Affectionately known as “the Welsh one”, Cardiff born Alex Winters has been a favourite on preschoolers channel Cbeebies since 2009.
The Welsh Menu met up with him to discuss his life, career and love of food.
You’re probably best known as one of the main presenters on Cbeebies, but didn’t you train as an actor?
I went to Liverpool University and did Drama and Theatre Studies, but it started before then as well. I was one of those people who liked to do a lot of things when I was in school – I loved sport, I was good academically, but I loved drama and followed that through to university. After university I decided to give acting a proper go, but then quit after I had my first child as all the stage jobs were things like six month tours and I didn’t want to be away from home that much. It was a real shock to me as that was all I had wanted to do.
After I quit, I started my own picture framing business – it’s a long story about how I got into that! Then I went for the Cbeebies job – I had a call from a friend who worked at the BBC saying that they were advertising these jobs publicly, which doesn’t happen often – they normally scout for talent – but Chris and Pui moved onto Show Me, Show Me, and they advertised the audition, so I applied, and randomly, here I am!
Does your acting training help you with the way you work on Cbeebies?
Yes, certain parts of it. But actually it has been difficult as I’ve never done any presenting – my CV was accurate, I didn’t lie, I had no television presenting experience. Being used to acting, the first thing you do whether in front of a camera or in front of an audience is be a character, so straight away I’m someone else, or something else, and that is not what you need to do as a presenter.
As a presenter, they wanted me to be me, so there were bits of my acting training that have obviously come in useful, but I think as well that you have to have a certain kind of disposition. I often think that anyone could do what I do, surely. Then people say no, they couldn’t think of anything worse than being in front of the camera. You have to have a certain disposition to be in front of the camera and showing off, but the hardest thing I’ve had to learn is to be myself, and that sounds rubbish, but until you’ve stood in front of a camera and tried to be yourself instead of a caricature you just don’t know.
I can’t watch any of my links from the first six months to a year, at least, because I’m just this “kid’s presenter” and I looked like a deer in the headlights, and that just doesn’t wash with preschool!
There’s a show on Cbeebies called “I Can Cook!” – how important do you think it is to teach preschoolers some basic culinary skills?
I think it’s really important – we also have “Big Cook Little Cook”, which is more about entertainment and story telling, with information about how some foods are made, but I’m not sure I’d want to necessarily make any of the recipes. But when Katie came along with “I Can Cook!”, that was something quite different – I love it.
It’s one of my favourite programmes, and one of my children’s favourites, especially my daughter as she loves to be hands on with anything. So, she loves painting, sticking, glueing – our house is full of glitter, pieces of paper, all kinds of things, because she’ll just sit and do that. When she’s not doing that, she wants to be in the kitchen with mum – and I say that as my wife loves to bake, and my daughter cannot get enough of it! She has her own utensils, her own apron, and she stands on a stool next to her mum and gets involved.
Watching “I Can Cook!” helped that, because you see the children in the programme getting hands on and making food. I think it’s really important because it shows kids that they can do it, and the physicality and wanting to be involved, which is what children want to do. I think it’s a really important and useful programme, and it certainly has been in my experience.
You grew up in Cardiff, do you have any early food memories from that time?
My mum isn’t Welsh – she’s from Durham. I’d be interested to see what other Welsh people’s experiences are, and geographically what the changes are, if any, because I can’t say that my childhood food memories are massively exciting! I grew up in the 1980s – I was born in 1977 – I lived with my mum and dad, and mum was very traditional, but at the same time open to change.
Whenever my dad cooked, which wasn’t often, it would be sausage and chips, or frozen burger and chips, or as a special treat on a Saturday he would make homemade chips, and he’d wrap them in newspaper and tear a hole in the middle. He’s a Welshman born and bred, from Grangetown in Cardiff, and on a Saturday that’s what he’d have as a treat.
From day to day with my mum, we had a lot of cooked meals, but were very traditional. We had roast dinners, but thinking about what was different I realised that I experienced that slight continental shift, so if you look at cookbooks – and I had a look when I was at home at Christmas at some of the cookbooks my mum still has from the 1960s and 1970s, and they’re amazing! Lots of it is so simple but then there are things that you wonder why anyone thought were any good – there was something rolled inside ham, just unbelievable!
I certainly do remember having the traditional food but then the introduction of lasagne, for example. I say that, because that’s my favourite dish that my mum makes. I remember lasagne being really special and posh, and thinking, “Wow! This is foreign!” We also had homemade curries – when I was growing up through infants school my best friend was Indian Sikh, and his family would invite us over and that was the first time I’d ever eaten things like poppadoms and chappatis. I remember my mum starting to experiment and leaving the slightly blander days behind – eating spaghetti bolognaise and lasagne and things like that.
Looking at what I eat at home now and there’s some stuff that if I had been eating it in the 1980s we would have been considered to be the poshest people around! I remember toasted sandwiches at lunch time, roast dinners stick with me because as a child I just couldn’t bear them – I think it’s often the things we don’t like that we remember.
My mum is a great cook, but I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as well, and my nan – another Geordie – was very traditional, so lots of corned beef hash pie with a lard pastry; homemade apple pie; she’d make her own rice pudding and I’d love that with the skin on top.
The things I really remember about my mother is her baking – she was the most prolific baker that I’ve ever seen, and I don’t know if everyone’s mum was like that, and I don’t know if that was a 1970s and 80s thing, because it stopped when we got older. We had all these neighbours who would come down en masse for various things, because mum would make homemade chocolate eclairs – now that was posh and continental!; she made a great lemon drizzle cake; millionaires shortbread; walnut cake; ginger cake; homemade bread; fairy cakes; her chocolate cake was legendary.
When I think of food as a child, the key thing from my childhood was definitely mum’s baking, the cakes, the biscuits, the trifles – she still makes a mean trifle, the best ever. I’m from a large family and my parents have quite a lot of grandchildren, so my sisters and I are trying to persuade her to get baking again for the grandkids. My real memories of food as a kid are the introduction of lasagne – it’s still at the top of my list and when I’m going to visit I ask mum to make it; and mum’s baking. We spent a lot of our childhood holidays in a caravan in west Wales, and I remember a treat we’d have would be to have laverbread in the morning, and I knew this to be Welsh.
Do you cook?
I’ll be honest, my wife does the cooking, and I think she values her life too much to let me cook! I do try to get involved. I don’t think you’ll ever see me on Masterchef – if you do, we’ll all have a laugh together! Maybe secretly I am really good, and I’ve never given it enough of a go.
You were based in London with Cbeebies before the move to Manchester, so were there any restaurants or food shops you particularly liked?
I’m pretty adventurous with food and always have been. When I was a child, my dad’s work would go on an an annual family outing to London on the bus – going to London as a child was so exciting, almost like going abroad!
I remember the first time we ever went to Harrods, and in the food hall I tasted caviar and sushi. It was amazing. I couldn’t stand the caviar, but it was such a big deal that I actually spoke in my school assembly about the experience. I remember them explaining to me what sushi was, and my dad is a big fish fan, and I wanted to try it. After two mouthfuls I was hooked. But then I got back on the bus and went back to Cardiff, and didn’t get to eat it again for many years.
Now as a thirtysomething, I do hunt out the sushi places, and I also love Chinese food. I love eating out and would do so every night if I could.
When you go home, apart from your mum’s lasagne, what do you seek out?
I love cheese and like to visit Madame Fromage in Castle Street. Ironically, I go home to Cardiff and I visit the New York Deli, they do the most amazing sandwiches. I would like to see more variety in Cardiff, but that may just be me being slightly ignorant. Instead of the chains, I’d rather see more independents.