‘There is no Hairy Bikers without Dave’: Si King on TV, cooking and life without his best friend

<span>‘We wanted to say to the audience that if we can cook this in a gale in Patagonia, you can definitely cook it at home’: Hairy Biker Si King on a new Triumph Rocket III.</span><span>Photograph: Simon Emmett/The Observer</span>
‘We wanted to say to the audience that if we can cook this in a gale in Patagonia, you can definitely cook it at home’: Hairy Biker Si King on a new Triumph Rocket III.Photograph: Simon Emmett/The Observer

Si King knows what he cannot do next. “It can’t be the Hairy Bikers 2.0,” he says. “That’s not going to happen. It wouldn’t be respectful.” It is a cool, rainy day in May and we are sitting by the fire in his small but sturdy gatehouse cottage just to the south of Newcastle. It is less than three months since the death from cancer of Dave Myers, his friend of over 30 years and the other half of the internationally successful TV cooking phenomenon known as the Hairy Bikers. Si has decided it’s time to talk: about the man he knew and the pain of loss and the thorny issue of what he does now. “There’s obviously the sense of losing your best mate,” he says. “But there’s also a sense of loss in that the experiences we had together can’t go on.” He seems almost baffled by the enormity of what has happened.

I have known Si for about 15 years. We first met on a food and drink episode of The Weakest Link. I beat both him and Dave in the final head-to-head, but reassure him that I won’t bang on about it today, at least not too much. Across the years we would meet at parties and usually, fuelled by a few drinks, talk intensely about our shared love of gigging as musicians. Long before his first career in the film and television business, Si King worked as a drummer, and he still plays in bands. He is very much the man you see on screen: warm, enthusiastic, intensely interested about everything. He has a crashing wave of a laugh which encourages you to join in. “Dave once said that we were never clever enough to be anybody else but ourselves,” he says. One morning, a month or so after Dave’s death in late February, he called and suggested I come to stay for the night, “so we can talk about Dave’s going and all of that”.

The plan was to eat outside, but the sloshing northeast weather has done for that. Still, Si has a wood-fired oven and a charcoal grill built undercover and he’s determined to use them. The verdant sloping gardens behind his cottage are planted with root and salad vegetables, herb bushes and fruit trees. “All the native things,” he says. There will be wood-fire roasted leeks and a salad, both from the garden. There will be new potatoes roasted with lemon and butter. He has a large turbot bought this morning, which he will grill. “That’s an intimidating fish,” he says, admiringly. “You want to do right by that fish.” Food was never just a job, for either of them, as the shelves of cookbooks attest. It was who they were. After the end of his engagement to the Australian food writer Michele Cranston in 2021, he began a relationship with Jen, a member of the Newcastle legal fraternity who, he says, has been “hugely supportive throughout all this.” But for the most part Si, who is 57, lives here alone with his dog, Artie, not far from his ex-wife, Jane, and two of his three grownup kids.

The night will end with us drinking whisky and watching Bruce Springsteen videos. For now, though, we’re in front of the fire, with cups of tea. I ask him how he is. “I’m OK,” he says slowly, as if interrogating himself for accuracy. “It’s definitely a time of change and change comes at a cost and that cost has been my best friend.” Dave and Si met on the set of a Catherine Cookson TV adaptation in the 1990s. Dave was a makeup and prosthetics artist; Si was an assistant director. They bonded over their shared love of motorbikes and their dinner. They had also both come from meagre beginnings. Dave grew up in Barrow-in-Furness where, as a child he became a carer for his mum who had MS; Si grew up here in the northeast, just 14 miles away. “We were both poor growing up,” Si says. “Our parents made the best of it, but that experience of childhood was a driving force. I never wanted to go back to that level of desperation.”

