Story/Interview November 16, 2022
TV chef Omari McQueen: 1 year later with King’s InterHigh | Behind the scenes with CBBC
Vegan Chef Omari McQueen is author of several books on plant-based recipes and star of a CBBC cooking programme. He’s currently filming for a new show, and balances his busy filming schedule with studying at King’s InterHigh. We spoke to him and his mother, Leah, for some behind the scenes insights.
Leah says online school has helped him become a confident, independent learner, and his favourite subjects are film studies and drama. When it comes to his future ambitions, Omari doesn’t need to see his name in lights – as long as he can put his own twist on the meals he loves and bring people good food, he’ll be happy.
14-year-old Omari is no stranger to the screen, as Britain’s youngest TV chef and host of CBBC’s What’s Cooking Omari. He’s now filming for a new show called Meet the McQueens, which sees him and his family (including seven siblings!) getting involved in all sorts of activities, from theme parks to meeting other celebrity chefs. What goes on behind the scenes?
When he met Gordan Ramsay, he expected plenty of laughter. While his fellow chef delivered on this part, not everything was as he thought it might be. “He was taller than I expected,” Omari chuckles. “He’s taller than my Dad!”
Filming comes with interesting challenges. Continuity is the biggest, especially around Omari’s hair and wardrobe. Leah says no one realised how fast Omari’s hair grows. “That’s why you might see his hair get shorter at random from one scene to the next!” she tells us.
Despite having a big range of clothes that can be used for filming, Omari continues to grow out of these. What does this mean for production? “It means we have to keep a close eye on what he wears and be very careful with reshoots!” says Leah.
But the older he gets, the more he gets to do on-screen. His favourite activity is thrill-seeking. “I’m old enough to go on rides now!” he says enthusiastically. Clearly, there’s no fear of the prospect of an adrenalin rush.
If filming three days a week with the production crew wasn’t enough, the young bundle of energy has plenty of other projects on the go. Right now, he’s filming cooking lessons that will be turned into a course for young children. And he’ll soon be visiting schools to teach food technology with a vegan twist or, as Leah describes it, “Omari-style”.
Omari joined King’s InterHigh to balance his busy filming schedule and other cooking commitments with his studies. He’s made the flexibility online school offers work for him, by catching up with lesson recordings on breaks between filming, or after this has finished for the day.
For someone who isn’t shy to be in front of the camera, it’s perhaps unsurprising that his favourite lessons are drama and film studies. He praises his teachers, describing lessons as interactive and the teachers always on hand to offer help. “If you want to ask them a question in private, you can speak to them. You can speak to your classmates just as easily.”
How exactly do drama classes work remotely? Omari says there’s a lot of emotional expression involved when reading texts online. “Sometimes we’ll read it angrily, sometimes we’ll read it happy,” he says. His teachers also do a good job of this. “One time my teacher seemed very angry, and I wanted to ask ‘What’s wrong?!’ I like that we get to show all these emotions.”
It’s easy to be drawn to the subjects we love studying. But Leah says Omari’s getting better at dividing his time between all his lessons. “We don’t have to tell him to revise for the classes he enjoys less anymore,” she says. “We got him a little book he can use as a checklist, to tick off each subject he’s caught up with each day.”
It used to be that Omari would ask his parents a lot for help. Since joining King’s InterHigh, this happens less. “What I realised is King’s InterHigh has taught him how to work independently, and also given him the confidence to do that,” Leah explains. If he ever needs help, he can find that elsewhere. “He’s got access to his teachers. He prefers to go to them for help now.”
Omari affirms that at King’s InterHigh, help is always there when you need it. “When you’re stuck on something, and the class is finished, you can email your teacher and they’ll come back to you and help you. I really like that.”
“If you want to ask your teachers a question in private, you can. And you can get in touch with your classmates just as easily.”
Doing good for good’s sake
Omari has many plans for 2023. In January, he plans to open a pop-up restaurant where he can dish out his vegan chicken and chips. His third book on cooking is due for release in August, which he describes as a family book with illustrations for young children. Leah says he’ll likely support the release with a book tour.
In April, he’ll be visiting New York to attend the World Dyslexia Assembly. Then in the summer, he’ll be heading to Antigua to run cooking workshops. With everything that he has coming up, the flexibility of an education with King’s InterHigh will be crucial.
When it comes to future ambitions, Omari doesn’t need to see his name in lights – as long as he can put his own twist on the meals he loves, he’ll be happy. In fact, the beginning of his cooking career didn’t come from a desire to be a big celebrity chef. It stemmed from the love for his family, researching the health benefits of veganism and learning to cook when his mum became severely ill with migranes. The first vegan dips he ever created were experiments, but after they got such a positive reaction from his friends and family, he decided to launch his own brand in 2017.
He is still a passionate vegan, believing in the health benefits as well as safety for animals. In fact, that’s his key motivation for being a vegan. “If you love animals, then of course you’re going to be a vegan,” he says. “I love animals. They’re supposed to live their lives like humans do, and be left alone. They’re not supposed to be eaten and we’re not supposed to hurt them.”
That’s not to say that he likes getting up close and personal with everything in the animal kingdom. “I’m scared of spiders,” he says. “And cows. I saw one up close once and it was really big!” Isn’t a vegan who’s scared of animals a little ironic? “He believes we should leave animals alone,” explains Leah, “but he doesn’t want to get near and stroke them.”
He used his cooking to convince family members that vegan meals are just as, if not more, tasty than meat. His BBQ jackfruit has gone down a treat with his grandma, who told him it had exactly the same texture as pork. Leah thinks his chickpea curry is also a strong contender in this area.
And speaking of treats, Leah recommends her son’s vegan deserts. Using alternatives like plant-based butter and egg replacer, Omari got his Dad to stop eating chocolate with a cake made using the latter.
It’s just as important that meals are easy and suited for family life. Studying with King’s InterHigh allows Omari to spend precious time with his family and cook lunch even on weekdays. With eight children in the house, from the ages of one to 17, mum Leah certainly has her hands full! “Two of my children are autistic, so what I’ve learnt is that a schedule is key. You have to stick to a routine around mealtimes and our daily schedules.” Online schooling and the support of Omari’s older brother, who has just finished his own GCSEs, works well for the McQueens.
As for Omari and his career, we say watch this space. His ambition is grand, but not flashy. Leah says he loves putting his own twist on the food he likes, but isn’t after public credit for this – he wants good food to be accessible for all.
“I told him he’d have a Michelin restaurant one day, but he said ‘I don’t want a Michelin restaurant. I don’t need to compete with anybody, because I stand in my own lane. As long as the food tastes good, I don’t need anyone to tell me anything.’”
“King’s InterHigh has given Omari the confidence to work independently. He doesn’t need to ask me for help anymore. He has his teachers for that.”