For Riyadh Khalaf, to carve out a successful career in broadcasting has always been a dream.
From humble beginnings learning his craft on local Irish radio, to mastering the art of making groundbreaking, critically acclaimed, thought-provoking documentaries – through perseverance and hard work, Khalaf has most certainly made that dream come true
And whether he’s putting pen to pater to write a book offering advice to young members of the LGBTQ+ Community, entertaining the nation hosting Radio 1’s comedy podcast Unexpected Fluids or creating hilarious online content for his ever-growing army of loyal YouTube followers, this young man from Ireland is astute in using his platform to help evoke real change; impassioned to educate himself as well as his audience to challenge old fashioned systems and social ideologies to break down barriers in the hopes of igniting a better, more equal way of life for us all.
On a quest to perhaps find a little light relief post COVID-19, Riyadh’s next challenge however is something all together different, as he dons the now infamous white Masterchef apron to take part in the new celebrity version of the hit BBC 1 primetime series…
“Do you know what, else these past few months have been tough haven’t they? I think everyone at some point has struggled to deal and understand all of this (the Coronavirus pandemic). But having Masterchef in the back of my mind as something that I knew I had coming up has been like fuel for me to get through lockdown – just knowing I had something to look forward to was a big help to me.” Riyadh tells us as we settle down to discuss his upcoming appearance on the show.
“It’s going to be really so much fun to watch but equally quite intense. I’m really excited for people to see the first couple of dishes that I serve up because they are… very interesting (laughs). We were given a market challenge to begin with which essentially meant we have to go into a make shift market in the studio and everything you could ever want was there – meat, vegetables… everything! And we had 15 minutes to cook an invented dish on a whim! Thankfully I had done a bit of practising at home with a load of random ingredients and I saw some similar on the market stall, so I did something close to what I’d made at home during my practise run.”
As Riyadh talks, it’s becomes increasingly obvious just how much the opportunity to appear on the show means to him – his voice becoming more and more animated, as our conversation progresses.
So with that in mind, we decide not to to waste anymore time in getting answers to the questions we know, you’ve all been dying to hear…
So tonight’s the night, your first Masterchef episode airs! How are you feeling?
I am so, so excited about it, I can’t even tell you! Because it was obviously all shot before lockdown, the whole experience feels like it happened such a long time ago, so it’s almost felt like this big thing on the horizon and I’ve been just desperately waiting for it to happen!.. I have to be very careful though, as to not divulge any information as to what actually happens.
We’ll be sure to keep our questions vague, don’t worry! Are you able to tell us who else you’re heading into the kitchen with?
THEE JUDY MURRAY?!
Yes, THEE Judy Murray! And let me tell you, she and I hit. it. off! But the hilarious thing was when I arrived on day one of filming, I wasn’t necessarily 100% sure who all of the other contestants were, I recognised some from watching them on TV but with Judy… well, now I obviously know just how famous she is, but in the beginning I had no idea who she was! And I went up to her and was like ‘Hi my name’s Riyadh, who are you?’ And she said ‘oh my names Judy and I’m a tennis coach’ and I think it was Pete Wicks that said to me ‘that’s Andy Murray’s Mum!’ and I was like ‘oh, okay right… who’s that?’ (laughs) In my defence I’m not a sporty guy.
Judy is now known for having such a wicked sense of humour, as are you, so what a genius move on the part of the producers to have you both in the same heat! The two of you must have had an absolute ball together?
Her and I honestly became so close, she was almost like a bit of a security blanket for me on the show. We had to do a challenge together where we went to a restaurant to do a catering challenge, where we cooked fine dining food for paying customers with very little training, so as you can probably imagine, it was high, high pressure! Her and I were on opposite sides of the kitchen and even though it was very fast paced and ‘go, go, go’ we still took the time to check in with one another and visit each others work stations and go ‘alright huh, hows it going?’ And we’d have a big hug in between each of the courses… and she’s since promised me that I can join her in her box at Wimbledon! Which is obviously wonderful, so I’m going to have to start to watch a bit of tennis so I can understand what’s going on.
Well that’s an off you simply cannot refuse! We’ll be sure to look out for you there next summer!
Oh yes, I’ll be there, channelling my inner tennis player!
Going back to that ‘fine dining’ challenge for a minute, that sounds like it was a pretty intense experience! Were you an avid of a viewer of the show before you were on it? Did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into?
