Dick Strawbridge on how his dad's Ulster fry gave him a taste for cooking
The former soldier turned TV star will tackle almost anything, but don't ask him to shave off his trademark moustache, says Ivan Little
Published 08/10/2013 | 12:00
He has one of the most famous faces – and undoubtedly the best known moustache – on British television but Dick Strawbridge, who still considers Co Antrim home, wishes his father could have lived long enough to see him become what he mockingly calls a telly tart.
But the former army officer, who is still an engineer and inventor, insists that George Strawbridge – originally from Newbuildings, near Strabane – wouldn't have been any prouder of him than the rest of his children.
"He had a pride in all of his family," says Dick, in his distinctive Northern Irish drawl, which is as much a part of him as that luxuriant moustache, which even has a Facebook page in its honour and which was cultivated in his teenage years on an Ulster hilltop farm.
Dick (54) has been associated with a string of TV programmes including Scrapheap Challenge: It's Not Easy Being Green, Coast, the Hungry Sailors and Saturday Farm, as well as Celebrity Masterchef.
And his popularity is illustrated by the fact that in recent times he's been on British TV for an astonishing 51 hours in primetime slots with two different series.
Self-proclaimed Ulsterman Dick was actually born in Burma where his father was involved in the oil industry. "He was a self-made man who left school very early and he worked in the Middle East and then in the Far East where he met my mother Jenny."
But George brought his family back to Northern Ireland in the 60s. "That happened after the generals kicked us out of Burma," says Dick, who went to Bangor Grammar prep school before the Strawbridges moved to Antrim and he attended Ballyclare High School.
It wasn't a match made in academic heaven. Dick says: "I went back a couple of years ago as the guest at a prize-giving and I took my mum with me because it was the first one I had ever been to.
"I was quite capable at school but I spent a lot of time in detention. My old man used to say that I would argue the hind leg of a donkey. If I didn't agree with something I wasn't prepared to accept it. That was never a way to educate me about anything. But I have a lot to thank Ballyclare High School for, especially the discipline."
After gaining his O-levels, Dick set about realising his ambition to become a soldier and enrolled in a sixth form college in Nottinghamshire before going on to Sandhurst to train as an officer.He was the first of his siblings to leave home but he returned regularly for holidays.
He says: "I have always thought of myself as being Northern Irish because that's what I am. I have lived away now for longer than I was there but I am still very happy to have my accent and I am very proud of my roots. I'm not saying I would ever come back to live but it's still home because it's still very special to me."
Dick has nothing but happy memories of growing up here. "It was just idyllic," he says. "There was always laughter in our house. And I have great memories of my dad making an Ulster fry on a Saturday morning. They were legendary even though he couldn't really cook."
Dick describes himself as a country boy at heart and his family also loved breaks in Fermanagh or on the north Antrim coast. "We used to go off every weekend camping or caravanning. And as they were the days before seatbelts, the whole family used to be packed in to an estate car along with a couple of friends as well. We would head up to Portballintrae or to Castle Archdale on Lough Erne. Most of the time would be spent having a laugh.
"There was a lot of passion and enthusiasm and a zest for life which came from the strong family unit. We were like a little clan and we lived life to the full."
Oddly enough, the television wasn't a major fixture in the Strawbridge home. "My father wouldn't have liked the way modern families sit down and stare at the box. He would turn in his grave. We used to gather around the table and talk over our meals. My father would ask all the children what they had been doing during the day.
"It was such an important means of getting people together and that's probably why I love my cooking so much."
No-one has been more surprised by the twists and turns in his life than Dick, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel with the Royal Corps of Signals.
"I never imagined I would move into television," says Dick, who served for several years back home in Northern Ireland but prefers to steer the conversation away from what he did here other than to say he was an engineer and he was awarded an MBE for distinguished service in the province.
The teenage Dick had left Northern Ireland in 1976 but not because of the Troubles. "They were second nature to me and everyone else as I grew up and I certainly wasn't scared away but the army was a family tradition. My grandfather and my great-grandfather were soldiers."