Television stardom offered a way out, if they were willing to go all in. “What was wonderful about my mate Dave was that he absolutely embraced the moment,” Si says. “He used to drive me mad. I’d tell him to say something negative for a bit, but he just loved being a Hairy Biker.” The partnership began when, dissatisfied with their film jobs on stagnating wages, they started banging about ideas for travelogue cooking shows. Using their insider knowledge of the TV business, they managed to get first a pilot and then a series commissioned. “It was the Observer who gave us our first serious piece of coverage,” he says, recalling an OFM cover story in 2005, which invited readers to “Meet the biker cooks who are set to be the foodie hit of 2006.” The headline wasn’t wrong. “The Observer really launched the Hairy Bikers,” Si says. “And it will end with them, too.”

They filmed a new series almost every year from then on, eating up 650,000 miles of road together across both the UK and the world, and published bestselling books to go alongside the shows. The combination of boyish enthusiasm, roaring bikes and dishes that looked like they could be achieved at home won them a huge audience. Television is an unforgiving medium. It will sniff out fakery from 10 miles away; they came across as completely authentic. “The journey we’ve taken with our audience is the same as the journey we’ve taken together,” he says. “We wanted to say to the audience that if we can cook this in the middle of a force-eight gale in Patagonia, you can definitely cook it at home.”

It is a mark of the project’s success that earlier this month, led by Si, tens of thousands of bikers took part in a ride from London to Barrow to celebrate Dave’s life. The route was lined by thousands more. Their fans clearly felt they’d lost a friend.

Was the partnership difficult to manage? Si laughs. “Dave and I were two very different people with different agendas and priorities, but we adored each other. The only strategy we had was that if one was vociferously against doing something, then we wouldn’t do it. But Dave was always ready to say yes, much more than me. More times than not he’d win by being relentlessly positive.” This, he says, did come at a cost. Dave was eventually diagnosed with heart problems and, in 2014, Si suffered an aneurysm. “Being the Hairy Bikers was exhausting. We didn’t really want to admit it, but it had its own momentum. It just became our normal, until there was a point when our bodies were saying, hang on a minute.” Si would eventually ascribe the end of his 27-year marriage to Jane in part to the laser-like focus they had on their careers.

Si learned about Dave’s cancer diagnosis in May 2022, while driving north from London. “Dave called me. I had to pull over. I just couldn’t compute it. I must have sounded terrible. There was just a level of disbelief. And to be perfectly honest I couldn’t get my head around it all the way through his fight. Is this really happening? My best mate?” Dave never said what type of cancer he had because he didn’t want people to speculate on the prognosis based on a simple medical term. “I was suspicious it was going to be complicated from the very start,” Si says, “but thought that if anyone could get through this, it would be Dave, with the love and support of his wife, Lili.” Dave met Liliana Orzac, the general manager of the hotel they were staying in, during a filming trip to Romania. They married in 2011.

“You have to go with the psyche of the patient. It was all about the fight right to the very last day.” He leans in. “We are two working-class lads and we like a scrap. When it became apparent this was going to be a long haul it was about making things as comfortable as possible for Dave, both physically and mentally. We had to be led by him. It’s about being kind.” And then, “The reality was he just didn’t want to go. It was too soon.” He had not long moved from Kent to a big house in Staffordshire. “He had a home he wanted to live in and we had a handle on our careers. He was looking forward to spending more time with his beloved Lili and his step-kids. He’d just arrived and no one wants to leave when they’ve just arrived. It wasn’t time to go.” He pauses. “It’s a cruel disease.”

For Christmas 2023 they shot a special in which they went to say thank you to all those who had helped treat Dave during that year. It was clearly shot in the summer, and began with Si saying how “overjoyed” he was that his friend was still with us. Watching what is a very moving narrative both of illness and adult male friendship, I found myself wondering if he ever doubted Dave would still be alive to see it go out. “No. I knew he’d still be with us. I could see it in him.” They had also made a series about the food of the West Country. “I got to watch the first episode of that go out with him,” Si says. Dave died a couple of weeks later. He was 66.

Which leads to the inevitable question: what next for Si King? “It’s only in the past couple of weeks that I’ve started to think about what I want to do. I’ve spent all my life from very young thinking about what other people want and what their needs and aspirations are. So to be presented at my age with the question of what you really want to do is very difficult. We were a partnership, a double act.” The fact there were two of them was, he says, key to their success. “I need someone to play off. I’m good at unpacking people. I’m genuinely interested in people’s stories.” We discuss the current television commissioner’s fetish for partnering up vaguely famous people for a travelogue. Si seems to shudder at the very thought. “It’s virtually impossible to think about that sort of thing at the minute.”

