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Masterchef: An interview with John Torode and Gregg Walace

14 June 2007
Masterchef: An interview with John Torode and Gregg Walace

Cooking has become a national pastime thanks to the plethora of cooking programmes. As another round of Celebrity MasterChef hits our TVs, members of the public are queuing up to appear on MasterChef Goes Large. John Kercher meets the judges

The stars of music, sport and television - names such as Ultravox front man Midge Ure, former footballer Robbie Earle and news reader Angela Rippon, have already tried their hands at cooking in the celebrity version, but filming is now under way on MasterChef Goes Large, where ordinary members of the public are lining up for the ultimate title of MasterChef. Waiting for them are judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode, whose watchful eyes and taste-buds could change the winner's life for ever.

"We aren't involved in the initial auditions," says Torode, owner and managing director of Smith's restaurant in London. "Hundreds of people apply, and not all of them can cook. But now that they have been whittled down to about 140, that's when we step in and start trying to give them some advice. Because, no matter how good they are, they can always benefit from professional opinions.

"So, for example, Gregg and I might tell them not to put salt in the water when cooking broad beans, because it makes the husks hard. Or not to put oil in the roasting pan, but on the meat - otherwise, the meat burns and is going to taste bitter."

Wallace, managing director of supplier Secretts Direct, has his own advice for contestants: "I tell them that they should cook every day, and not necessarily with things they are familiar with using. There is a round in the competition where they are given a whole load of stuff that they might not have encountered before. So the greater the variety of the unfamiliar they can cook at home before coming into the competition, the better it is for them and they won't be fazed or frightened."

Wallace and Torode bring different areas of expertise to MasterChef Goes Large. "I'm not a chef," Wallace says. "And they didn't want two on the show. I started out working in Covent Garden when I was young, and loved it. I was working nights and so earned more."

Wallace set up his own business supplying quality vegetables to the top London restaurants and now runs Secretts Direct from Secretts Farm. He can count Kensington Palace and the Ivy among his clients.

In fact, it was through his business that he met Torode. "He came to me with some coriander and I asked him if he could supply it with the roots on," Torode says. The two have remained friends for more than 15 years.

"But we do disagree quite a lot on the show," Torode goes on. "Our debates about contestants are edited. For instance, when it comes to the final, we might take anything up to a couple of hours to reach a decision. That's because what we decide can change a contestant's life. We have to know whether the winner is ready for a professional career."

Other winners from the series have gone on to open restaurants and write cookery books, or are in the process of launching their own restaurants (see page 29).

"Some people," Wallace says, "have suggested that we are doing the ‘good cop, bad cop' routine but that's not true, because our opinions are completely our own."

But do they ever feel they might have been harsh with a contestant? "No," Torode says. "The contestants might have day jobs, but they are good cooks - genuine chefs."

Wallace doesn't feel bad, either. "I've noticed that whatever I tell them, they do take notice and it improves their cooking. But I wouldn't want to change their style."

Professional standard

What the pair are essentially trying to do is take a good amateur cook and then advise them and train them to a professional standard. "It's not simply about being able to cook, it's about how you work within a team, how you deal with things in a kitchen under pressure. It's why our series takes them into different situations," Torode explains.

During the previous series, contestants had to cook for the cast of a television show, the pupils of a large school and for Michelin-starred chefs. They cooked in top restaurants in New York, Paris and London. And they felt the heat.

"It's one thing cooking in studio-type conditions, but being thrown into the real thing is something else," Torode says.

He believes there is too much snobbery surrounding food. He started cooking when he was 16 years old, back in his native Australia, and still gets a thrill out of cooking something and "watching other people enjoy it, the smell of it, the buzz, the energy of the kitchen, and the tasting. It's fantastic.

"People wonder about the stress of being in a top kitchen, but the more professional you become, the more confident and at ease you become. I would compare it to being a long-distance runner, where you get into a rhythm. The fluidity of everything makes it easier."

Where have those MasterChef winners gone?

They went through several tortuous rounds under the scrutiny of judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode, in what has been billed as a "life-changing" experience. For the winners and runners-up it has certainly been that.

2005 winner

Thomasina Miers was working as a freelance food writer before winning the first series of MasterChef Goes Large.

"I'd come back from Mexico and was broke and looking for a job when I learnt I was going to be a contestant. It was one thing cooking at home, but absolutely terrifying doing it before cameras. I thought Gregg Wallace was harsh at times, but fairly so. It made me realise how passionate he and John are about food, and I think that's what they are looking for in us contestants.

"It was a bit of a shock working in a professional kitchen and being screamed at if you did something wrong. My advice to anyone going on the show is to cook from the heart. The programme is a great learning process. It was for me."

Since winning the title, Miers has worked as a professional chef, both in London, at Petersham Nurseries, and in New York. She has cooked for dinner parties, and has written her first cookery book, Cooking Smart Seasonal Recipes for Hungry People. She also runs her own catering business.

"You can't sit back. You have to keep at it," she says. "But the idea of being paid for doing what you love is wonderful. I want to do more television, but mostly I want to get back in the kitchen."

A couple of her favourite recipes are: stuffed pork loin with chorizo, thyme and caramelised apple stuffing and winter hazelnut meringue cake with chestnut brandy cream.

2006 winner

Former graphic designer Peter Bayless went on to work stages at Le Gavroche with Michel Roux Jnr, and has cooked in demonstrations at the Taste of London food festival. He also published his own cookery book, My Father Could Only Boil Cornflakes. He is now teaching cooking and devising recipes for a wine company.

His favourite recipes are: roasted pumpkin and garlic soup with Parmesan croutons and ravioli of walnut and roasted squash with sage butter.

