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21 August 2014

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Let's Do Lunch - BBC's Adrian Chiles

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For Square Meal’s latest celebrity interview, Brian Viner heads to the City to meet the BBC’s Adrian Chiles at perenially hip St John


Adrian Chiles - St John Restaurant Almost everything about Adrian Chiles confounds expectations. The Match of the Day 2 and Working Lunch presenter seems like a pure-blooded son of Birmingham but, in fact, his mother comes from Zagreb and he speaks fluent Croatian. He appears to be the sort of bloke whose only religion is football, yet he recently converted to Catholicism, after taking instruction every Tuesday evening for months, a spiritual commitment that more than once kept him away from his beloved West Bromwich Albion.

And you’d also have Chiles pegged as a man who could maybe knock up a roast dinner but not much more, until you discover that he’s a passionate cook, who takes pride in the fact that his two daughters were both making their own gnocchi before they were three. ‘That’s terribly west London, that is,’ he says, in his distinctive West Midlands tone. ‘West London to an embarrassing degree.’

We meet up at St John in Smithfield, where the speciality is nose-to-tail eating. Chiles has long wanted to eat here and doesn’t shy away from the more robust offerings on the menu, ordering roast bone marrow and parsley salad to start, followed by smoked eel, beetroot and horseradish. To drink, a couple of glasses of Champagne, followed by a very decent St Joseph from the northern Rhône, then a red dessert wine. Here, at least, expectations are not confounded. Chiles doesn’t look like a man who would eschew alcohol at lunchtime and nor does he.

He was born in Birmingham in 1967 and grew up in the well-to-do suburb of Hagley. ‘I had a great childhood,’ he says. ‘I was at school with the same people from five to 18. In fact we’re all 40 this year and sick of the bloody sight of each other. I’ve got yet another 40th birthday party to go to tomorrow night in Edinburgh.’

Only one of his old mates is a fellow Albion fan, though, and none of them is quite as wedded to football as he is. ‘I’ve always wanted to grow out of it,’ he says. ‘It hurt that much when I was 12 to see Albion lose that I thought: “I can’t wait to grow up – it won’t feel this bad.” But it still does. It’s ridiculous.’

And yet, football has on occasion had to play second fiddle to Catholicism, to which he became a fully fledged convert on Easter Saturday this year after a lifetime of lacklustre Anglicanism. ‘I missed the cup tie against Middlesbrough, and Colchester away because I was sitting talking about the Bible with Sister Jennifer,’ he says. ‘And I’ve had some deep conversations with Father Ben, who deals mainly with the chronically ill, people pegging out and turning to God. I asked him whether that tests his faith, and he said to me: “A thousand difficulties don’t add up to one doubt.” I was telling Frank Skinner this and he said: “He can’t be an f***ing Albion fan then”.’ We both roar with laughter, turning the heads of three Japanese businessmen, who must already be bemused to find themselves at the London restaurant furthest from the concept of the sushi bar.

Chiles had been toying for years with the idea of becoming a Catholic, but finally took the plunge when he went to Mass and enjoyed it. ‘At my first confirmation class, the priest said I’d have to do every Tuesday night with Sister Jennifer, and I thought: “Will this be the moment when I walk in and realise it’s a load of nonsense?” But she’s everything I dreamt she might be, a lovely woman full of goodness, but not in a pious way. We have a laugh. And she watches Match of the Day 2 out of loyalty.’

His journey to the presenter’s seat on Match of the Day 2 was not as spiritual as the journey to the confessional, but, in its own way, no less interesting. As a student, he did a week’s work experience on the Birmingham Post and one day accompanied a sports correspondent to the European Table Tennis Championships, where the great British hope Desmond Douglas was knocked out in the quarter-final by a Croatian, Zoran Primorac.

It was a good story because Croatia was ravaged by war at the time, but Primorac spoke little English. ‘It’s OK, I speak Croatian,’ Chiles told the astounded man from the Post. His story was printed on the back page and his career in journalism was launched. Eventually he found that, despite his Brummie accent and looks that hardly evoke George Clooney (as he’s the first to admit), broadcasting was his real métier.

‘But even now there’s something special about seeing my name in print,’ he says. ‘I was listening to someone on the radio, Heather Mills’ lawyer it was, saying that print journalism is just tomorrow’s chip paper. But at least it’s chip paper. What’s broadcasting? It just disappears into the ether.’

In August, Chiles will see his name in print in more permanent fashion, as the author of a book called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Sphere, £12.99), which follows a disparate bunch of West Brom fans through a season. It has been a labour of love, but with just as much emphasis on the labour as the love.

‘It was really hard bloody work,’ he says. ‘But there are some fantastic stories. There’s a woman who sits just along from me, called Sue, who’s often there with a very old woman, her mother Val. Well, Val was born Valtraut Grubbe in what became East Germany and is now Poland. She was a nurse there during the war, but at the end of the war, the German women knew what the Russians would do to them, so she got to Danzig, then on a boat to Hamburg and somehow ended up as a nurse at West Bromwich General Hospital in 1948, where she met and married Cyril, a massive Albion fan, who died in 1992. Albion became like her extended family. I was next to her when we beat Arsenal once, and when she celebrated the winning goal, it was like all her life was channelled into that one moment: escaping the Russians, finding Cyril, ending up here.’

Chiles shakes his head in wonderment. His own wife, Jane Garvey, the Radio Five Live presenter, has not embraced West Brom as Val did, but at least she shares his affection for good food, and is happy to let him produce it.

‘I love feeding my family,’ he says. ‘My mum’s a brilliant cook in that Croatian peasant tradition, and I got a lot of recipes from her. At university I thought it might be a seduction weapon. A lot of fit women came round to eat my food but none of them wanted to have sex with me. They say a man who can cook and make a woman laugh will always get her into bed. Well, I gave them a great big meal, they laughed until they cried, and then they went home.’

And my lunch with the engaging, entertaining, thoroughly excellent Adrian Chiles follows pretty much the same pattern.


Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2007


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