Cookery shows don”t get bigger than this! MasterChef presenters John Torode and Gregg Wallace reveal how they turned it into the world’s biggest food show
As Loyd Grossman might ask, ‘Who cooks out of a pantry like this’ It’s clearly not a baked-beans-and-sausages type person. The little room in which I’m standing is packed with foodstuffs, but there’s no sign of a humble tin of beans.
There are tonka beans, though, and a whole shelf of oils, including truffle oil. Oh, and porcini mushroom oil for those days when truffle oil just will not do. There’s damson vinegar, pistachio paste and a vat of calcium chloride.
Gosh, is that even a food I thought it was used to salt roads. Hiding right at the back is a bottle of coffee essence, which I thought was a bit pass. But if it’s in the MasterChef pantry – for that’s where I am – it could be time for a rethink.
John Torode and Gregg Wallace prepare for their eighth series
It’s all quite giddying. As a new series of the foodie’s favourite show kicks off, I’ve been allowed behind the scenes to see how from small-scale beginnings it has become a truly global phenomenon. MasterChef, originally presented by Loyd Grossman, was revamped in 2005, with the format changed and current presenters (and Weekend columnists) John Torode and Gregg Wallace brought in. Since then the franchise has been sold to 25 countries, making it the biggest food-based TV show in the world.
For the past two series, filming of the UK version has been concentrated in purpose-built studios in Wandsworth, south-west London. The scale of the operation is clear. Round the corner from the pantry are the MasterChef equivalents of kitchen cupboards. One container is a sea of white china, and there are huge boxes containing every sort of whisk, fish slice and cake tin imaginable.
Oddly, the kitchen is not the most jaw-dropping part of the set. Yes, it’s knee-trembling to stand at the famous hob. But it has only four rings, and the oven is a basic model. This is disappointing, because I’ve been arguing for years that I could win MasterChef if only I had a cooker upgrade. ‘Everything is deliberately basic,’ says John Torode. ‘Yes, the contestants have access to more sophisticated things like a bain-marie if they need it, but this is about being able to cook, and you don’t need fancy equipment for that.’
MasterChef was revamped in 2005, with current presenters John Torode and Gregg Wallace brought in
Still, the scale of the show’s success is astounding when you consider the set-up when John and Gregg –a chef and a fruit and veg wholesaler, respectively – first joined. ‘Inthe first studios our dressing room was actually an electricity cupboard,’ Gregg recalls. ‘Every few minutes someone would come in to switch on some lights. We filmed in a metal-and-glass prefab, which was like a sauna. We had to put cardboard boxes on the roof to keep the sun out.’
The pair knew each other for about ten years before they teamed up on MasterChef (Gregg’s company supplied vegetables to top London restaurant Quaglino’s, where John was sous-chef). Were they happy to be working together on TV There’s a pause, and Gregg laughs. ‘I don’t think John was too delighted. He thought I was a bit wild.’
It means us eating our way through 35 dishes one after another… We might have ice cream, followed by scallops, followed by custard.
These days they share star billing, but Gregg says in the early days John was the main man, ‘He was the chef. I was more the ordinary punter.’ John doesn’t agree, saying to Gregg, ‘I think it’s just in your own mind, darling. As far as I was concerned, we were always equal.’ They’re now on their eighth series together, and the MasterChef stable has expanded to include a competition for professionals, one for celebrities and one for children. Can they recall the first MasterChef meal they had to taste
‘They put us in a basement flat in Notting Hill and someone cooked a pork chop, and we had to comment on it,’ says Gregg. ‘It was difficult. It still is. Most people tasting something will say, “It’s nice” or “I don’t like it”. But we had to learn how to eke it out, articulate what we were feeling as we ate.’
How many meals must these two have chomped their way through since then Even with only a mouthful of each dish, the calories consumed must be phenomenal. A few years ago, Gregg’sdoctor, obviously concerned about his cholesterol, suggested he might want to chew the food then spit it out.
But he’s appalled at the idea, saying, ‘Particularly at the end of the series, when the quality is so good, theproblem is you want to keep eating.’ Some real belt loosening may be needed after the new series. A change to the format means the first round is a blind tasting, with 70 hopefuls cooking a dish.
MASTERCHEF: THE FACTS
6.6m viewers tuned into the MasterChef 2011 final
150m people watch the franchise, across 25 countries
10,000 miles were travelled by finalists to cook lunch in Australia in the last UK series
‘It means us eating our way through 35 dishes one after another two days running,’ says John. ‘And they aren’t arranged in order of course. We might have ice cream, followed by scallops, followed by custard.’ Followed by an indigestion tablet ‘Exactly,’ adds Gregg. ‘I’m never too far from an indigestion remedy.’ That is not to denigrate the quality of the food. According to John, last series’ winner, Tim Anderson, delivered ‘the best culinary explosion we’ve ever seen on MasterChef’.
But surely their hearts must drop when faced with yet more strange culinary inventions (one contestant replaced the Parmesan in melanzane parmigiana with chickpeas; John said the result looked like ‘dogfood’) ‘Every year I’m convinced the contestants aren’t as good as the previous year,’ admits Gregg. ‘I start to panic and say to John, “We’re in trouble.” But every year he tells me to calm down, and he’s right. The standard keeps going up.’
So why is MasterChef such a success ‘It’s mad on one level, because the two most important things about food are smell and taste – exactly the things you can’t convey on TV,’ says Gregg. ‘Yet it works because it’s about the food. You can’t fake it. There are no shortcuts with MasterChef. Ultimately, it’s about the most basic thing: can they cook’
John says the longevity comes from the fact ‘the minute the cooking starts, we’re in a kitchen, not a studio. We never use the word “studio” because that’s not how we think of this place. It’s just another kitchen, a restaurant kitchen, a home kitchen, whatever.’ But a kitchen where there’s always a bottle of damson vinegar within reach. n
MasterChef returns with a new series in January to BBC1. John and Gregg’s weekly column is on page 69.