Gregg Wallace and John Torode start their ninth series of MasterChef this week, two unlikely celebrities hitched to a juggernaut television series broadcast several nights a week for the next two months. Ebullient Londoner Gregg, a loquacious connoisseur of the world’s worst jokes, and cerebral Australian (if that’s not an oxymoron) John, do not seem immediately compatible.
John, 47, is tall and quiet. Gregg, 48, is not. Gregg’s tumultuous life includes being abused by a babysitter’s husband when he was eight, discovering at 14 that his real father was a work colleague of his mother, not the alcoholic husband with whom she lived. He left school at 15 with no qualifications, started a fruit and veg business that went bust for £7 million in 2004. John, brought up in suburban tranquillity in New South Wales by his grandmother when his mother died aged 31 from cardiomyopathy, came to England with his first wife when he was 25, and worked in various restaurants before opening his own, Smiths, in London in 2000.
Perhaps the only similarity, apart from a love of food, is they’ve both had difficult personal lives recently. Gregg separated from his third wife Heidi last year after 18 months and a subsequent brief relationship with a glamour model, Cara Franco, ended after a few months. John and his second wife Jessica parted after four years. He has two children with each wife; Gregg has custody of two teenagers from his second wife, Denise (his first ran off with a flower market salesman after six weeks).
Their partnership is strong, says John, because they never socialise together and haven’t visited each other’s homes. “We have our own lives, otherwise we’d morph into each other. I don’t want his personality, and he doesn’t want mine. We share a dressing room and are so close in the studio I can see inside his ears, smell his breath and know which aftershave he’s wearing. We have respect bordering on affection and hardly ever fall out. The longest debate we’ve had over contestants is an hour and a half.” Gregg adds, “We both work with others (he with Michel Roux Jr in MasterChef: The Professionals and John with Donal Skehan in Junior MasterChef) but he’s the one and only for me – otherwise we wouldn’t have lasted this long.”
Indeed, their engaging banter and the heatrical nature of the competition may attract nearly five million viewers, but it’s difficult to keep the format fresh, although John insists, “We could do another 2,742 shows. So long as people want to watch, I don’t see why not. It’s about success, contestants attaining their dreams.” Gregg adds, “I’ll continue until they have to purée the food for me to suck through a straw. I don’t know much about television but we’ve set up the premier food competition in the country and it’s hugely addictive.”
They’re sometimes accused of being too kind, unlike the judge of Australian MasterChef, Matt Preston, who hurls dishes he doesn’t like on to the floor. “You should see how devastated some contestants are when they’re thrown out,” says John. “But we’re respectful. Contestants are there to learn, get better, or put their face on telly. If you’re there to put your face on telly you ain’t going to last long. We’re critiquing someone’s plate, not them personally. I don’t want to humiliate anyone, but remember we have to eat what they cook: it’s not the best thing in the world to be faced with something ghastly, or a sack of cat as I call it. Being kind means you let things slip apparently unnoticed. That’s not in anyone’s interest. If you put someone through who can’t cope it will be a disaster.
“When they walk in with food they think is amazing and our comments are pretty awful, the reality hits home. Some bounce back. Others don’t. With pressure and upset comes innovation. MasterChef may change their career so it shakes them to the core, or causes emotional and mental upset. Our job is to push the good ones forward. Those who leave aren’t important any more. We don’t say goodbye to them.”
Gregg adds, “I worried we wouldn’t keep getting the right calibre but I realised it’s the combination of us and MasterChef that’s turning them into exceptional cooks. I do look at some contestants and wonder why they’re here, but if they’re sobbing and really upset we turn off the cameras. In the early rounds I’d like to chat and make them feel more comfortable, but I never do in case we’re accused of favouritism. There are some we warm to and it’s upsetting to see them mess up.”
“Aaaah,” says John in mock sympathy. “You’re the bigger softie,” Gregg retorts. “We were both single men last year and John is much more likely to write a poem or send flowers. I have an outward look of romance and my taste in music and films is slushy. John has a slushy middle and tough exterior. He has romance running through his soul.”
