John Torode, the popular host of BBC One’s MasterChef tells KATHRYN MCKENNA how the long-running cooking show stays ‘fresh’ and why he’s made a new lifelong friend in fellow Australian Neil McGuigan
Beaming from ear to ear with sun-kissed skin and a dazzling smile, when I meet MasterChef judge, author and TV chef John Torode, 52, at the Titanic Hotel, Belfast recently, he is closely followed by fellow Australian, the charming Neil McGuigan of famous McGuigan Wines.
With arms outstretched for endearingly friendly greetings, it is hard not to feel immediately at ease in this dynamic duo’s company. In fact, if ever looking for a visual representation of the age-old phrase, ‘they got on like a house on fire’, then look no further than this hilarious double-act.
The infectious duo are in town to promote their most recent collaboration, a fine Tempranillo which marks the first red of the McGuigan Torode series. It follows the success of the McGuigan Torode Rosé and McGuigan Torode Semillon which were launched in 2016 and 2014 respectively. The wine is a “meeting of minds between Neil’s expertise in quintessentially Australian reds and John’s taste for exceptional wines that complement great quality food.”
And almost as though they were destined to meet, in a bizarre twist of fate both John and Neil unknowingly grew up in the remote area of Hunter Valley.
Whilst John started life in Melbourne, after his mum tragically passed away when he was just four, from the age of five to 10 he lived, along with his two elder brothers, with his maternal grandmother “Nanna”, in a rural house in Maitland, 250km north of Sydney. “My mother and my Nanna came from a place called Maitland - and extraordinarily it turns out Neil was just further down the road,’’ John explains.
Neil adds: “John grew up there and I went to school there, so there is this Hunter Valley connection we didn’t even know about.”
“You see he went to school there, I just grew up there,” quips John. “In those days, only certain privileged people went to school,’’ he laughs. “I was the house-staff, cooking away,’’ John jokes good-humouredly, referring to the combustion stove he grew up with, for which you had to cut firewood every day, “That’s why I first started cooking.’’
With an illustrious cooking career, John Torode is perhaps best known for his friendly and passionate presenting on BBC One’s MasterChef alongside Gregg Wallace. John even met his longterm partner, Eastenders actress, avid chef and cookbook author Lisa Faulkner, 46, on the Celebrity version of MasterChef which she won in 2010, with the pair later getting together in 2012. But last year, outgoing John reportedly came under fire by the BBC when he revealed he has “never been friends with his MasterChef co-host, Gregg Wallace”, which Gregg thankfully later stepped in to clarify, reassuring fans by telling the Telegraph: “I think what he was trying to say was that we’re not friends in the typical sense. John was best man at my wedding and I’m not really closer to anybody else. Where it’s an unusual relationship – and it most certainly is – is that because we’re so friendly on telly, people think it’s make believe or that we’re close outside of work.”
Seeing John and Neil in action though, they most certainly share the same chemistry John has with Gregg on screen. “There is obviously a lot of banter between the pair of you,’’ I remark. “Is this a match-made in heaven?”
“No”, jokes John to appreciative laughter from Neil. “No look I’ll be honest with you, we started this as a business relationship and what has happened is, it has become a friendship. In this world, every so often you are gifted with a new friend - and I have been gifted with a new friend. So it is really good. We get on very, very well. We have connections to our family, we talk to each other all the time, we swap photos and we go out to Spain together during the summer.’’
Neil adds: “We knew we had to make a partnership bringing food and wine together, because that is what McGuigan Wines is all about. We wanted to get people excited about food and wine again, and someone recommended, “You should talk to ‘Master Chef’”, he laughs, looking at John. “I said okay, this is going to go really well,’’ he says sarcastically. We met in Sydney, we went to a restaurant, and I realised, he’s only bloody Australian! We ended up chatting for ages and I left thinking, “You know what, he’s a good guy!”
The popular TV host laughs good naturedly when the subject of his famous cooking show comes up, revealing: “I am actually embargoed when it comes to MasterChef - I am not allowed to talk about any of the contestants. I’m actually not supposed to talk about it at all - but I will today for the News Letter,’’ he laughs charmingly.
