Harben was educated at Highgate School. His mother, Mary Jerrold, was an actress famous as the murderous Martha Brewster in the first stage presentation of Arsenic and Old Lace as well as many screen roles. His father, Hubert Harben, was a noted stage actor. His sister, Joan Harben, played Miss Mona Lott in the BBC Radio series ITMA. He learned to cook at the side of his parents, and "could scramble eggs and make mayonnaise long before I could read Thucydides or solve a quadratic equation".
His first occupation was as a commercial photographer. He was then engaged to run the kitchen of the Isobar restaurant in the Isokon building in Hampstead, London from 1937 to 1940, when he enlisted in the Royal Air Force, but an eye injury put paid to his flying career and he was assigned to the catering corps.
He compered a BBC wireless cooking programme from 1942, then a BBC TV programme, Cookery, from 1946 to 1951, followed by Cookery Lesson (with co-presenter Marguerite Patten) and What's Cooking from 1956. His emphasis was always on method and principles rather than recipes, but he could be remarkably dogmatic - "The Pot to the Kettle not the Kettle to the Pot!".
Philip Harben can be credited with the first TV "moment" when on live television he cracked an egg that was so bad he had to abandon the recipe while he and the studio crew broke into helpless laughter.
He had a regular column in the British Woman's Own magazine in the 1950s.
In 1958 he helped found the Harbenware kitchen utensils company, which in 2012 is still operating under the same ownership.
References in popular culture
- He appeared as himself in the 1953 movie Meet Mr. Lucifer, instantly recognisable by his educated accent, expansive manner, ample girth and neatly trimmed beard (and in his trademark black and white striped apron).
- He appeared as himself in the 1955 Norman Wisdom film Man of the Moment, in which Wisdom interrupts his television appearance while being chased by crooks.
- He appeared as a contestant on the American panel game show What's My Line on a 25 March 1956 episode. He also previously appeared as a panelist on the UK version.
- In Terence Rattigan's play Separate Tables: Table Number Seven, Mr. Fowler, Lady Matheson and Mrs Railton-Bell leave the table in distress to watch "dear Philip Harben".
- The Way to Cook, London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1945
- Cooking Quickly, London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1946
- Entertaining at Home (with Katharine Harben), London: Bodley Head, 1951
- Television Cooking Book London: Oldhams Press, 1951
- The Pocket Book of Modern Cooking, News of the World, 1951
- The Young Cook, London: Peter Nevill, 1952
- Cooking with Harben (ed. Katharine Harben), London: Herbert Jenkins, 1953
- Traditional Dishes of Britain, London: Bodley Head, 1953
- Philip Harben's Cookery Encyclopedia, London: Odhams, 1955
- The Teen-age Cook, London: Arco 1957
- Best Dishes from Europe, London: Arco, 1958
- Best Quick Supper Dishes, London: Arco, 1958
- Best Party Dishes 1958
- Cooking, Penguin, 1960
- Philip Harben's Book of the Frying Pan, London: Bodley Head, 1960
- Imperial Frying with Philip Harben, London: Bodley Head, 1961
- The Grammar of Cookery, London: Penguin, 1965
- The Way I Cook, London: Frewin, 1965
- The Tools of Cookery, London: Hodder Paperbacks, 1968. ISBN 0-340-04410-1
- Cooking Quickly, Brighton: Clifton Books, 1969. ISBN 0-901255-01-7
- Philip Harben's Count Down Cookery, London: Dent, 1971. ISBN 0-460-03965-2
- Philip Harben at the Internet Movie Database
- "Philip Harben", Cooksinfo.com
- "Cookery Programmes", Whirligig-tv
- Boreham, J.Y.(ed). Highgate School Register 1838-1938 (4th ed.). pp. p319.
- TV's first masterchef Caroline Brandenburger, The Telegraph, 24 August 2000.
Includes his "foolproof" recipe for chocolate cake.