Dick, who found time to play rugby on a regular basis during his military career, adds: "I did a fair bit of time in the province. I am a highly technical person and the British soldiers who went to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan learnt a lot of their skills and decision-making capabilities from their experiences in Northern Ireland."
Dick was always optimistic that the Troubles would eventually end, "because it was only a small minority of people who were involved".
He served in several different countries but quit in 2000 after he was told the army was changing and there would be no more wars. He turned down the chance of an office job with the Ministry of Defence in London and instead joined a multi-national aerospace and defence company called General Dynamics, where he was a trouble-shooter right across the world.
But his TV career had started alongside his brothers in Scrapheap Challenge while he was still in the military and after he left he received a staggering five offers from five different producers in the same week.
He never looked back. One of the jobs took him to Los Angeles and another called Crafty Tricks of War was an engineering and invention series which was right up his street. "I built things and blew things up and it was one of the best series I ever worked on," he says.
Dick is now one of the hardest-working stars on TV and off it. He's written books on eco-friendly living and shares his knowledge as a sustainability and environmental expert, advising people how best to utilise renewable energy as he did at a recent launch of a new air source heat pump – a next-generation renewable boiler replacement – for Newry's Glen Dimplex firm.
Clearly trying to pigeon-hole this man of many parts is all but impossible and his television work has also seen the highly-skilled engineer flourishing more and more as a celebrity chef in the kitchen and at sea, setting sail with his 29-year-old son James from his first marriage to cook whatever food they can find on their travels.
Dick says: "I'm a foodie. I like my food and my wine. And after I did quite well on Celebrity Masterchef, all of a sudden people asked me to do cooking programmes as well as engineering ones.
"But working with James is wonderful. We have a ball even though it is high intensity work and we have huge spats.
"But I get the chance to spend more quality time with him than I was ever able to manage with my old man."
Dick recently spent two weeks back home in Co Antrim with his mum at the family home near Straid as he worked on a one-hour documentary for BBC Northern Ireland on the 400th anniversary of Belfast port.
"It was great fun and I thoroughly enjoyed myself – especially as I got the chance to film on the top of the Samson and Goliath cranes.
"The views were glorious and I was hanging over the edge, though the cameraman and the director weren't fond of heights."
Dick's fans will of course put his bravado down to the daredevil spirit that they've seen on the television. But he says: "I think it's all to do with logic. I knew I was as safe as houses.
"Overall however the growth of Belfast port is a fascinating entrepreneurial story of how far-sighted people developed the harbour.
"I also talked to some dockers who had worked down there before they had any rights. They were great people and there was nothing sectarian about it. They were just trying to get an income for their families."
As well as his mother, Dick has three sisters who are still in the province, though a brother is based in Canada and another lives in Africa.
The TV star, who also has a 27-year-old daughter Charlotte, recently had a third child with his partner Angel Adoree, founder of a patisserie company. "I'm under new management," he says. The couple's eight-month-old son Arthur is younger than Dick's two grandsons.
Family life clearly keeps him busy but TV viewers haven't seen the last Strawbridge production. Dick is presently working on a pilot for a new National Geographic channel series on fishing and cooking with former athlete Dean Macey, who appeared on Celebrity Masterchef with him.
Incredibly a number of viewers who've watched Dick's food exploits bristle at the sight of his trademark 'tache, which has been with him since his days in Co Antrim.
"It all started back home at the age of 15. I was really rubbish at shaving the hair which was appearing on the corners of my mouth and my upper lip. I kept nicking myself and as I didn't really like shaving anyway, from that age onwards I've had a moustache.
"It wasn't very big at the start – it was more of an eyebrow really but as I got a little more mature it got a lot bushier.
"And apart from a couple of times when I shaved it off I have had a moustache all my life."
But every six weeks he receives a two-page letter from someone who wants him to whack off the moustache because they insist it's unhygienic for a cook to have a hirsute look.
"I explain that I shampoo it every morning and it doesn't fall out.
"My young son tries to pull out the hairs on a regular basis but so far he hasn't succeeded. So it's staying."