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In conversation with former politician and star of Strictly, Ed Balls

Posted on 28 October 2021

In October, Ed Balls, broadcaster, writer and economist and former politician spoke with Academy Manager, Marianne Fuller about his new book Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food.  Appetite is a memoir with a twist: part autobiography, part cookbook, each chapter is a recipe that tells a story.

Ed was taught to cook by his mother, and now he's passing these recipes on to his children as they start to fly the nest. Sitting around the table year after year, the world around us may change, but great recipes last a lifetime. Appetite is a celebration of love, family, and really good food.

As a former MP, Ed was UK Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (2011-2015) and served in the UK Cabinet as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (2007-2010). Ed is married to Yvette Cooper MP and was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing in 2016. 

Marianne Fuller

Welcome everyone to this Mishcon Academy Digital series event. Hello and welcome to wonderful Ed. You have got an incredible CV; writer, broadcaster, lecturer, obviously ex-politician and most importantly the first winner of Best Home Cook so congratulations for that.

Ed Balls

Thank you very much indeed.

Marianne Fuller 

This is a really wonderful book and I'm not just saying that because you're sat in front of me today, I absolutely loved it.  So how, how did this happen?

Ed Balls

Well, I mean as you said, it was partly because of Best Home Cook. I was supposed to be going out to America last summer to film a second Trump land series and then of course the pandemic stopped that happening.

Marianne Fuller 

Sure, yeah,

Ed Balls

And then I suddenly had the opportunity quite late, they said, do you fancy doing month in a kitchen with Mary Berry? I thought okay, Best Home Cook.  A couple of years before I'd actually, I'd made a recipe book, but it's kind of slightly surprising there's only two copies of this recipe book. My, my daughter when she was 18 and we said to her what would you like for your 18th birthday thinking you know, it was hard to choose and she said what she'd like is a collection of all the recipes that I'd cooked in the first 18 years of her life so that she could take them out into the University and into the world…

Marianne Fuller 

How lovely.

Ed Balls

…and so on Best home Cook those were the recipes I used in the in the show and we thought that actually when I look back through my life, generally everything was food relate and if you thought of the recipes which then took you to different experiences and maybe that would strike a chord with, with people so that's how the idea came…

Marianne Fuller 

Amazing.

Ed Balls

…about 34 recipes and lots of stories.

Marianne Fuller

I was absolutely fascinated to hear that your first experience of food…

Ed Balls

I know, don't copy this.

Marianne Fuller

…was at a very young age. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

Ed Balls

I know, this, listen I was born in 1967 and I think I was 10 pound 2 ounces, so I was quite a big, quite a big baby and the health visitor came to visit you know as, as they do in the first couple of weeks and when she came the third time, when I was three weeks old she said, milk's not enough for him.  She said, he's growing you know, he needs more than that.  She said, put him on solids.

Marianne Fuller

What!

Ed Balls

So yeah I was three weeks old when I had my first roast dinner and and I, I never looked back.

Marianne Fuller

So, so let's talk about that first food memory.  What, what, what was that?

Ed Balls

My brother went through this phase when he was very little of you know, we'd get home from the supermarket and things would be in, in the basket which nobody could remember purchasing. One time we came home and there was this this, this chilli con carne spice and so my mum put it in the shepherd pie.

Marianne Fuller

And that's how you made your chilli?

Ed Balls

And so it was a chilli con carne shepherd's pie and I mean we're talking about 1979, this was revolutionary.  I mean my mom and dad never ate spicy food and my mum only used half the sachet, because she did not want to overdo it but actually it was really, really nice. Back then the range of ingredients which were around and which people used was…

Marianne Fuller 

Wasn’t much.

Ed Balls

Was much, much narrower.

Marianne Fuller 

There's a point in the book where you talk about your first experience going to a restaurant which I absolutely love. Can you share with us what that was like?

