Interview: MasterChef’s John Torode ahead of the BBC Good Food Show

John Torode CREDIT - Yuki Sugiura
John Torode CREDIT - Yuki Sugiura

John Torode is best known as the straight-talking co-host and judge of eleven seasons of BBC One’s MasterChef, Celebrity MasterChef and Junior MasterChef, as well as the presenter of A Cook Abroad: John Torode’s Argentina and The A to Z of TV Cooking for BBC Two. For his latest solo venture, John went back to his roots with a culinary road trip across Australia.

He will be appearing at the BBC Good Food Show in Glasgow at the SEC, which runs from 20th to the 22nd October.

John is credited as one of the main players in introducing Australasian food to the UK in the mid-1990s. In 1992 he joined the Conran Group, starting out at Pont de La Tour before becoming Sous Chef at Quaglino’s. In 1995, John became Head Chef for the launch of Mezzo in Soho; at the time one of Europe’s largest restaurants.

The four-floor restaurant, private dining room and café, located in the heart of Smithfield Market, was a roaring success. John’s second restaurant venture was another popular multi-storey operation, The Luxe, which opened at Spitalfields Market in 2009.

John became a familiar face to TV audiences back in 1996 as the resident chef on ITV’s This Morning with Richard and Judy; a role in which he continued for four years. Since 2004 John has paired up with Gregg Wallace, handing out feedback, criticism and support to hundreds of hopefuls aiming to be crowned MasterChef.

John’s latest cookbook My Kind Of Food: Recipes I Love to Cook at Home was published 2015. He is currently working on a new book, to be published next year.

Glasgowist called John for a chat about restaurants, good food and cooking chips.

The restaurant scene when you arrived in the UK, what was it like when you first got here?

Well I got here about 25 years ago, it was a very different world altogether. And I think the start of the London restaurant revolution started when we opened Quaglino’s in 1992. Restaurants were for occasion, they weren’t for everyday eating. I think that’s the difference. Now we use restaurants as somewhere to go for breakfast, to go for a bit of lunch. We pick up a sandwich.

There weren’t even sandwich shops, you know, when I think about it. There might be a local caff, but there wasn’t anything like a Pret a Manger. In fact I remember having to search out a coffee in Soho just to try and get a cup of coffee like we used to get in Sydney. Which was extraordinary. I remember riding my bike around London and asking, “Where can you get a cup of coffee?”

They said to me, “Go to this place called Bar L’Italia in Soho and it was the only place that I could find myself a decent cup of coffee. Amazing.

You are coming to Glasgow to a venue that usually holds rock concerts and you are going to entertain people with cooking. What do you think has been the impetus for this explosion of interest in cooking in pop culture?

I think that the popular culture around cooking has something to do with the fact that people made it fun. Go back 25 years, going to a restaurant and it will be very, very reserved. Almost as if you were going to pay your respects. And now, of course, you don’t, you go out for a fun time.

That is the part of the whole idea behind the BBC Good Food Shows. People are there for a day out. My job is to make food accessible, interesting and entertaining. Hopefully, whilst you’re doing that little bit of entertainment, the odd bit of information passes through that makes somebody a better cook.

I’m not there to show people how to make a very elaborate dish, I’m there to show people a couple of really nice little bits and pieces that might just make them go, “Oh, I might go and buy some lemongrass, or some lime leaves. Or I might make my own chocolate sauce at home, because that’s not difficult at all.”

Little things. You put hot doughnuts in sugar so the sugar sticks to it. If you put a cold doughnut in, the sugar won’t stick to it. I want people to see how it works.

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When did you realise you wanted to get out of the kitchen and talk to people about food?

I’ve always been a teacher, I suppose, because in Australia, what you do is you start your life as an apprentice. You have a four year apprenticeship and by the time you’re a third year apprentice then you’ve got a first year apprentice underneath you that you’re teaching.

As far as communicating stuff to people, it was never a conscious effort, it was never a conscious decision to do it. It happened and because it did happen, it just meant that there was this ability to be able to spread the word.