John admits he’s an “Aussie who doesn’t drink beer or play rugby, so I’d like to be more butch. I’ve always wanted a tattoo, but never dared.” Gregg, in contrast, has the Millwall lion tattooed on his left breast, which he shows off at the slightest provocation. Now he’s lost two and a half stone and become svelte he’ll also bare most parts of his body with awe and an admiration he assumes will be reciprocated. It’s thanks to Heidi. “Before she left she said my lifestyle was really unhealthy. The doctor told me I’d have a massive
coronary if I didn’t do something. My cholesterol was 13.5 from eating loads of butter and ice cream. So I reduced the carbs – pizzas are the devil’s food – and alcohol and this morning I was down to 11 stone 13 ounces.” He explains, cheerfully, that he has obsessive compulsive disorder. “I’m also a workaholic. I’ve got to learn a new skill: how to say no.”
It’s a talent John has acquired. He has sold his restaurant. “It was ground-breaking when it opened and I’m very proud of it. Now I’m taking life easier.” He has a girlfriend, Lisa Faulkner, 41, a former Holby City star who won Celebrity MasterChef in 2010. “I’m having a very nice time, thank you. I’m fit, healthy and fortunate, which is all I’m saying. Be patient. Gregg’s been through this before, but things that made my life difficult over the last ten years are slowly disappearing and I’m happier for it. I’m returning to my dream of travelling the world and learning about food. I might bicycle around Vietnam this year because at last I have time for myself. Then I’ll come back to London and be innovative again. It’s the next chapter.”
There was heartache when Heidi left – and therapy to help overcome it – but Gregg still hasn’t given up on romance, he says. “I’ve had women turn me down saying, ‘Gregg, you’re a lovely man but I don’t want to be the next story in The Sun.’ Others might like to be, which is another problem. How do you work out if they genuinely like you? There is someone special now. Early days...”
“Don’t say anything. I don’t want you to jinx it,” says John, but Gregg is in full flow. “I love celebrity. Love it. No more dodgy restaurant tables by the gents’, no more snobby sommeliers. Last month my son and I were invited into the Munster rugby club dressing room after the match when the players were stark naked, being patched up.” John is appalled: “I can think of nothing worse than a rugby-club changing room ten minutes after a match.”
Gregg ignores him. “The only downside to my job is lack of privacy. I’m glad we became well known in our 40s. We’re household names but not big movie stars. I’m a south-east London blue-collar boy, so sometimes people are rude, thinking I won’t react because I’m on television. My natural inclination is to clump them – and I have. If that was known I’d be arrested and it would end my career.”
He ponders what he’s said and retracts. “OK, I haven’t done it. But here’s a plea: could viewers stop sending me pictures of their dinner on Twitter – I get about 30 a day. And also photographs of their friends who are bald and have glasses, telling me they’re my double. They’re not my double – just a bald bloke with glasses.”
He spends three hours a day replying. “I believe in old-fashioned manners. I rise when a lady comes to the table, and the older I get the more I realise they appreciate it. The problem is they’re not used to it. The number of times I’ve opened a car door for a lady, gone to the other side and found she’s shifted over to give me room. And when I walk on the outside of the pavement they get confused.”
“The only reason you’d do that is to catch road-kill and pick up a nice pheasant for dinner after it’s been run over,” John remarks.
Meanwhile, they add, there’s snobbery about cooking. “People are disappointed when I say I’ve just had a Big Mac,” says Gregg. “They expect me to have fine food constantly. What they really mean is they don’t like me eating where the poor eat. We were in Newport in Wales recently and had a curry half and half – chips and rice with curry sauce. And in Manchester they have ‘babies and bastard’ – pie and gravy. Good on them.”
John adds, “We put Kentucky Fried Chicken on a plate with couscous and a rocket salad and gave it to people in the street in Kensington. To a man they loved it, although they all said they’d never eat fast food. In Australia I ate ‘burger with the lot’ – burger, bacon, cheese, raw tomato, fried egg, pineapple, mayonnaise, lettuce. It made me really happy.”
Try that on MasterChef and see where you get.
MasterChef is on BBC1 on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm and Fridays at 8:30pm
The new cookbook, MasterChef Cookery Course, is out now, priced £18.20 (RRP £26) from DK