Gregg Wallace wonders if he's too working class for his MasterChef critics
While not a chef, he’s spent 20 years supplying London’s best restaurants and hotels and has fronted countless TV shows about food. So why do people doubt Gregg Wallace’s credentials to be a judge on MasterChef? He thinks it may be a class thing.
Gregg doesn’t understand the bashing he gets on social media. You can’t debate with people there; you just end up forever swapping comments. Rather than open up a can of worms you can’t put the lid back on, he tries not to get involved.
“I think Michel Roux Jr’s quote is the best, when we started doing MasterChef: The Professionals together. He said to his chefs ‘don’t bother about pleasing me, I’m another chef. The person you need to please is Gregg Wallace. He’s one of the most informative customers I know and if you can’t please the customers you shouldn’t be on here’ which I think is a lovely comment.”
Nobody, points out Peckham-born Gregg, who began his career in Covent Garden fruit and veg market after leaving school at just 14, has a bad word to say about the critics.
“I wonder if that’s because they’ve got middle class accents and I’ve got a working class one. There are a number of people that aren’t chefs - The Hairy Bikers, Nigella, Delia, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall... I think it’s a class thing.
“The executive producer on MasterChef years ago told me this would happen. She said ‘because you can do this and can do this easily people are going to look at you and think he’s not doing anything and they won’t ever know until they try to do it themselves’.”
The writer and presenter says he has the respect of professional chefs up and down the country, who care very much about what he thinks about their food because he’s a customer same as anybody else.
“I think the BBC choose me to do so much about food because I’m not you’re typical foodie. I’m much more likely to have the same opinion people watching have. If you watch the MasterChef: The Professionals you’ve got two incredibly talented chefs then you’ve got me. I haven’t got the knowledge and skill they have, they want me there to give the same opinion as people eating out will give.
“That’s what I’m doing. I’m not afraid to regularly turn to Marcus (Wareing) and Monica (Galetti) and go ‘I don’t care how he made it, I don’t care how easy it is, I really don’t; that is delicious’ or conversely ‘I don’t care how complicated it is, it tastes like Satan’s armpit’. It doesn’t matter to the customer how difficult it was to make.
“I was supplying the better London restaurants and hotels for 20 years and then I’ve been a judge on MasterChef for 15 years.”
Good enough to get the gig?
“I think so. I get ‘oh, you sent the wrong one home’ a lot and I’m always tempted to write ‘well, what did you think their food tasted like?’ It does amaze me that people comment and are so fascinated by cookery competitions where it’s all about what the food tastes like and nobody can taste it... all you’ve got on television is presentation, this is the reason why presentation has become far too important in my opinion, in restaurants.”
Gregg and I disagree on the seemingly new craze for piling food on one half of a plate.
“I like that, funny enough,” he laughs. “What I’m not a fan of is food you have to deconstruct to eat and I’m also not a fan of things you have to cut up inside wet bowls. I’m all about the practicality of eating.”
Food is an endless subject; our opinions, our expectations, change if we’re eating at home or dining out, even how we’re feeling.
“What’s often shouted out at me, no matter where I am, if I’m having something on a train, people say ‘oh I don’t suppose that’s up to your standards, will that go through to the next round’ or if I go into a Harvester people say ‘oh I didn’t expect to see you in here’. Of course you’re not judging everything by the standards of Le Gavroche and it would be ridiculous to.”
Gregg - best known for co-presenting MasterChef alongside John Torode - is similarly cautious when it comes to the media. The duo made headlines earlier this year amid rumours they weren’t friends.
“What you tend to do is hide. Right now I’m doing an interview with you because I’ve got to something to say, I want people to know I’m doing a tour; but I tend not to court it. I tend to stay away from it.
“What I’ve learned is you acknowledge the question and then you move it back to the subject you want to discuss. So, somebody says to me ‘you’ve been married four times, what do you think about that’. You say ‘yes, I’ve made lots of mistakes in my life. I tell you ‘what’s not a mistake; that’s the job I do on MasterChef’, you answer the question and you move it on.