2007 winner

Steven Wallis plans to open his own restaurant some day but says: "I have so much still to learn." He wants to set up a stage in a Paris restaurant for three days, which he hopes will be valuable experience. Then there's the cookery book he hopes to write.

"It'll be different, I hope. I trained as an artist and designer, so I would pick certain foods and styles, study tastes and textures and the history of the food products."

Regarding his success on the show, he says: "It took me a while for it to sink in, but what I did realise was that I had an incredible depth of resources to call on. The programme brought that out in me.

"The advice I would give to anyone is to find your style and stick to it. In the competition I think I was a bit too concerned at the beginning with presentation, which, while important, is not quite so much so in a professional kitchen, where you have to speed up a lot."

The rest

2005 runner-up Caroline Bruster is a food writer in the USA, while Christopher Souto, also from the 2005 series, has been working as a chef at Michael Deane's Michelin-starred restaurant in Belfast.

Daksha Mistry, the 2006 finalist, worked with John Williams at the Ritz, in London, and Atul Kochhar at Benares, also in London, and is now running her own catering business, cooking Indian food for dinner parties.

The MasterChef goes large contest

From hundreds of members of the public - all of whom are amateur cooks - 140 contestants are chosen.

Gradually, they are whittled down until, in week one of the show, six of them have 40 minutes to invent a dish from scratch using ingredients they have been given.

The three who show the most potential are then thrown into a professional kitchen. They have to show Wallace and Torode that they have the ability to produce a star-quality two-course meal. It's a tough challenge for them.

• Celebrity MasterChef started at 7pm on 28 May on BBC1.

Twelve celebrities appear each week with three of them competing daily, Monday to Thursday, with the winner from each heat competing in the quarter-final on Fridays.

• MasterChef Goes Large starts in September.

Torode and Wallace on the job

Why do you feel sourcing ingredients is so important?

Torode: "I specialise in meat at Smiths and have contacts with a number of farms who supply it to my restaurant. Obviously, lamb is seasonal. Pork benefits from the colder weather, because pigs work harder to keep warm. The fat is then better, with more flavour. Beef is best between September to December, because the cows have been feeding on lush grass prior to that period.

"How quickly the meat gets to the restaurant is important. Organic meat is tastier. A lot of our meat is from abroad, and the problem there is the time factor. It is packaged, transported and redistributed and it can mean anything up to 15 days before it reaches the kitchen. It isn't harmful, but the taste is disturbed."

And you have noticed a growing trend?

Wallace: "We often send our vans out from the farm on the day the produce has been picked and it arrives in London the same day. I shifted £10,000-worth from four vans in a day. There is absolutely nothing like freshly picked asparagus."

Where in the world do you find the best cuisine?

Wallace: "It has always been considered that France has the best. But I think we have caught up with them in quite a lot of areas. What I've always noticed is that the French chefs have the greatest enthusiasm and best techniques in the world."

Torode: "I would say that Thailand has the best cuisine in the world. I've been there quite a few times and the preparation, the presentation and artistry is almost beyond anything I have tasted. Even those people who cook dishes on the pavement are artists."

What impresses the judges?

Wallace: "For me, food has to be simple. I like basic, down-to-earth cooking with a lot of taste. The freshness of the ingredients is hugely important. When people say that they have a ‘different take' on preparing a dish, that scares me somewhat.

"You should stick to the basic principles, and not mess around with things. Of course, if you are - as the contestants in the show are - making a signature dish, then that is different, because you aren't working from a precedent and it is quite interesting to see what they can come up with."

Torode: "I agree. There was one guy in one series who par-cooked a chicken thigh in a vacuum-sealed bag with butter, in warm water. Then took it out of the bag and coloured it in a pan for a few minutes. I was stunned. It's what we call cooking sous-vide and you usually only see that kind of thing in a professional kitchen."

Why might a good cook fall by the wayside?

Wallace: "There's no comparison between cooking at home and in a professional environment. So, if a contestant makes it to the first round, they find there's no similarity between the home environment and a restaurant kitchen. But if you are passionate about food, you are a third of the way there."

How has MasterChef helped your careers?

Wallace: "Obviously your profile is raised. People notice you in the street. But what is most important, I think, is that we have helped a lot of people to raise their awareness, not only of how to cook things, but also of the importance of the quality of the ingredients and the variety of the things you can do with them.

"You have to be daring on occasions, but not when you are giving a dinner party. Always cook what you know in these instances. And people don't often realise that you can have a dinner party with completely cold food if you use cooked shellfish and salads."

Torode: "The programme has introduced to me a lot of people I wouldn't have otherwise met. Not only the contestants, but also members of the public and people in our own profession. For me, it's not only about food, it's about people and their enthusiasm."

Celebrity focus - Midge Ure

He has helped raise millions for the world's starving, and was co-organiser of Band Aid and Live 8. Now, musician Midge Ure is taking on the challenge of being a supercook in the new series of Celebrity MasterChef.

Having turned down numerous TV offers, the former member of bands, Slik and Ultravox, was attracted to Celebrity MasterChef and was prepared to be grilled by judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode because he "loves cooking".

"I could easily spend six hours in the kitchen at home preparing an eight-course Oriental feast, and love every minute of it," he says. "But the show is nothing like that. When you have guests coming for dinner at home, you take your time. You don't start cooking for them 40 minutes before they arrive, which is what I'm doing on the show. It's competitive, you've got cameras on you, judges to criticise you, and I'm up against former Wimbledon football player Robbie Earle and Hollyoaks actress Gemma Atkinson in my round.

"When you get there, they present you with this sea of ingredients at your work station and you have to do something with them. It's not easy. I didn't practise."

In the first round Ure cooked a starter of bruschetta, topped with chorizo, red peppers and goats' cheese. His second course was monkfish with a spinach, lemon and pine nut risotto. He went on to produce one of his favourite Oriental dishes.

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