The Wandering Chef

Celebrity chef and TV presenter John Torode believes that food should always have a story behind it. He tells Samia Qaiyum his tale.

Against a bustling backdrop of cooking competitions, food stalls and children’s entertainment – and rather bizarrely – sumo wrestlers flown in from Japan, I sat down for a chat with celebrity chef, TV presenter, food writer and former restaurateur John Torode at the recently held Dubai Food Carnival. The immensely popular personality had landed mere hours before his cooking demonstration, and told me he was due to return back to the UK within 48 hours, for filming the next season of Celebrity MasterChef.

Laidback, in good spirits, and with a wry sense of humour – this is not the John Torode I was expecting, especially after being used to his straight-talking onscreen persona as co-host and judge of various seasons and versions of the MasterChef brand. I’m amused by how fascinated he seems with the sumo wrestlers, and say as much to him. “Yeah, there are some interesting things going on here. But people want to be entertained, don’t they? I don’t think it’s about just food anymore.” he says.

Food on show

As more of a popular TV personality now than a working chef, John knows a thing or two about entertainment. Australian by birth, Torode moved to London in 1991 at the age of 25. Within a year, he was working at top restaurants such as Pont de La Tour, Quaglino’s and eventually Mezzo as Head Chef. His foray into TV came in 1996 when he became the resident chef on This Morning with Richard and Judy, a role in which he continued for four years to become a familiar face in Britain. He paired up with Gregg Wallace in 2004 to advise and assess hopefuls on MasterChef, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This sort of a job also means a lot of travel, so I’m surprised to hear it’s the 48-year-old Torode’s first trip to the city. “I travel quite a lot for work but when I do get away, I usually go to a place where there’s just a beach and not a lot of people. In my business, I don’t really want to see a lot of people, I like to just chill,” he says. Considering all he’s been up to, it’s actually not surprising to hear that Torode craves his space. “My personal life is very, very private. I won’t be going into OK! magazine like a footballer, showing off my house – because I don’t have a really big telly like they all do. My media life is my media life,” he says nonchalantly. “You need to have both those lives but if you try to blend them together, you end up in big trouble.”

I couldn’t help but wonder then how he did end up combining the two, as his current girlfriend happens to be former Celebrity MasterChef winner and actress Lisa Faulkner. I ask him if things ever get competitive in the kitchen, and he animatedly replies: “Never! We don’t live together, and we don’t cook together. If we’re going to eat, we’ll go out for dinner. I like to eat small plates of food so, for example, I’ll go to places like Barrafina and Opera Tavern in Covent Garden. What I like about them is that I can walk in any time of the day, and have a delicious bowl of clams or a slice of meat. And I’m done!”

Would he count something like that as his ultimate comfort food then? “Not really,” he reveals. “For me, it has always been the same thing – roast chicken. I love it with stuffing and either roast or mashed potatoes; it reminds me of being a young boy living with my grandmother.”

It is clear that Torode has been strongly influenced by his grandmother, who raised him
after his mother’s passing, and initiated his
earliest relationship with food. Surely, she helped shape his culinary philosophy? “There has to be a spark, a nucleus somewhere. I trained at classic restaurants in Melbourne from the age of 16 to 20, and it changed me from being a home cook into a professional. But, growing up, it was about simple food,” he says. “And there wasn’t a lot of it because I didn’t come from a rich family. We ate chicken twice a year – Christmas and Easter – because it was so expensive. A chicken would last several days, with leftovers becoming soup or sandwiches. It was a very different time.”

Couldn’t be more different from the food industry’s penchant for wastage that he abhors, and that is becoming a growing cause of concern worldwide. “We eat too much, and we waste too much. If you peel a potato, are you going to throw the skins or do you turn them into chips the next day? Do you feed them to animals? We live in a world where everything is so accessible but one day, we’re going to realise there’s nothing left. I’d never be a food evangelist, but I think we all need to be more conscious about how much we’re eating,” he says.

As a man who has cooked for everybody from Harrison Ford to Tony Blair, David Cameron and Prince Charles, Torode, nonetheless is extremely resourceful in the kitchen, thanks to his modest upbringing. “I don’t throw things away. I’d use the shell of a lobster to make a delicious sauce. The claws, I’ll use to make chicken fried lobster. I use as much of everything as I possibly can. You see many chefs who throw a lot of stuff away and it annoys me.”

