Food & Drink

Aaron Craze, chef and face of ‘Junior Bake Off’

We catch up with Jamie Oliver protégée, Aaron Craze to talk veg, baking, Jennifer Lawrence and other

Best known as the face of hit series ‘Junior Bake Off’ on CBBC, Aaron Craze left school with no formal qualifications before joining Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Chef Training Programme in 2002 and developing a passion for food. He graduated in 2004 and worked at both The Ivy and at Fifteen before taking over The Cock Inn, Braintree, transforming it from a country pub into a vibrant Italian-inspired pub and restaurant.

He has gone on to feature in a variety of magazines and newspapers and published his first book “Aaron Cooks Italian’ in 2008. Currently Sous Chef at Mayfair’s Zedel Brasserie, earlier this year, he launched ‘Love Your Greens’ a campaign to get more children eating their greens (check out Aaron's recipe here).

We caught up with him ahead of next week’s Cake and Bake Show in Manchester to talk more about how he escaped his background of “gangster-type wheeler dealers”, what he loves about the kitchen, and why he believes all kids can learn to love their veg.

My big break came when I saw Jamie’s Fifteen programme. I applied and then went down there and said to Jamie, “Look, I can’t cook. I don’t know anything about food - I don’t know how to cook a bacon sandwich – but I’ll turn up every day.” He wanted a blank canvas though. He didn’t want someone who had been working in kitchens who had bad habits.

I was inspired just watching Jamie and the way he is. He’s patient, not like some of those chefs, Ramsay and the like, who are crazy. Rather than telling you where you’re going wrong, he shows you how to get it right. He’s very passionate. Very impressive and inspiring. I don’t know why he gets a hard time – people are jealous.

Not a lot of people get an opportunity to escape their background. Especially now that there are not a lot of apprenticeships about. Years ago, you used to be able to go into a plumbers and they’d just take you on and train you up. Now you’ve got to go on all these courses, which is fair enough, but some people aren’t academic; they’d rather get taught on the job. Luckily, that opportunity to learn on the job was there for me.

My partner was the one who pushed me to apply for Fifteen. She wasn’t pushing me down the chef route – just a job route. We had a baby and another one on the way, so she wanted me to get my life together. It was a massive shock, because there were so many hours. When you first start out, you get nothing – I think I was getting £100 a week for 60 hours work. It took a lot to get out of bed at 6am.

The thing I love most about being a chef is the brotherhood of the kitchen. It’s just something else. There’s so much pressure and responsibility. You can’t let people down. If you’re late, no one will speak to you. It’s like a car. Every part has got to be there to make it work. It’s exactly the same as the army. There’s a hierarchy. The Sargeant Major is the Head Chef. The Lieutenants are the Sous and it goes right down to the Privates who are Commis. You spend so much time with each other, more than you would your family.

Running The Cock Inn turned me from a boy into a man. They just gave me the keys and that was it. I had a lot of responsibility. I was employing people, so I had to be mature - I had to grow up. I had bills to pay, and keep consistency, and be creative, and make menus. I’d only been cooking a year and a half and I had my own business – it was crazy!

There was a lot of pressure at The Cock. It put a lot of strain on my relationship too because I was working every single day and night. It doesn’t leave much time for your family and I missed out on a lot of stuff with the kids and my partner, but I won a Rosette in the first six months. I achieved a lot, and I took away management experience from it. Things that you would usually have to spend ten years in the kitchen to learn, I learnt in two or three years.

Why is it a struggle to get kids to eat veg? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the way it’s being cooked at home. Maybe people don’t know how to make vegetables exciting. It’s the parents, not the kids though. You’ve got to have it on the plate every day from when they’re babies. What they see is what they become, so anything you show them, that’s what they are. It’s the same with parenting: if you are a bad parent and violent, then the kid’s going to be violent; if you’re happy and easy going, then your kids are going to be happy and easy going. You’ve got to pump the vegetables in from the start and make sure that they’re part of their diet - and be a little bit creative too.

Junior Bake Off is a success because, well, kids love sweets, don’t they? Chocolates, biscuits – it’s the same with vegetables though – if they help make it, they want to eat it. These days, cooking is everywhere – there are all these books and TV shows, so it’s pumped in their face, and when there’s an element of competition too, they love it. They like involved and helping. If they make something, they always feel really proud.

My best trait as a chef is… Multi-tasking. I can do four or five things at once pretty easily.

My worst trait is… Not sticking to recipes. I like to put my own bit in there, so I’m a bit naughty like that. I can also be a bit messy. I’m like a tornedo, trying to do ten things at once.

The Ivy was the first restaurant that I went into. It was like a big ship. At the top was all elegant and lovely and downstairs we were shovelling coal into a fire. It was crazy, like 100 chefs just going mad. I learnt control and how to work under pressure and how to get a burn and a cut!

In five words, I would describe myself as… Easily distracted, but nice guy.

You might not know this, but I’m a musician. I play saxophone, piano and guitar. I played in a band when I was in the Philippines recently. They were called ‘Sandwich’ and they were a big punk band out there. I was out filming a show and they were playing at the wrap party. They asked me to come up and play, but I haven’t really got time to be in a band usually! Maybe one day.

My social media of choice is Instagram. I’m always taking photos of my kids or of food and it’s just easy to use. I’m not really in Twitter and that. I’ve got it, but I’m not really into it.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is… “Don’t think about it, just do it.” That’s from Andy Parkinson when you’ve got 10 shifts ahead of you. Get on with it, basically.

The people I would invite to me dream dinner party would be… Ali Campbell or probably the whole of UB40, Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan and, er, Jennifer Lawrence, ha, ha.

The person I admire most is… My mum. She brought us up – all four of us – on her own and she’s just always there for us and she always supports us, so yeah, she’s my biggest hero.

My favourite app is… That’s a tricky one. It depends where I am. Maybe Fifa. No, actually, it’s Instagram.

My favourite website is… I don’t know. I’m always on Amazon ordering books and DVDS.

In five years time, I see myself… Opening a coffee shop/deli with my partner Laura and having my daughters working there.

Aaron will be appearing at the Cake and Bake Show in Manchester Event City on 12-15 November alongside fellow baking stars, Rosemary Shrager, Eric Lanlard, Lisa Faulkner, Gregg Wallace, Wendi Peters, Brendan Lynch and including on the Great British Bake Off Live stage will be newly crowned GBBO Champion 2015, Nadiya Hussain, along with her fellow finalists Ian Cumming and Tamal Ray, plus past champions from the previous five series. For more information and ticket details, visit www.thecakeandbakeshow.co.uk

Interview by Emily Jenkinson

November 2015