(Laughs) I did. I mean, honestly, I’ve been watching Masterchef since I was 14 years old, so although you can never really know what it’s like to be on the show, I feel like I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.
So you made sure you got in some practise beforehand?
Endless practise! I don’t take on challenges like this lightly, and this was a really big opportunity, so I didn’t want to mess it up! Yes, I saw it as a way to have a bit of fun, but it was also something I wanted to do well in, because what you find is, even though the process of being on the show is incredibly nerve-wracking, it’s also quite addictive! So every time you go into that studio you don’t want to leave! Every time I was trying really hard to cling on and do the best I could!
Both Masterchef hosts and judges, John Torode and Gregg Wallace, are giants in the culinary world – it must have been pretty daunting having to cook in front of them?
Oh it was! I mean they’re so lovely, don’t get me wrong, but they’re also just as scary in real life as they come across on TV (laughs). But, I will say that they do both kind of have a glint in their eye at the same time, so you do feel that support from them, and I had some really lovely chats with them. At the end of the day Masterchef is a feel good show, so even when you make a mistake, John and Gregg where always there to try and help you learn from it. They want you to do better next time, they’re not trying to trip you up or anything like that – they genuinely love their job, and they love food so when you take their advice on board and you implement it into the next challenge and they see that, they’re so happy and they appreciate it!.. I kind of miss them actually.
So overall, it sounds like it’s been a really fun, positive experience?
For sure! It’s been really great, but that’s not to say there weren’t any intense moments – I consistently burn things, and there was a moment with a mandolin that was quite funny, mainly because I didn’t even know what a mandolin was! And I cut myself accidentally… but I’m proud to show off what I now call my ‘Masterchef scars’ and I wear them with pride!
Okay… so our final question on Celebrity Masterchef! We’ve always wondered, do you get to keep your ICONIC Celebrity Masterchef apron?
Apparently yes! Once the series is over you get them sent to you, but up until then they like to keep them under lock and key before the announcement of who’s going to be on the show because they want to keep a big surprise to viewers. Like, can you imagine you have your friends round for dinner and then they see your apron, it’s a bit of a giveaway isn’t it?
So as well as Celebrity Masterchef, you’ve also been a part of another massive show this year, Normal People, serving as the host of BBC Sounds Obsessed with… Normal People podcast alongside Evanna Lynch. What was it like to be involved in what became such a broadcasting phenomenon?
It was so much fun! Like many people, I became obsessed with the show – I absolutely loved it! We decided pretty early on that we wanted the podcast to be a sort of post-show therapy for people, because each episode and really, ‘Normal People’ as a whole was so traumatic wasn’t it?
It really, really was! But equally amazing at the same time! Podcasts have enjoyed a huge rise in popularity over the last couple of years – how have you found exploring them as a new media format?
Well, I’ve always been obsessed with radio! Radio was my first love, like I was running a pirate radio station out of my bedroom back home in Ireland when I was a teenager (laughs). In a way, I sort of see podcasts as being an extension of that, the only difference being is that you’re not entirely live on the air talking to your audience. But on the flip side of that, you have a little more freedom to be creative and try new things… I actually have a new podcast coming out in the new year which I’m really excited about.
As you say, radio has always been a huge passion of yours, so getting to work on Radio 1 must have just been beyond a dream come true! Can you remember what it felt like right before you went on air for your first show?
Oh God, I’ll never forget it! I was covering someone else’s show and I just remember sitting there in the that iconic studio where hundred, thousands of hours worth of incredible broadcasting had taken place and I just thought… ‘wow, I made it!’ It took so long and so much hard work to get there, but it felt amazing – and I was unashamedly proud of myself in that moment! I mean, think about it, to have the privilege of broadcasting on such a prestigious radio station to a whole nation… it was just a full circle moment. And to this day, I always have so much fun when I do it, I get to play incredible tunes, have a little bop around the studio and chat to the whole country, how amazing is that?
What is it do you think that you love so much about the idea and format of radio?
For me, the great thing about radio is that it’s always super imitate and special! When I’m speaking into that mic, I’m always only ever imagining one person – and a lot of the time who I’m imaging is one of my best friends – because I want it to feel like I’m just having a conversation with who ever’s listening. Even if you’re there at 4am doing the early, early breakfast show and you have to be up and out of bed at 2:30am it doesn’t matter to me, because the buzz is still and there is nothing like watching the countdown of that clock and knowing that in ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1…’ you’re on the air – it’s very special.