“We have this saying on MasterChef and that is that Gregg and I in the early rounds always spot the winner. We spot the winner from round two, maybe early round three. By round four or five they’ve gone home,’’ he laughs. “You can have no idea! Because it depends on what they do, what they choose, and how they work, so you never, ever know. It is like doing anything in the world, if you knew the secret to success, everybody would be a multimillionaire.?”
Neil interjects: “This man has been doing MasterChef for 14 years, that is a long time to be doing something and to keep its core and yet keep it fresh and exciting - that is a real talent.”
“And the reason is, we’re not scripted,’’ John agrees triumphantly.
John’s top tips of where to eat in the world
John, who has recently published new cookbook Sydney to Seoul, explains: “It is a book about 20 years of travel and Asian food.’’
Asked if his research has led to his healthy looking glow John laughs: “No I have been out in my garden! I have been cycling around the park near my home in London trying to loose some weight after finishing six months of filming MasterChef! I’ve also been working on my garden which is looking really well, I am very proud of it. I have two barbecues!”
“But he has a leakage problem”, Neil interrupts mischievously.
“His garden, that is!”
But where are the well-travelled chef’s top foodie destinations?
“If you’re in London, go to Meatopia, it is incredible, all the chefs are there and you get a great amount to eat. If you go to Malaysia go to Penang, it has the most fantastic street-food in George Town. In Thailand, go to Bangkok and visit Pak Khlong Talat - an amazing market. Finally, go to the Carriage Works in Sydney, then pop up to Hunter Valley for a glass of wine. That’s how I do it! I also love St. George’s Market, they do very good sweet potato fries!”
When asked should we make an effort to support local, Neil responds straight away: “Absolutely!”
But John ponders: “Well it is hard to say that, isn’t it? When you say ‘support local’, but you are buying wine from Australia.”
“Hang on”, pipes up Neil indignantly. “Our name is McGuigan, we’re Northern Irish!,” he laughs.
Aussie rules: pair bid to stamp out “snobbery” in wine industry
When asked what makes the third wine in their McGuigan Torode collaboration so special, John leans forward, explaining enthusiastically: “This is the first red of ours, we did white with the Semillon from Mount Valley and the Rosé because I love it, and now now we’ve got the Tempranillo.
“The world loves Rioja, and this is the Rioja grape, the grape that makes the Rioja grand, but it is from a cool climate - it is from Adelaide, South Australia.
“What it means is that we have got this great balance between not too much fruit, and it goes well with everything. So the idea is it is what is called ‘daily drinkable’ - any time, anywhere, anyhow!”
Winemaker and fellow Austrailian Neil agrees: “The first wine was my pick, because we both come from the Hunter Valley and the famous grape from there is the Semillon. I love Semillon - I love making it and I love drinking it! We made a wine which reflected both of our histories and reflects us both and where we started. And then Rosé came along, under duress from me,’’ Neil laughs. “John was pushing me telling me: ‘Mate we are missing out here, Rosé is so important. It is food wine, it can be enjoyed without food, with food, with ice, without ice’, and he was absolutely correct.”
And Neil explains the ethos behind the dynamic duo’s collaboration: “When if I am in a fancy restaurant, and I look at the menu and see something I can’t pronounce or don’t know what it is, I get nervous about ordering. With wine it is the same thing. You don’t want to look a dope or chose something you don’t like. There is a stigma about wine. The snobbery has got to go. I want to bring people into wine, John wants to bring people into food. That is why our collaboration really works - because we are on the same page.
“We want people to know it is fine to drink this wine with anything. It is up to themselves to make that decision - and know that whatever they decide, is right.”
“The great thing is there is no snobbery in Neil’s wines at all,’’ agrees John.
“Neil has always been about the populist, he has always been about the egalitarian. In fact, Northern Ireland drinks more McGuigan wine per capita than anyone else in the whole world! You guys love the stuff, and so you should - it is really great wine,’’
The McGuigan Torode Tempranillo is also available on Amazon.