Global flavours

The conversation took a rather morbid turn at this point, as we discussed a photographer who did a series on the final meals of prisoners on death row. “Now I’m not somebody who wants to die, but my last ever meal is not about the food. It’s about the experience. So it has to be on a beach in Thailand, and the sun has to be shining. The water has to be warm, and I’ll be in a pair of shorts. The food can be something Thai, but very spicy. And then as I’m eating, I’ll walk out into the water… and that’s it. That’s how it happens. I’ve put so much thought into this because I get asked this question all the time. It’s terrible!” he exclaims with a smile.

A frequent traveller, Torode is a man who takes a keen interest in the foods of other regions. And I notice a real fondness for Thai cuisine cropping up every now and then. “Every time you travel, there’s a new experience,” he says. “You meet someone new and look at what they’re up to. So, for example, I love Thai food, because I understand the culture, the people and the way it works. And it’s fresh and vibrant.”

The globetrotting chef tells me his travels don’t strongly influence his signature style. “What it does really is adds to it. My style has always been pretty eclectic; I’ve pretty much been a magpie going around making stuff up. I’m fortunate in the sense that I have this freedom of being able to do what I want.”

For Torode, food is as much about the experience as its taste. “There’s something amazing about walking through a souk in Morocco – the smell, the atmosphere, the noise. There’s something about going through a market in France and smelling the cheese, or wandering around in a night market in Thailand. Food becomes exciting – it becomes something you’re involved in. Good food is there for a reason – you want people to understand why you’re doing it,” he says.

And why are you doing it, I ask him. “Because I want food to be evocative,” he replies. “Everything I do, there’s a story behind it. Without a story, there isn’t any reason to do it. Unlike, of course, you’re doing it to show off. That’s the difference between a female and male chef – the best technicians in the world are men, but the best cooks have always been women. They’re not trying to show off. They’re trying to give.”

Home ground

His quest for storytelling is taking on new forms with his recent project for a new television series, John Torode’s Australia, for which he embarked on a six-week road trip across his native Australia after having sold his stake in his two London restaurants – Smiths of Smithfield and The Luxe – to explore more creative avenues. Part travelogue, part cooking show, the series follows John as he recreates some of his favourite local dishes while reconnecting with friends, family and the haunts that inspired him to become a professional chef. You’ll see a much more personal side of Torode, who until now has been rather guarded.

“Australia is a huge continent that has tropics on one end and freezing cold waters at the other. Plus, the influences that come into it are being brought about by the people who inhabit the land – the British, Italians, Greeks, Lebanese and now the Asians,” he explains. “So what is Australian food? It’s a melting pot of cultures, I suppose. Above all, it is egalitarian. It’s food that anybody can eat at any time, wherever they like. When you go to a park in Australia, you’ll eat as well at someone’s barbecue as you would in the best restaurant of Sydney.” Considering the country’s booming food scene, I ask what trends he found exciting during his trip. Torode tells me the influence of Vietnamese and Korean food is now huge. “The best part is that presently, it’s as it is. Korean food, especially, has not been touched and is going to be massive,” he says.

Another quintessentially Aussie thing is of course, the barbecue, and corollary to that, meat. Passionate about rare breeds of meat, Torode has a reputation for building relationships with small butchers who carry excellent quality cuts. He has shared his vast knowledge on cooking beef, butcher’s recommended cuts and true head-to-tail eating through his widely distributed Fine Meat List along with third cookbook, John Torode’s Beef (Quadrille Publishing). His ultimate tip on cooking beef is simply not to “muck around with it”. Torode advises seasoning a piece of steak really well, and then ensuring it hits the heat really hard. “Turn it once or twice, and that’s all. Then let it sit back and let it enjoy itself like it’s on a sunlounger. Don’t prod at it, let it cook. You should rest meat for as long as you cook it for,” he adds.

On that reminiscent note focussing on his roots, I wrap up our chat by asking if his career has evolved in ways that he could have predicted. Rather humbly, he replies, “All these famous people have house staff. And all we are when we’re cooking for them is staff for people who have more money than us. Celebrity chef or rock ‘n’ roll star, we’re there to do a job.”

“Besides, you can’t picture the evolution of your career,” he continues. “You can try and create a revolution, and from that you have an evolution.
I have little things that I plan and push for, but I never thought I’d be this lucky. I get to travel all over the world, cook, meet people and eat good food. It’s been a pretty great life!”