sieve flour we sit down for cod and chips from Knight’s, a West Norwood institution round the corner from the photo studio. The Balls family still often has Friday fish and chips in Castleford, Yvette’s constituency, and it was a key dish in Ed and Yvette’s early relationship. “You can’t beat chips cooked in beef fat,” he says, tasting one and murmuring his approval. “But you have to eat them quickly before they go completely solid.”
As he digs into the fish he enumerates his other interests. A diehard Norwich City fan – and club chairman for three years until 2018 – Balls was a regular in the MPs v hacks fixture. He still plays once a week at Shoreditch Powerleague, with fellow ex-MP James Purnell and other old Labour lags. Then there’s the piano. “I’ve just agreed to play in a concert in December – a charity concert in Kings Place – I’m going to play the opening aria of the Goldberg Variations. I’m starting to regret it… I originally foolishly said in an interview when I was shadow chancellor that my goal was Grade 8 by 50, which sailed past. It’s like the government’s fiscal rules. You say, ‘Over the next three years, I will’ and then every year it’s still within sight.” Oh, and don’t forget the sailing and golf.
Most politicians find ways to relax. Heath sailed, Churchill laid bricks, David Cameron chillaxed with Fruit Ninja. When politicians are still in office, these pastimes can have a whiff of being deployed for electoral effect. When Boris Johnson talked about painting crates to look like buses, it seemed calculating. Balls’s life is not all beer and skittles. He is making a documentary about social care, the latest in a run that has taken him around Europe and America. Yet for the past six years Balls has given every impression of being that rarest of beasts: a happy freelancer, and politician actually enjoying being out of office.
“When Labour left government in 2010 I was exhausted,” he says. “I thought I could have a spiralling midlife crisis. Instead, I decided I would channel that energy into other things. That sounds glib. But the serious point is that you think, ‘Now is the time to do all the things you’ve really wanted to do, because you’ve got the chance’. In social care you meet people who are young who’ve had something go wrong. You think, ‘It could be me.’”
“I’ve come to terms with not having to succeed,” he adds. “I don’t mind if I’m not good. I quite like being OK at stuff. I spent years in a world where there was this drive and competition to get to the top and to feel the pressure of that. And the truth is I don’t feel any pressure now. Part of me wishes I’d got to that stage earlier. I wish I’d spent more of my 30s and 40s with a bit more of that other stuff in the mix. I don’t think doing more hours makes for better government. If I was running a team of surgeons, I’d want to know they had time off.”
One of his regrets is not spending more time with his children when they were young. He and Yvette were the first married couple to serve in the cabinet at the same time. “We tried hard,” he says. “But we could have done better.” Has cooking been a way to make up for lost time? “Definitely. I would always do the weekend cooking when they were little, but it’s not just the cooking. It’s asking them what they want, cooking the things they ask for, to be able to be the person who delivers. I didn’t miss out entirely, but I wish I had done more. But you might as well find that out now rather than on your deathbed, because it leaves you time to do something about it.”
Balls was taught to cook by his mother, and later in life it was through her meals that the family got the first inklings of her dementia, as the ever-reliable cook began serving uncooked food. “I didn’t think I was going to write about the dementia,” he says. “I was going to write about what my mum taught me and where my love of cooking began. But food was the first time we knew mum’s dementia was bad. I said this to my dad, and he said, ‘For me, that happened all the time. It became normal. For you to see your mum, who had always cooked Sunday lunch, produce something raw, was a jarring moment.” His dad slowly took over in the kitchen, which offended his increasingly disoriented mum. During the pandemic, with his mother in full-time care, his dad started to experiment with dishes he would never have tried before.
A whole chapter in Appetite is devoted to Balls’s unsuccessful attempts at dieting, with recipes for prawn pho and black bean soup. “I continually worry about my weight, but in an inadequate, slightly useless kind of way,” he says. “If it was just me, I probably wouldn’t be having fish and chips for lunch. But as my mum says, I’m heavy-boned, so I’m never going to do well on the standard tables for height and weight. But I would really like to lose 8kg, I just never quite get round to it. With me it’s entirely about focus – my lack of it.”
If food at home has been about love, connection and tradition, food in politics is inevitably about power. When Peter Mandelson invited the young Balls to his flat to plot his future political career, he served just a soup and a salad. The power play was clear: Mandelson was in charge.
“It was beautifully done,” Balls says. “He’d thought about it carefully. It’s very memorable. The big food events in politics were not really about the food at all.”
