His Big Eats TV show on Dave has won him two Baftas and inspired young people across the country. The 26-year-old grime artist and chef talked to us about growing up poor, and how important it is to make food fair.
If Big Zuu was a big plate of food, what would he be? One plate wouldn’t be enough.
“I’ll be a buffet. A world buffet,” he says. “I’m all about choice. There would be a noodle station where you make your own chow mein. Then you’ll go to the pizza station, where you get a handmade fresh dough pizza, then burgers, curries. Everything. All the flavours of the universe in one.”
Big Zuu combines all the ingredients required to be a star. The rapper, presenter, actor and chef is charismatic, genuine, has something to say and an engaging way to say it. Plus he’s making time to talk to The Big Issue even though it’s launch day of the third series of Big Zuu’s Big Eats and he’s been on the promo trail since dawn.
“I didn’t get no breakfast on Lorraine. They made me cook pancakes,” he says, still smarting. “No breakfast special. Nothing.” But he doesn’t hold a grudge. “I love a bit of Lorraine. Lorraine is a beautiful lady with incredible spirit.”
Big Zuu’s Big Eats’ success comes from its simplicity. He and his lifelong friends Tubsey and Hyder cook for a celebrity guest in their custom food trailer. These aren’t the dishes you’ll find on other cookery shows. In the first episode in the new series, Zuu and crew prepared fried potato tots served in a waffle ice cream cone with a cheesy sauce on top, eel butties and a keg of Guinness gravy. The fun comes from the camaraderie of cooking and the conversations food inspires. Food is after all the one thing everybody has in common. We all need to eat.
“If you don’t you pass away,” Big Zuu points out. “Food is something that we all enjoy and we all indulge in. Food is everything to me. It’s my job, it’s my life, it’s what I love, it’s what I represent. I’ve had a great journey with food. Very thankful for where it’s taken me.”
Big Zuu, real name Zuhair Hassan, grew up on the Mozart Estate in West London. His mother came to the UK from Sierra Leone, fleeing war, when she was four months pregnant. Zuu’s love of cooking began when he was 10 or 11 years old and his mother was pregnant again. He started preparing food to help out around the house. The appeal wasn’t just the food but taking pressure off his mother’s shoulders.
The 26-year-old’s career in food started early. In his teens he was a cleaner in Harvester restaurants. Then he sweated over the grill at Nando’s. He dropped out of university to pursue music and became well known in the grime scene. But soon the cookery clips he was posting on Snapchat were getting more interest than his rapping. A cookery show was commissioned on Dave. It received wild acclaim and won two Baftas in May.
His acceptance speech went viral: “Growing up there wasn’t many chefs or people that looked like me on telly, and now there’s young people watching us doing our thing and thinking, you know what, if these wastemen can win a Bafta surely we can.”
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The success of his show has shaken up the genteel world of TV cookery. With no cooking shows aimed at younger viewers, does it feel like something young people are excluded from?
“Yeah. One hundred million per cent that’s what cooking shows have done,” Big Zuu says. “Obviously Jamie Oliver got so much joy because he was a young chef that changed the landscape. But now you see more of a difference. There’s people like me coming through. I mean, in terms of where I want to impact most, it’s people from my community. But I never want to leave out or alienate anyone. Food is about connecting with everyone.”
Food is not only about sustenance. It brings people together, provides comfort, relaxation. Cooking is a form of self-expression. But with prices soaring, food is increasingly becoming more limited and a source of anxiety.
“We are in a cost-of-living crisis and some people can’t afford to access food like everyone else,” Big Zuu says. “It’s more important that we have access to food and make sure food is fair. I grew up coming from a poor household. We had to eat a lot of canned food when we couldn’t afford fresh and had to rely on people going shopping for my mum and helping her. Things are harder now.”
His background means he feels strongly about giving back.
“I’m lucky that I have what I have. So giving back is definitely part of the ethos,” Zuu says. “Working in food, you gotta be mindful. We’re promoting big food, big flavours, but there’s people who can’t afford that. So keeping them in mind is really important. We make things that are really extravagant but we also break down the ingredients and make them feel more accessible.”
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This year, the Food Foundation found that 7.3 million adults and 2.6 million children experience food insecurity. Big Zuu believes there is a way for us all to help.
“I think people need to be more mindful of how things affect others,” he says. “The poverty and pain that we’ve all been experiencing in life from back in the day, it’s more in our face now. It’s about community. If people want to take the time to give back then that will help. Work at food banks, donate food before it goes off, try to give to charity. You will see the impact. But sometimes it feels force-fed, sometimes it feels that you have to do something that you didn’t choose to do. People need to embrace it in a way that doesn’t make them feel patronised. Do it because you want to.”
Big Zuu worked as a youth worker in the past. Covid has closed a quarter of centres like those he used to work in.
“Youth work provides a certain type of help for young people that nothing else can,” he explains. “The volunteers trade their time to help elevate the aspirations of young people. Less youth work, less opportunities for young people to put their time into practical things that are going to help their career when they get older.”
Big Zuu has proven that now more than ever, young people have the power to improve their own futures.
“We are in an information age. Social media is a powerful key,” he says. “That is what led me towards my career. I went from cooking on Snapchat to cooking on telly. Role models are very important as well. I didn’t come from a rich family but I was inspired by my peers, going to good youth clubs and going to a good sixth form that had a good careers adviser.”
Now it’s Big Zuu who is the role model. Does he feel the pressure?
“I enjoy inspiring people to become better in life. The pressure is that sometimes I feel like I can’t make a mistake. That’s part of being in the public eye. If you do anything wrong, people gonna jump on it. But I’ve definitely embraced who I am and what I do.”
While many parts of the media and, shamefully, politicians too, talk about the negatives of immigration, Big Zuu is fighting back by being a powerhouse of positivity.
“We’re here to fuel the change by representing us in a different light, in a better light,” he says. “Not succumbing to the typical stereotype of what we are and what we’re seen as. So that’s really important. That’s what we’re here for.”
Big Zuu’s Big Eats S3 airs Mondays at 10pm on Dave, and the whole series is available to stream on UKTV Play. Sneakerhead starts 13 July on Dave and will also be able to stream on UKTV Play. Hungry For It airs on Tuesdays on BBC Three.
Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Christmas. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Christmas.