I get enjoyment from watching people eat great food. That’s why I love cooking. And I get as much joy when I hear from somebody who says, “I did your poached eggs the other day, I’ve been trying to poach an egg for 25 years.” And I write back and say, “Well I didn’t know how to poach an egg for 25 years either.”

It took me 25 years to learn how to do it. But at least, if it took me 25 years, why does somebody else have to struggle. It is just an easy way to do things and make stuff easy and make things enjoyable. And do you know what, it could be a university student who learnt how to roast a chicken, it could be, you know, a mother who learns how to boil an egg.

It’s easy to presume that everyone knows how to do things like cook a steak. I think the basics can be the stuff that we miss out on when we are trying to do all this really elaborate food.

We don’t know how to make a proper chip. But I suppose we don’t really need to, we just go to the chippy.

It’s a very important skill to learn in Glasgow, John

I think making a chip is a big one! There’s great things to notice, you know. If a chip floats to the surface and it stops bubbling, it’s ready. Those sort of things make the difference.

Cooking is one of the dominant themes on television, how much do you think that translates into people spending more time in the kitchen?

I think in terms of the practical stuff, people want to be entertained but there’s a number of people who want to learn to cook. One of the reasons I think food is so popular as a theme is that it is something we all do. We all have to eat. And for many people who are at home, they have to cook, not just for themselves, they have to do it for other people. For a lot of people coming to these shows, it’s quite nice for them not to be cooking but watching somebody else do it.

That’s what everybody forgets. There’s lots of people at home who every single day get up, make the breakfast for the kids, who then go off to school with a packed lunch or whatever. They come home and want their dinner. It can be a pretty thankless task. Maybe it’s just nice for them to just sit back and watch somebody else do the kitchen work.

I think one of the interesting things in Glasgow at the moment is the amount of restaurants that are really putting Scottish produce to the fore. Treating things like game and fish with respect, sourcing local vegetables and foraging for mushrooms, that kind of thing. You said that restaurant have changed in terms of the way they welcome people in, do you see more of a renewed interest in local produce?

Well I remember I opened Smiths in 2000, so 17 years ago – I don’t have it anymore, I sold it. I remember doing the whole thing and going round suppliers and putting ingredients on the map and everything else and it was very new and nobody was doing it. And I remember thinking, you guys, you Brits, you Scots, you Welsh are absolutely rubbish at shouting about how good your produce is.

You know, British asparagus is the best in the world. Scottish beef is amazing. Mushrooms that come out of Scotland are absolutely incredible. Langoustine, you guys have been fishing them for years and years. The French have been buying them and selling them as langoustine and you guys have been buying them back.

Clams, crabs, beautiful fish, salmon, all things that everybody else has been buying from you and saying it’s theirs. And it’s been yours all along. And it’s just because you guys are rubbish at telling everybody how fantastic it is. Which is changing. I think it’s wonderful what people are doing.

You look at guys like Tom Kitchin, doing what he’s doing with game dishes. Using what’s there on your doorstep. I suppose, the thing is, we have been told by so many large conglomerates that it’s better off to go to a big shop to buy things in bulk than it is to go to your local farmer’s market or local forager to buy things.

How much time do you spend in the kitchen these days?

Well, today I’ve been cooking from ten o’clock this morning till right now. I was doing a photo shoot for a book, so we’re just cooking all day. I travel when I cook quite a lot. So I’ve just done a whole new series where I’ve been cooking around Asia. As far as commercial kitchens go, I’ve had a couple of years off, which I’m very grateful for.

When you come to Glasgow for the BBC Good Food Show, what will you be doing?

I’ve got a couple of cooking demonstrations, and I’m doing some book signings. I’ll be around all day, people can come and say hello and have a chat about food. What I do on MasterChef is very different from what I do at the Food Show. I’m trying to impart some knowledge and trying to be a little bit different and hopefully teach people a few basic things that they can take home and use if they want to. But, at the same time make them laugh and have a good day out.

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