It’s not often a cookbook can bring you to tears (unless you’re talking about the onion chopping-induced variety).
But reading Joe Swash’s ode to his father Ricky, who passed away suddenly when the London-born actor and presenter was 11 years old, is incredibly moving.
“He was a London taxi driver but he would do a lot of half marathons, he would run three or four times a week,” Swash recalls with pride, speaking to me from the home in Essex he shares with wife Stacey Solomon and their children Rex, three, and one-year-old Rose, as well as Zac, 14, and Leighton, 10 (from Solomon’s previous relationships) and Harry, 15 (from Swash’s previous relationship with Emma Sophocleous).
“He really ate healthy. Like he would cut the fat off his bacon – I love the fat on my bacon! The doctor said it was a thing called sudden death syndrome,” Swash explains.
“It was an undetected default in his heart that could have happened [at any time]. He could have died when he was eight, he could have died when he was 80. It was just a matter of time.”
Now 40, the former EastEnders star, who has just released his first recipe book, says he had difficulty coming to terms with his grief as a child.
“My mum and my sisters were crying – I sort of couldn’t ever open up and do that myself. I’d only ever cry or show any emotions if I was by myself,” he recalls.
“It was a really sad, sad time in my life. I sort of detached myself from it a little bit. It almost feels like I’m talking about another little boy, not really me.”
Swash – who got his big break in 2003 when he was cast as Mickey Miller in the iconic BBC soap – says he still felt the impact of his dad’s death as an adult.
“It’s something that’s always been with me, something that I feel changed me quite a lot. I always wonder what I’d be like if my dad was still with me, you know. Some of the bad decisions I’ve made in life, would they have happened?”
While he’s never had counselling, Swash says he’s always found cooking therapeutic, which is why he’s the main chef in his household: “I really get a buzz from it. Although Stacey thinks it’s amazing that I do it, I sort of secretly do it for myself, it’s really good for me.”
It was after taking part in Celebrity MasterChef last year and reaching the final three that the amateur cook decided to put pen to paper: “It really gave me a lot of confidence in the kitchen. I realised, you know, I’m a pretty good cook.”
The book aims to help other busy parents put wholesome meals on the table. “Like a lot of people, we’ve got families, we both work. It’s all the sort of things that Stace and I do to make our lives easier,” says Swash.
Alongside family favourites like cheese and Marmite scrools, turkey burgers and Tottenham cake, Swash chronicles “my childhood and all the big things in my life like EastEnders, the Jungle, meeting Stacey – and all the foods that represent those moments”.
After winning I’m A Celebrity… in 2008, Swash recalls how he “secretly fell in love” with Solomon when she took part in the reality TV series two years later.
Hosting the Extra Camp spin-off show, he greeted the Queen of the Jungle ready for her exit interview only to find the object of his affections was – like many celebs who emerge after weeks without toiletries – a bit whiffy, to say the least.
“I’m not sure whether Stacey was the worst smelling, or whether I had such high expectations of her smelling so beautiful,” he says with a laugh. “The smell hit me like a brick.”
The pair started dating in 2016 and married earlier this year. Family life with a brood of five can be hectic, but the kids are happy to help out in the kitchen.
“They love a bit of baking,” Swash says. “They love anything that’s messy, like meringues. They take a lot of pride in what they’re doing, so it’s lovely to see.”
They try to prioritise family mealtimes as much as possible, he adds: “It always gave me a feeling of security when I was a kid, and it’s something I really want for my kids.”
Inspired by his father, Swash wants to create the loving home life he experienced in his early years, even though their time together was cut short.
“Overall, I’ve got to thank my lucky stars that I had him for the amount of time I did, and the impact he had on my life,” says Swash.
“I hope he looks down on me and he loves seeing us all together, trying to do what what he did when we were kids.”
Joe’s Kitchen: Homemade Meals For A Happy Family by Joe Swash is published by Pavilion Books. Photography by Dan Jones. Available now.