He prefers to talk more generally. “I don’t think as a creative person you ever stop being creative. How can you retire from yourself? Do I want to do more books? Yes, I do. Do I want to make more programmes? Yes, I do.” He’s particularly conscious of the audience he and Dave built together, and talks about them as if they are just out there beyond the cottage’s mullioned windows. “It would be incredibly churlish not to say thank you to our fanbase. I sincerely hope that whatever I do next they come with me and we start another journey together.”

For now, the next thing is dinner. We head out into the rain and huddle in the open-sided outhouse that he had built for his grill, modelled on an Argentinian parrilla. Artie, a labradoodle “with a touch of retriever”, stands on the lawn just above us, faithful until death. “I cook out here more often than I do in there,” he says, waving his tongs at the kitchen. He piles bundles of rosemary and thyme twigs from the garden on to the burning coals. I ask if he has any other homes. Dave and Lili had a place in France, and Dave also loved to collect bikes and antiques. By all accounts Dave seriously loved his stuff. “I’ve only got one bike because I’ve only got one arse,” Si says, drily. And this is his only property. Any money he has earned has, he says, gone on helping his extended family, though he acknowledges the partnership did very well. Their 2012 book, The Hairy Dieters, sold more than 1m copies alone and knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the top of the charts. “As Dave said, this just proves the way to the nation’s heart is through their stomachs and not their genitals.” He howls with laughter at the memory. “I’m a working-class lad from a North Durham coalfield. I’ve been absolutely blessed. My alternative when the pits were open was down a dark hole.”

We move inside to eat. The pearly turbot comes under a mess of the roasted leeks with cockles and nutty brown shrimps. It is perfectly cooked. As befits a Hairy Biker, he is obviously a terrific cook, but like the very best of them, he is also a feeder. He delights in the pleasure of those at his table. Later, as the damp summer evening turns to a damp summer night, we return to sit in front of the fire, tumblers of very good Bunnahabhain whisky in our hands. We enthuse to each other about the music we’ve been listening to and playing, the things we love. We search up YouTube videos to show each other. It would doubtless be a profoundly tiresome conversation to listen in to, but it’s just us: two middle-aged, bearded men of a certain heft, wanging on at each other about grooves and drum patterns. Happily, no one else is here to listen. Apart from Artie, who snoozes on the couch. Our YouTube trawl leads Si to suggest we watch Western Stars, a concert film of Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 album of the same name, shot in a barn on his estate in New Jersey.

It quickly becomes obvious that this film is very close to Si’s heart. I ask him how often he has watched it. “A few times,” he says, shyly. How about 20 times? He laughs at himself. “About that. I’ve found it very comforting in very difficult periods.” The themes of the wide, open spaces and the long American roads clearly appeal to something very elemental in him; to the part which winged a freestyle career through travel and exploration. Springsteen sings a line which Si repeats. “Walk on through the night because that’s where the morning is.” The significance of the lyric to a man who has lost his best friend to cancer really does not need unpacking. I tell him that, earlier in the day I was looking at the Wikipedia entry for the Hairy Bikers. It’s been edited recently so it’s now in the past tense: “The Hairy Bikers were…”

Si nods in recognition. “There is no Hairy Bikers without Dave,” he says. “Because it’s plural.” For nearly two decades they drove the open road together. They wrote their own story, eating up the highways and the lanes, the dirt tracks and the fat black ribbons of Tarmac, forever putting distance between themselves and their beginnings. Along the way they showed us all how to eat the good things. Now it is just Si King, the last of the Hairy Bikers. And the road stretches on.

Fashion editor: Helen Seamons; grooming by Neusa Neves at Arlington Talent using Nars cosmetics; photographer’s assistant Claudia Gschwend; with thanks to Triumph UK; shot at Buckle studio