You’ve had the opportunity to broadcast and present on a real, diverse range of platforms – from radio to television, podcasts, YouTube, you’ve even written a book, which would you say is the most powerful?
Ooh, it’s hard to say! That’s a good question… it’s maybe not that it’s the most powerful, but I think what YouTube did for me was it allowed me to be discovered by TV and radio executives. I always had a dream of becoming the next Graham Norton or Ant & Dec! I was always in LOVE with Davina McCall – I grew up just loving her and watching that first series of Big Brother and not even really paying attention to what was happening on the show, it was more about her, the way she presented links and the way she interacted with the audience and viewers at home. Davina was like a superhero that I always inspired to be like. But I digress from your question (laughs). Yeah, YouTube became almost like an online portfolio for me. It was something that I could present to people in power, to show them what I was capable of, and that I could tell stories and interview people and be funny… it was a great place for me to show everyone that I was ready!
YouTube was definitely a foot in the door then…
Yeah, and after people had sort of seen what I could do, I had some amazing opportunities thrown my way, I started working in radio over in Dublin at a very young age and I just thought I’d made it! I really thought, I am Oprah! I am here. It’s funny though how after a month or two in a particular position, your aspirations begin to niggle at you again and you start to think to yourself ‘hmm… I wonder what’s beyond this?’ And I think anybody that works in media or show business, and has that same drive can relate to that feeling.
You do feel like you’re always striving to do something bigger, better and greater?
In a way, because I am pretty ambitious, but I’ve always only ever wanted to work on projects and make content that I really cared about, rather than just taking on anything that was thrown my way. But listen, the whole reason why I’ve been able to do multiple things at the same time, be it online work or making a documentary, writing a book or doing a podcast series, it’s not necessarily because I love having two hours sleep at night, it’s because you’ve got to be clever and you’ve got to be quick on your feet in this job because one or two of those things might not come to fruition, so you always need to have something on the go to fall back on. But it’s fun and it keeps you busy.
Out of all the work you’ve done so far, which do you feel most proud of?
I think the documentaries I’ve made have been the things that I’m most proud of so far. And I think they’ve been quite influential in terms of educating and helping people, which is something that’s really important to me. I made a documentary in Swaziland, near South Africa called “Fighting For Pride“, I produced it, and presented it which was a real challenge for me but at the same time it was an amazing experience to go to a country where it’s illegal to be gay and watch these incredible young activists put themselves at risk and in the face of a homophobic king to put on PRIDE anyway. To stand back and just watch everything that they were doing was incredible. The “Queer Britain” series I did for BBC Three was another great experience (a series of 6 documentaries about queer people living in the UK) I think people seem to think that everything in this country is A. okay for LGBTQ+ people and in a way you can’t blame them for thinking that, but when you watch that show you realise that there are so, so many deep rooted issues ingrained within the community from racism to body issues to people being thrown out of their churches and families for who they are… it’s funny we’re a few years on but to still be recognised for those shows is amazing! People will come up to me and say “oh my God, I came out because of that show” or “that show really helped me to find myself and understand what it means to be LGBTQ+” – that’s a pretty incredible feeling.
Hearing something like that, must be a lot for you to take in! How do you feel, and how do you respond when you hear that they work you’ve done has had such a profound and positive effect on people?
You allow the good feeling in – you have to allow yourself to feel the love and the appreciation, it’s nice to meet those people, give them a little hug and talk it out with them, but when you launch into your next project, the worst thing you can do, and I’ve learnt this first hand, is to jump into thinking ‘this will save a life’ or ‘this will educate a parent into be the most accepting and loving person to their gay song’ – you can’t put that pressure on yourself; you just have to go into it with an open mind, a passionate heart and be willing to work hard! It’s about being honest and open with contributors, and what you find is, the good stuff happens by default – you just end up getting there almost by accident. It means you can do your job and not be overwhelmed by the pressure of trying to save the world. Because that’s not always gonna happen.
As we wrap up our conversation, Riyadh begins to reflect on just how far he’s come…
“I always think back to me at 17/18 years old pitching endless ideas to TV execs in Ireland and not really getting anywhere because no one really knew who I was and no one really cared.” he says laughing. “It takes a lot of hard work, over many, many years to get those kinds of people to listen and for them to hear what you’ve got to say. And when those opportunities do come around, you kind of what to be sure that you’ve got something good and worthwhile to say.”
“I’ve been very lucky. The ‘job’ I do, the work I’ve done, the people I’ve met… it’s wonderful really.”