Ed Balls

Yeah. In 70s, early 80s people didn't go to restaurants. There were very few restaurants outside of the big centre of the cities.

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah.

Ed Balls

And so we, we… other than fish and chips, we never ever went to a restaurant and then this moment occurred when I was about 11 I think, 11 or 12, my mum said that we should try going to a restaurant.  We went to The, The Shard in Tarleton. It was Sunday lunch and so it was… you had a choice of like pork or beef…

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah.

Ed Balls

…and then vegetables and terrines but the starter is what I remember and the starter choice was tomato soup, prawn cocktail or freshly squeezed orange juice…

Marianne Fuller 

What?

Ed Balls

…and you know, my mum made tomato soup and the general view in our family was we didn't eat prawns…

Marianne Fuller 

Okay, okay.

Ed Balls

…as I said you know, we were quite small conservative eaters…

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah, yeah, yeah

Ed Balls

…at the time so all five of us, we chose the orange juice and it all arrived in this glass on a doily…

Marianne Fuller 

Doily yeah of course.

Ed Balls

…with a napkin and we all sat there round the table and drank this orange juice and it was incredibly exciting, I mean it was the most, the most special thing.

Marianne Fuller 

So when were you let loose in the kitchen, when did you find that independence to sort of start experimenting?

Ed Balls

I did my Cub Scout and my Scouts cook badge.

Marianne Fuller 

Okay.

Ed Balls

And I was the person who my mum, partly because of that, she taught me to cook. My brother became a vegetarian aged 10.  He passed out in the butchers which was like a disaster in our family because, because my mum's dad was a butcher.

Marianne Fuller 

Butchers yeah, yeah.

Ed Balls

And so and we never ever had fish in our house, we only had meat, it was a very meat house and then my sister didn't really eat didn't really eat much at all, she didn't like food really.

Marianne Fuller 

Okay.

Ed Balls

So I was the one, it was all obviously all the cooking genes went to me and then I started cooking stuff to help her. I did my Scouts badge and I never looked back really.

Marianne Fuller 

And you still retain that position in the family as Head Chef for the bigger, broader sort of family gatherings?

Ed Ball

So first of all in our family the reason I did it was that was not necessarily by choice but Yvette did  quite a bit of cooking when we were first together.  The first time we… I went down to be Yvette's mum I was probably about 26 and Yvette says to me, my mum is cooking you a, it was like a chicken curry, and apparently I was supposed to kind of be very impressed by this, but I thought well that's great you know, and she said, I don't think you understand but she's coming out of retirement and it turned out that Yvette's mum when her youngest child left home basically said, I've done this for 21 years…

Marianne Fuller 

I've had enough.

Ed Balls

I’ve had enough and she totally retired and said, I am not going to cook anymore and her dad had to take over. Anyway I should have seen the writing on the wall because, what was I doing, because when you know Yvette was, when our first child was born she gave up. Yvette did not,  has not cooked for 21 years. She basically says, I’ve got enough on and so it was, I mean, it was partly survival if I'm honest with you but also then it became a thing I enjoyed and then my mum has dementia and has had it for 15 years so I ended up having to take over the cooking for our broader family as well so there's a life cycle in this, my mum taught me to cook and now I…

Marianne Fuller 

You passed the baton.

Ed Balls

… cook for her when we go to, go to visit.

Marianne Fuller 

So let's fast forward a few years to when you sort of reach the, the Westminster crowd. There's a brilliant story about lunch at Mandelson's and obviously the, the very famous meal at Granita between Gordon and Tony,  Can you share us with a little bit of insight into those sort of situations?

Ed Balls

Well the, the Granita dinner was, John Smith had died.

Marianne Fuller 

Yep.

Ed Balls

It was clear that Tony Blair was going to be the person rather than Gordon Brown to to be the next leader of the Labour party but this is all kind of quite traumatic and there was a moment where this had to be kind of finally kind of sealed. It was kind of decided but the, the moment was to be the two of them going out for a meal because it's over food that you would bless this moment and they chose a restaurant off Upper Street…

Marianne Fuller 

It’s crazy isn’t it.