“But me and John have had a lot of fun with that we’re not mates thing. We kept posting pics of each other smiling or cuddling. I have a flat on Canary Wharf and a boat went past so I went ‘it’s just John Torode mooring up, he’s popping in for a drink’. I think that’s quite harmless actually. While MasterChef is on you don’t mind stories coming out, as long as they’re not too personal, because obviously it fuels interest.”
Gregg started George Allan’s Greengrocers in 1989, building it up with an eventual turnover of £7.5million.
That success led him to become co-presenter of Veg Talk on BBC Radio 4, then the original presenter of Saturday Kitchen. He’s also appeared on Follow the Tomato, Turn Back Time: The High Street and The Money Programme.
Since then he’s also presented multiple documentaries and TV series about the production and distribution of our food, such as Supermarket Secrets and Harvest.
“This fascinates me because there’s nobody on the television that ever meant to be there, you can’t go to television school so everybody is there by accident - Jeremy Clarkson, Jamie Oliver, everybody unless you’re a newsreader or a weather man. Even when I started doing telly, I only did it because I liked doing it; I had no idea where it was going to go.”
Despite not feeling right since travelling abroad for the finals of MasterChef, Gregg’s in a jolly mood; fortified by a visit to the gym and a dish of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. Being around food so much, you’d think the last thing he’d want to do when he got home was cook.
“I’m blessed in many ways with my beautiful wife Anne because she’s Italian and they really cook, the whole family cooks. My go to dishes? I would probably make a bread and butter pudding, I love a bread and butter pudding,” Gregg says, unsurprisingly.
“This time of year I’ll probably make a brandy sauce. Most of the things I love are Italian so there’s a dish called crespelli, which are just layered pancakes with things in between. I particularly like cheese and truffle and ham in between these… devilled kidneys I suppose. I like to cook with Anne when I go home. I like to open a bottle of wine, play music by dead people and cook Italian.”
“It doesn’t matter what you play while you’re eating, it’s just while you’re cooking,” he laughs.
“I like a little bit of Frank Sinatra or Elvis. I’m a single dad and my kids (when they were younger) would cook in the kitchen with me. The rule was that we’d only play music by dead people so I didn’t have to listen to their music.
“They’re 24 and 21 now. Tom’s working with pensions in Bristol and my Libby is finishing her last year at university in Manchester. I was in Manchester recently at Simon Wood’s restaurant, the winner of MasterChef two years ago.”
The life-long Millwall fan doesn’t consider himself the super foodie everybody expects. Nor is he anti-supermarket or pro-organic...
“In fact, I’m going to bring people up on stage and get them to taste products that are frozen, fresh tinned and organic and see if anybody can tell the difference,” adds Gregg, who also has some interesting views on whether some restaurants source as much produce from local farmers as they claim.
He’s looking forward to his new live tour. An evening of anecdotes, behind the scenes tales, culinary expertise and advice plus an audience Q and A, it’s limited to just four dates right now. It’s an idea he’s been thinking about for a while.
“It’s very much a trial. I don’t know whether people should feel fortunate or guinea pigs. I just want it to be informative but light-hearted.”
Right now, he’s concerned about the timings. He’s supposed to do two 40-minute segments; it’s more like two one-hours. Ideas so far including seeing if people can taste the difference between cheap and expensive wines, dealing with wine waiters, restaurants, fresh fruit and veg...
“I’m going to answer all the questions everybody always asks about Eat Well for Less and MasterChef - is the food cold when you eat it, it’s not fair to the person who goes last because you won’t be hungry. One of the ones that surprise me; and it happens all the time, is are the restaurants nervous when you walk in? How would I ever know? Can anybody tell me what a nervous and not nervous restaurant looks like?
“I also want to discuss the way we eat and shop today and basically lots of TV anecdotes because I’ve been on the TV for nearly 20 years. At the moment I’ve got six returning series on the BBC, even me mum struggles to watch everything I’m on.”