Gizzi Erskine has been an idol of mine for many years. From the first time I saw her huge beehive and bold flavours on Cook Yourself Thin, I knew this love affair would be an enduring one. Today, I own all of her cookbooks, with some of my favourite things to make residing within their pages. She’s won tonnes of awards, brought Asian fusion food to the masses, and even been immortalised in cake.
When Square UK announced they were opening a pop-up shop in Birmingham, and putting on an evening with Gizzi herself, I got HUGELY excited when they invited me to attend.
The idea behind the event was for Gizzi to share the story of her success as a chef and entrepreneur, and her candid talk didn’t disappoint. It was also great to see Laura from Full To The Brum hosting and asking the questions.
How did it all start? Gizzi started her story at her childhood, where she grew up in a totally bohemian household. She’s half Polish (and despite not being Jewish, she kind of secretly wishes she was), and split her time between the UK and Thailand. She credits her love of and interest in food to her mother, and learned very quickly to experiment with ingredients.
Gizzi started her professional career as a piercer, and drew many parallels between the discipline and precision required in that field, with working in a professional kitchen. In her early 20’s, she moved away from piercing and enrolled at Leith’s cookery school. She remembers being the oldest in her class, struggling to keep her head above water surrounded by very rich teenagers, but she rose to (and exceeded) the challenge, even winning a prized internship at BBC Good Food.
She considers her first ‘real’ job in cooking as her time at St John, where she trained under the watchful eyes of Karl Goward and Justin Gellatly. She got the chance to open at the BBC Good Food Show for Jamie Oliver, before being offered the chance to present on TV.
Gizzi worked on Full on Food with Heston Blumenthal and Richard Corrigan, behind the scenes at Ready Steady Cook, testing gadgets on Taste before getting the gig as a regular presenter on Cook Yourself Thin.
Hilariously, she described the Cook Yourself Thin team as “the spice girls of food” where her role was “World Spice” focusing on world and fusion food. The gig wasn’t without its problems though. She initially got fired for being too gobby, before being asked back to take over the show solo, with more creative control.
It was never her plan to go into TV though, it just seemed to be an opportunity that kept coming back. Despite her many TV appearances, she feels that her current show Seoul Food documenting 6 months working in Korea, is her most authentic yet, and she’s super proud of it.
Gizzi’s passion for fusion food, especially Asian flavours, was evident. She became more and more animated as she spoke. After learning how to understand ingredients at just 13, she’s a big advocate for just giving it a go and learning by taste what works and what doesn’t. Inspired by people like Peter Gordon (the first man to put avocado on toast!) and David Chang of Momofuko fame, she feels fusion revolutionised how she cooks, and the Internet is now allowing it to transform the repertoires of chefs and home cooks alike.
What’s her favourite type of food? It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows Gizzi that it’s Korean food. She describes Korean food as delicious, but misunderstood. A lot of people judge Korean food because of the old tropes about eating dog meat – which came out of post-war necessity, rather than choice – but having spent half a year living and working there, Gizzi feels she understands and appreciates Korean food on a whole other level now.
Her signature dish Korean Fried Chicken is one which has a story. During the Korean war, the American soldiers craved the fried chicken from home, but it wasn’t spicy enough for the Koreans, so they combined it with a spicy, sticky sauce and added spring onions and sesame seeds for garnish. It was one of the first fusion dishes and one that endures to this day. Here, you can watch Gizzi make it.
She’s also excited by Malaysian food, with lots of bloggers getting into new and exciting stuff that pushes boundaries. Her go to comfort food dish, though, is a good Spaghetti Bolognese.
What does she think of bloggers? Gizzi admits to being one of the first chefs to embrace bloggers. She welcomed them in, while others shunned the idea. She loves that people are more knowledgeable about food and able to have a deep and meaningful conversation about it now.
What’s her advice to people starting out? Gizzi believes in fighting for what’s right, because it will pay off; listening to advice and learning, but now allowing yourself to be manipulated; keeping your authenticity at all times; some things do work, and some things don’t, and that’s ok, just never stop being creative; know what you have that’s unique, because you can’t fake that stuff, and passion outshines everything – if you’re motivated enough, you can succeed.
The gift of the gab helps too. Being able to talk to people and connect, share your crazy ideas with people as crazy as you and work with amazing teams really can make things happen. Her dream scenario – her K Town pop-up at Concrete – came about through working with people who embraced her bonkers vision, which included a gorgeous ladyboy host, go go girls, rockabilly bands and a 5 course Korean menu, and the resulting event was a roaring success.
So what’s next for Gizzi? She’s working on some really exciting projects for next year, in particular a celebration of multiculturalism in London, and of course, more exciting pop-up events.
I was lucky enough to meet Gizzi in person after the talk, and she was a genuinely wonderful human being – warm, interesting, funny and honest. I’ll admit I totally did a fangirl and asked her to sign one of my books, which she happily obliged to, and I left the event feeling totally inspired and full of enthusiasm for my own cookbook project.
Huge thanks to Square for hosting the event! Square is a tech company that enables small businesses around the world to take credit and debit card payments, with no monthly fees or long commitments. Their first UK pop up in Great Western Arcade is on until tomorrow, where business owners can get their hands on a free Square Reader worth £39 when they visit the shop and sign up.