Ed Balls

.. on Upper Street called Granita, like a sushi Mediterranean restaurant.  It was Tony Blair's choice.  Gordon Brown, never been in such a restaurant before and he obviously wasn't kind of, he didn't really want to be there for a number of reasons…

Marianne Fuller 

No, no.

Ed Balls

…both the event and the place and so he said to me you know, he said to me, you have to come too.  Well we go in and we look and the first thing I remember him saying is he looked at the menu and said, what exactly is polenta?  I'm not sure I knew and and so that was where they decided the  agreement about their partnership. 

Marianne Fuller 

Amazing.

Ed Balls

It wasn't really about the food.

Marianne Fuller 

No. You mentioned your… the, your, you meet Yvette, your relationship evolves, you then start to, to think about a family and she hangs up the, the cooking …

Ed Balls

She only does it after, after nine months where you have to navigate through all these different food choices.

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah.

Ed Balls

But Yvette’s turned out to be chocolate mousse but she also didn't think she could have chocolate mousse because of raw eggs…

Marianne Fuller 

Yep.

Ed Balls

…and so I decided I had to go solve this so I went off searching for recipes and found this recipe for a, you know a chocolate mousse which is baked in the oven.  I can see you're holding one.

Marianne Fuller 

I followed your recipe.

Ed Balls

Did you?

Marianne Fuller 

I followed your recipe exactly and I thought, well the man who's been critiqued by Mary Berry maybe can critique my…

Ed Balls

Oh really.

Marianne Fuller 

…chocolate mousse.

Ed Balls

Oh my gosh, oh look at that.  I mean it, I mean it looks great.

Marianne Fuller 

Okay.

Ed Balls 

And it needs to cool and chill.

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah, yeah.

Ed Balls

Which is what you've done.

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah, yeah.

Ed Balls

And what you want is it, for be for it to be you know, not to be lumpy, to be really smooth.

Marianne Fuller 

The pressure.

Ed Balls

Which is, I mean look at that.

Marianne Fuller 

Is it alright?

Ed Balls

Oh my gosh.

Marianne Fuller 

I'm sorry I can't share with everyone but I think health and safety.

Ed Balls

Look I’m going to show. So do you see that, that is, that I mean it's sort of in a different world it could be a duck liver pate but it's not.

Marianne Fuller 

I did say to you before you put, put in the raw egg it is delicious just as a hot chocolate.

Ed Balls

It's really, really good.

Marianne Fuller 

Thank you, all right that's good.

Ed Balls

It's such a good mousse.

Marianne Fuller 

I am delighted that you're eating it, please don't be polite and finish it. 

Ed Balls

It’s very good.

Marianne Fuller 

So life as a family in politics you and Yvette were the first couple appointed to the cabinet. What challenges and the jobs that you were running, what challenges did that present for you both?

Ed Balls

We had three kids under nine at the time. Things were always going wrong but we sort of managed our way through it. Gordon Brown moved the start of the cabinet to 9.00 am which was incredibly unfamily friendly and we always kind of ended up just going in almost just in time looking quite windswept but having got the kids pretty much ready to go. It was also hard if I'm honest with you because people thought it was weird, this sort of public reaction was, was, was not positive and it was worse for her.

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah.

Ed Balls

The, judgment of Yvette was harsher than the judgment of me. In public life I think you're really wise to work very hard to protect your children and I was the Children's Minister.

Marianne Fuller 

Of course.

Ed Balls

But we've never, there were no pictures anywhere of me and Yvette with our children. We never, they never came to any events we'd never talk about their names.

Marianne Fuller 

So you, you talked about being Children's Minister so it's the first time wasn't it that that Schools and Children's Policy was brought together.

Ed Balls

That's right.