Later, Balls was present for the infamous dinner on Upper Street in Islington, at the now defunct restaurant Granita, where Blair and Brown are said to have agreed how they would divide up the leadership of the Labour party. Disoriented by a menu that featured polenta, Brown didn’t eat, instead wolfing down a steak back at HQ. “Gordon would have his steaks basically incinerated,” Balls says. “Of course I tried to have a word with him about that, but as my dad would say, ‘There are different people and they like their beef cooked in different ways.’” Would Brown mind that the other recent world leader who preferred his steaks well done was Donald Trump? “Gordon would not be happy about that,” Balls says.
At dinner on trips abroad, Brown would often leave the unfamiliar food. Culinary conservatism helped his image, giving the impression he was simply too busy reforming the world economy to mind about such fripperies. Balls experienced the opposite, where the eating was so distracting it was impossible not to. “When Ed Miliband was leader he was on a low-carb diet, I don’t know why. Yet for some reason his office had ordered lasagne for this big team dinner in the shadow cabinet room. We were meant to be talking about the future of the Labour party, but all we could do was watch Ed separating meat from pasta.”
Then there was bacon-sandwich-gate. “You have to be very careful about what you eat on camera,” Balls says. “Never pasta. Pizza is tricky, too. I would have bacon and egg, but never in a sandwich. He shouldn’t have been having a bacon sandwich in the first place, but he should at least have tried not to make it look like the sandwich was devouring him. It was such a stupid thing. Labour’s challenge at the time was not whether Ed could eat bacon sandwiches.”
If the incident still rankles that may be because relations with Miliband have never recovered from his successful bid for the leadership. Ed’s “fratricide” of his brother David is well documented, but it was almost an equal betrayal of Balls. “I should go and have a drink with Ed,” he says. “We don’t have a fundamental difference about policy at all. It’s just that we were both part of a tough time losing an election campaign.”
Britain has witnessed a drastic change in culinary standards since 1967. For a student of globalisation like Balls, food has been a way to track a changing Britain. Any conversation about what we eat inevitably soon dovetails with other narratives in the UK, about insularity and inclusivity, the pace of change. “I like the idea that I cook different things from my mum and dad, but I also like the idea that part of what I cook I inherited from them,” he says.
For all Balls talks of his newfound freedom, the politician has not completely vanished. He can’t resist a pop at the Tories over the school meals fiasco. “They were so tin-eared,” he says. “What were they doing? If they had been on the ball, Marcus Rashford would not have had the same cut-through.” He won’t say whether he thinks Keir Starmer is the right man to lead the Labour party, only that he has his work cut out. “Keir’s working very hard at it, but the scale of the task is huge,” he says. “It’s much harder than the last time either party had to rebuild like this. He’s dealing with the hard-left infiltration and the antisemitism, the disconnect that happened after the Brexit referendum. He knows that Labour can’t win as an urban party and has never been able to do that.”
It’s also true that the pandemic has provided utter vindication to a Ballsian view of stimulus spending. After the financial crash, Balls as shadow chancellor made the case for government spending to support an economy in crisis. At the time George Osborne was able to persuade voters that austerity was a better course. Coronavirus, which put voters’ lives directly on the line, has put paid to that debate. “Austerity feels like a very, very long time ago,” Balls says. “Our arguments in 2009-10 were that you have to support the economy and job creation. If you try to go too early to consolidate with austerity and cutting the state, you’ll make things worse. These are the arguments the Treasury, the Bank of England and the chancellor have made for the past 18 months. They’re right. They were right 10 years ago, as well. It’s taken a pandemic for people to be forced to see the wisdom of those ideas.”
Listening to Balls back on his special subject, you wonder if there’s still a pilot light of political ambition flickering deep within. A Labour party in search of an experienced centre-left candidate with strong economic credentials and broad public recognition could do worse than put “Ed Balls” into the search bar, as he himself famously failed to do. There’s an irony with Balls, as with Miliband, that the character we have been allowed to see since he left frontline politics is more appealing to voters than when he was standing. Would anything coax him back?
“I’m not going to say I never would,” he says. “The reality is I loved being in government. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most satisfying. So if that opened up I’d have to think really hard about it. But Labour’s not in government, nobody’s asking me to do anything, I’m not even in parliament. Do I ever expect to go back into politics? No.”
Balls has said that he’s comfortable with the idea people will remember him for his Gangnam Style routine rather than his achievements in government. Yet long after the memories of Strictly and Celebrity Best Home Cook have faded, the UK will still not be in the euro, the Bank of England will still be independent, the NHS will still be at the heart of British life. And to win elections, Labour will still need to find a way to appeal to voters beyond their base. Who knows, the wily fox might have another throw of the political dice in him. There could be a different kind of Ed Balls day to celebrate. Chancellor Balls? PM Balls? It wouldn’t be the most surprising thing he has done.
Appetite: a Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food by Ed Balls is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99. Buy it for £14.78 at guardianbookshop.com