As MasterChef returns for a new series, judge John Torode is priming his taste buds...
John Torode and Gregg Wallace may have spent the past decade hosting MasterChef together, but don’t expect them to hang out, Ant and Dec-style, when the cameras stop rolling.
“We’re like an old married couple who travel away from each other all the time,” says Torode, when asked why their partnership works so well.
“We don’t really spend time together. I have no idea where he is when we’re not filming, we have very different lives, different tastes, we listen to different music, I’m cool and he’s a bit old and doddery...”
The pair “never try and impose our views on each other”, adds the 49-year-old, who returns for a new instalment of the BBC One cookery show this month.
“The only things he imposes upon me are his bloody stupid jokes.”
As always, viewers can look forward to “a couple of twists and turns” in series 11, which features 40 amateur cooks competing over 24 episodes.
The most notable “twist” is a reinvention test, which sees heat-stage hopefuls taking the main ingredient from their signature dish (known as the ‘calling card’ dish) and turning it into a brand new plate of food.
If they impress the judges, and get through another two-course challenge, they’ll make it into the quarter finals, and finally, at the end of the gruelling seven weeks, 2015’s champion will be crowned.
Torode, who grew up in Maitland, in Australia’s New South Wales, says he still gets inspired by the home cooks who enter.
“This year, more than anything, we’ve seen such a diverse group of cooks with really different ideas, with food from all around the place - from people cooking street food to really elegant fine dining, to brilliant stuff from Austria and Germany, through to Japan, Italy, France, China, Malaysia, Russia.”
He also has MasterChef to thank for his romance with actress and cookery writer Lisa Faulkner, who he met when she competed in - and won - Celebrity MasterChef in 2010.
“She’s such an amazing cook. She’s so great and so generous, and she’s pretty good-looking as well. The old man did all right!” says Torode.
The TV judge would never critique his former contestants’ food, however - including Faulkner’s.
“Can you imagine me going to somebody’s house, or to Lisa, and saying, ‘Well I think this would work, maybe if you did this...’ That would be the rudest thing in the whole world.”
Torode is also working on a new book, My Kind Of Food, due out later this year, “about the food I cook at home - clams and spaghetti, really good salad, curry, pies”.
And later this year, he’ll celebrate his 50th. The chef, who has four children from two previous relationships, insists he’s not bothered about the landmark birthday. “Turning 40, I hated. Turning 50, I’m fine about. I am what I am. I don’t feel old, I feel great,” he says.
“I’m very, very happy, I’m very privileged to do things like MasterChef. I’m travelling the world, writing books. I’m doing all right.”
Want to cook like a champ? Here’s a recipe from a Celebrity MasterChef winner to try your hand at...
NADIA SAWALHA’S SEA BASS WITH A TAHINI SAUCE, CARROT AND ONION SEED SALAD, AND SAFFRON RICE
4 sea bass fillets, skin on
1tsp ground cumin
1tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
4tbsp vegetable oil
250g onions, finely sliced
250g carrots, finely grated
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2tbsp mustard seeds (optional)
1/2tbsp nigella seeds (black onion seeds)
For the tahini sauce:
1 garlic clove
Juice of 1 lemon
2tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the saffron rice:
Pinch of saffron threads
400ml hot chicken stock
50g whole blanched almonds
200g basmati rice
1tsp baharat spice
To make the salad, fry the onions in half the oil until golden and caramelized. Meanwhile, put the carrots in a bowl and add salt and lemon juice. Fry the mustard and nigella seeds in the remaining oil for a few seconds until they begin to pop. Tip over the salad and mix well, then stir in the onions.
To make the sauce, put the salt into a mortar and pound with the garlic until really smooth. Pour in the tahini and mix with a whisk. Add the lemon juice and whisk until sticky, then whisk in 75ml of warm water. When it looks like thick double cream, stir in the parsley.
Put the saffron in the stock. Melt half the butter in a heavy pan and fry the almonds gently. When they are golden, remove and set aside.
Put the remaining butter in, add the rice and spice, stir, and add the raisins.
Pour in the hot stock, season, bring to the boil, give it one more stir and then put the lid on and reduce the heat to as low as possible. Cook for about 15-20 minutes. Mix the fried almonds through.
Dry the sea bass fillets with kitchen paper. Rub the spices over them and season well. Gently heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan and slide the fish in, skin-side up. After about three minutes turn the fillets over and cook on the other side for another three minutes or so, depending on their thickness.
To serve, form the rice into a mound on the plates and place the fish on it. Top with the salad and drizzle the sauce around.