Marianne Fuller 

And you share in the book that actually in your first week in the job you took a trip to a secondary school that kind of spawned a whole, whole range of different ideas around tackling child food poverty.

Ed Balls

I did. But I had said to the leader of the Head Teachers Association that that I wanted to just go and spend a day in a school which was dealing well with challenge and just to talk to the Head Teacher and the staff and find out what it was which really worked for the school. She said they had loads of kids who arrive at 11, identified as having problems with behaviour and so it was it was that sort of intervention, understanding the non-learning barriers to learning. The evidence was it you know, the consistency of eating made quite a difference to concentration and attainment. What we were, what we were doing in the that department, we had joint responsibility for youth justice, for children's play, children's health, all these different things and we were trying to look at all of the, the non-classroom barriers to learning and attainment.

Marianne Fuller 

Right.

Ed Balls

And you know, children are only at school 15% of the time so the other 85% of the time has a big impact upon a child's ability to, to do well or not and we were trying, and, and some of those things came out down to food.

Marianne Fuller 

If we, if we fast forward to present day or what we've been seeing play out in the last 19/20 months and obviously the work that Marcus Rashford has been doing and he collected an Honorary Degree last week and he said…

Ed Balls

Yeah.

Marianne Fuller 

…he, it was bittersweet. I don't know if you saw his comments, collating that because he said obviously just the day before the universal credit uplift had been, had been withdrawn.  Where do you think we are on that?

Ed Balls

In the last year and a half because of the way in which education was so disrupted there would have been some children who carried on learning as effectively as before and there's some children who at the other end of the spectrum, without decent internet connection, without enough rooms, without kind of the cajoling of school you know, would not been learning very much at all.

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah.

Ed Balls

And that, that kind of widening of of outcomes, I mean will, will last forever…

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah.

Ed Balls

…unless we do something about that.

Marianne Fuller 

Yeah.

Ed Balls

And in a way I think the, the Marcus Rashford's stuff about school food is a really good but small example of the bigger problem. I feel as though our collective mind-set from the Government down to many of us is, that's done let's just go back to normal but actually the long-term impact educationally of the last 18 months for some children is very, very severe and I'm not sure there's really a plan yet to do anything about that.

Marianne Fuller 

No.

Ed Balls

But that feels like a bad thing.

Marianne Fuller 

It does absolutely, absolutely. If we could just move again, a whistle stop tour…

Ed Balls

Of course.

Marianne Fuller 

…towards the end of your career and, and life in politics comes to an end.  Of all of your conquests since leaving politics which is the thing that you're most proud of.

Ed Balls

I've managed to keep my midlife crisis going for at least 12 years now and I think to do that successfully you have to not be too worried about being bad at things and obviously I took the same you know, approach into, into, into Strictly.

Marianne Fuller 

Absolutely we've got to talk about that.

Ed Balls

My mum, every time, she offered, most weeks she will see on YouTube Gangnam Style and she sees it every time for the first time and she rolls her eyes and you know inside she's thinking, do I recognise him? What's he doing? But Katya and I get messages all the time…

Marianne Fuller 

Do you?

Ed Balls

From people saying you know, if I get a bit low…

Marianne Fuller 

You put it on.

Ed Balls

…I'll watch Gangnam Style it cheers me up but you know, we just have, in a couple of weeks’ time, a documentary about social care; the stories of staff and people and the challenge of care and it changes, when you see the films, I mean like for me doing them, changes your whole view about what social care is…

Marianne Fuller 

Oh sure.

Ed Balls

…and how hard it is and in a way that's fun but quite purposeful thing to do so I probably get more satisfaction from doing those things than I do from my Tango.

Marianne Fuller 

Ed we've come to the end of our time which is so sad I feel like I had a stack load of other questions to ask you but thank you so much for your time, it's been an absolute pleasure. So if you could just join me in thanking Ed.

Ed Balls

Thank you.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated please visit mishcon.com


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