The Great British Bake Off presenter and burgeoning food expert Sue Perkins on why Manhattan will always be her go-to for culinary adventure
“For me it’s always about just really indulging and I love comfort food when I’m travelling. I suppose I’m a bit of a glutton actually. I don’t know when to stop. For a very brief while when I was growing up I went to a convent school. I was left-handed and they used to smack me every time I used the knife and fork the way that came naturally to me. So my earliest experiences of food were that I couldn’t get to it. As an adult there’s this constant amazement that I can get what I want, when I want. I’m afraid I do take advantage of that. [During The Great British Bake Off] I can eat thousands upon thousands of calories. One day, it’s all going to catch up on me. And you don’t want to be there when the bomb goes off – when the Perkins waistline goes, ‘Right I’ve had enough of this’.
But my first (literal) taste of freedom came back when I was 17 in 1986. I’d just done my A-levels before heading off to university and I went travelling down the east coast of America for three months. When I got to New York the first thing I did was have a massive stack of pancakes for breakfast. I’ve travelled quite a lot in America since and pancakes always bring back memories of when I first visited the city. They give me the feeling that ‘anything is possible’. Life isn’t limited. Life is a series of endless possibilities, but the only possibility I was going to explore for the next five days was eating my own body weight in food.
I’d been working in a book shop to pay for my travelling. Nine months in a bookshop in Croydon, so when I got there I was like, ‘Right, bedlam!’ This was the old-school New York before they power-hosed people off the streets. I got mugged; I had the full experience. Looking back I suppose I was mildly mugged. He said, ‘I’d like your suitcase,’ I said, ‘Really? But I’ve got everything in it,’ and he said, ‘Don’t make me ask again,’ so I said, ‘OK’.
When you’re young, you’re just too excited. You lap it all up and you don’t care. New York is just brash and doesn’t give a sh*t. It was open 24 hours. In the late Eighties you would go to a restaurant in London and it would stop serving food at 9.30pm and that was it. [But in New York] it was four o’clock in the morning and you could order Korean food. This was 20 odd years ago. I didn’t even know what Korean food was. Equally you could go to a Jewish restaurant and eat these amazing sandwiches, feeling like you’re in a movie.
“New York opened my eyes to the possibility of international cuisine”
I was in this landscape of fantasy. I’d wander round Central Park with some unnamed meat in a bap thinking, ‘I got this from a street stall, it’s fabulous.’ It was also my first encounter with street food; my first encounter with multicultural food experiences. At home, we had burgers and Indian and Chinese takeaways and that was it. The age I was, when I was a student, I had no money and my diet was all beer and potatoes from cans. New York was this explosion of colour. Mexican food! The colours! The green of the avocado and the red of the chilli, the yellow of the corn; it was all so vivid. Just out of the beige of London…
I know American food is perhaps not the best but it opened my eyes to the possibility of international cuisine. I got hints of everything. I first sampled a falafel in New York and aioli and couscous and all these things we take for granted over here nowadays. I came from a very lower middle class family, where the major excitement would be pasta for dinner. To go somewhere where you can have corn bread and grits, where there’s a big griddle where they’re cooking eggs and grilling burgers; it was an absolute revelation. It’s the bustle and the fact that food wasn’t just fuel. It was the drama and theatre of all those things.
I still go as much as I can. The city really got under my skin. [When I’m there] I’ll always want to find out where the best place for breakfast is. If you go back to the same place, I feel you miss out. I like places that are really low rent; not Michelin starred. Local places that do great waffles, or burgers, or Vietnamese food; I like to feel really comfortable.
Now, at home, I make American pancakes quite a lot. I got a recipe off a fantastic short order cook I got chatting to the last time I was in New York. You need to use buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda which makes them fluffy and bubbles them up like a crumpet. I add blueberries too. For me eating out is all about the excitement. And New York is nothing if not exciting.”
Heading Out starts 26 February, 10pm on BBC Two