As the fourth series of MasterChef: The Professionals gets underway, MasterChef presenter Gregg Wallace speaks to Lauren King about his long friendship with Michel Roux Jr, what it takes to become a master chef and what happened when a perfectly cooked quail was served on a chocolate cake.
From working on a vegetable stall in London’s Covent Garden Market to presenting the MasterChef series, MasterChef presenter Gregg Wallace can hardly believe his luck. With several series of MasterChef, Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef: The Professionals under his belt, Gregg is often referred to as the ‘ingredients expert’ due to his years of experience within the food industry. Despite his experience in the industry and on the show, Gregg reveals that he still feels the high level of pressure that the contestants are under, especially when they are challenged to cook and for Michelin star chefs.
HOW DID YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH MASTERCHEF: THE PROFESSIONALS SERIES COME ABOUT?
Karen Ross, who is the executive producer, said, ‘We’d like to do a professional MasterChef, are you up for it?’ I said: ‘Yeah most certainly’.
WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH MICHEL?
Me and Michel are seriously good mates, we went to Paris together to watch the rugby. We went to Harlequins [rugby club] together. My first date with my beautiful wife was at Le Garvroche. Michel sorted out and organised the whole evening. When I proposed to my wife, he found the venue, he did the cooking, he did the whole lot. We got the seventh floor of an office building overlooking the Thames, we had a harvest and filled the room with her favourite flowers. We recreated the venue of our first date and Michel cooked in the corner.
YOU STARTED OUT WORKING IN COVENT GARDEN ON A VEGETABLE STALL AND YOU ARE NOW A FAMILIAR FACE ON PRIMETIME TV. DID YOU EVER THINK THAT YOUR LIFE WOULD TURN OUT THE WAY IT HAS?
No, of course not. I had no idea, I mean what an amazing adventure, I am a very lucky boy, just absolutely incredible. I have been asked to write my memoirs and I have been writing the introduction saying that I have no idea how I got from Covent Garden Market to being on the telly, plus I have become a restaurateur and a dad along the way. I have no idea how I got here, it has been phenomenal.
HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK THAT COOKING IS AS A LIFE-SKILL?
It is amazingly important to know the basics of cooking. It is a wonderful thing to be able to cook nice food for yourself and people you love and your knowledge can always increase. You can never stop learning.
ARE YOU IMPRESSED WITH THE SKILLS THAT AMATEUR CHEFS HAVE WHEN THEY APPLY FOR THE SHOW?
I am amazed at the quality. I look at some people and think, ‘How on earth did you learn to cook like that?’ We have had to check out some people’s background as it is hard to believe that they are not professionals already.
IS THERE A PARTICULAR DISH THAT SOMEONE CAN COOK FOR YOU TO SCORE EXTRA BROWNIE POINTS?
No. Lots of people come on and cook lamb and lots of people come on and cook desserts thinking that it is going to impress me and actually the opposite can happen. If you love something so much and they don’t deliver on it, it can have a negative effect. I would never judge people on my favourite dish anyway, I’m far more impartial than that. It is just like I am not that fond of coriander, neither is Michel’s father, but I would never criticise someone for using it.
DURING A SERIES OF MASTERCHEF, HOW LONG IS IT BEFORE A PARTICULAR GOOD CHEF CATCHES YOUR EYE?
Due to the quality you find them straightaway, pretty instantly from the moment they walk in. You can’t tell the winner but you can tell if someone is going to go a long way.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT QUALITIES DOES A MASTER CHEF NEED TO HAVE?
A truly exceptional chef has the ability to taste and design dishes in their brain without putting it in their mouth. They just have a skill; I think it’s a God-given thing, to have an in-built understanding of what works. Brilliant chefs can feel texture, can taste fragrance, they can see a dish before they have even cooked it.
THERE IS A LOT OF PRESSURE ON THE CONTESTANS DURING THE SHOW. DO YOU FEEL THE PRESSURE TOO?
I particularly feel the pressure in the later rounds of MasterChef. I get to know these people and I want them to succeed. When you are doing something, like somebody’s wedding or you’re cooking for 20 Michelin star chefs, there is serious pressure. When they start to run out of time, I start to feel tense. At the end of one of these [stages] I am exhausted. Not as exhausted as they are, but exhausted.
HOW ATTACHED DO YOU BECOME TO THE CONTESTANTS?
Is It stIll emotIonal when people leave? I get really sad when somebody who I really like goes out of the competition. They would never know, as I never judge on who I like and who I dislike, I judge them just on their food. But I spend so long with them that I get really attached. When there is someone that you really like, watching them mess up is horrible. You get quite tearful when they leave.
IS THERE PRESSURE WHEN YOU’RE PICKING A WINNER FOR THEM TO SUCCEED?
No, not at all. What they do with their career is completely up to them.
WHAT IS YOUR FONDEST MEMORY OF THE PAST SHOWS?
A South African guy, who was a very good cook, cooked a quail to absolute perfection, and then, for reasons best known to himself, he stuck it on top of a chocolate cake.
YOU OPENED UP YOUR FIRST RESTAURANT, WALLACE & CO, IN 2010, HOW IS IT GOING?
Really well, it’s making money, which has impressed me. I had no idea how hard they [restaurants] were. I am pleased that I have done it, I have learned a lot in the last 18 months.
WITH YOUR BUSY SCHEDULE, HOW INVOLVED ARE YOU WITH THE RESTAURANT?
The restaurant is my design, it’s my ambition, it’s what I wanted. I oversee all the venues. I am probably here three or four times a week: I was in here last night for dinner, I am in here today for lunch and I was in here this morning for breakfast.
IF YOU’RE EATING OUT, ARE THERE ANY PARTICULAR RESTAURANTS, OTHER THAN YOUR OWN, THAT YOU LIKE TO GO TO?
Le Gavroche. The mousse inside the artichoke as a starter and the veal chopped with cream morel sauce as a main is now known as a Wallace Special.
ARE YOUR TWO CHILDREN INTERESTED IN COOKING?
No, they will help out in the kitchen, but they prefer to eat. We sit down to eat as a family at least twice a week but they haven’t quite got the cooking bug.
SO THEY’RE NOT GOING TO BECOME CHEFS?
No. In fact, if they did show any interest in cooking professionally I would cut their thumbs off!
ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO CHRISTMAS? ARE THERE ANY PRESENTS THAT ARE ON YOUR WISH LIST AT THE MOMENT?
I am very much looking forward to Christmas. I want some new rugby shirts; I need a new wallet and kids, I hope that you’re reading this because dad needs a new sports bag and a new satchel!
WHAT IS CHRISTMAS DAY LIKE IN THE WALLACE HOUSEHOLD?
I have no idea because we are always skiing in Italy! So Christmas morning, when you’re struggling to get the turkey in the oven, me, Heidi, Tom, Libby [Gregg’s wife and children] and my best mate and business partner Vernon, will be on the peaks. We ski every Christmas.
WHAT IS YOUR IDEAL CHRISTMAS DINNER? ARE YOU QUITE TRADITIONAL OR DO YOU PREFER SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT?
My ideal Christmas dinner is a turkey, roast potatoes, and Brussel sprouts cooked with a little bit of bacon, and brandy sauce and custard on the Christmas pudding.
WHAT HAVE YOU GOT PLANNED FOR 2012?
I think I may open another restaurant in central London.
SO YOU WILL BE IN COMPETITION WITH LE GAVROCHE THEN?
Yes, I expect to get a Michelin star within two weeks and two Michelin stars within a month! No, nothing like that, I fancy predominantly working-class London. I come from south-east London so it would be nice to go home.