For too long, he reckons, there’s been a “tit-for-tat” approach to communicating food-related subjects to the public, based on claims along the lines of: That is bad, this is good.
“I don’t think it should be like that. I think we should be championing all things that are good, and if you only concentrate on that then they will prevail. The goodness will overtake the badness.”
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The Australian chef, known to millions of TV viewers as half of the MasterChef presenting team, is in his restaurant overlooking Smithfield meat market in London.
With the BBC2 series about to reach its grand finale, the Royal Agricultural Society of England has named John as its next president – a marked departure from the more establishment figures who traditionally hold this role.
MasterChefs… John and co-presenter Gregg Wallace.
One of his priorities, he says, sitting on the top floor of the four-storey Smiths of Smithfield restaurant, is to communicate what’s great about farming to the public and inspire a love of quality food.
“I believe that good food is egalitarian. It’s for everybody. It’s not just for those people who think it’s posh.”
It’s a far cry from when he first came to Britain in 1990 (he wanted to travel, but “got here and ran out of money”) when restaurants were about occasions – wedding anniversaries or birthdays, for example. “It’s took a while to happen but it’s not like that now.”
It’s shaping up to be a busy year for the 42-year-old father-of-four. He’s got books in the pipeline (one about beef, one about fowl), is planning to open another restaurant at Spitalfields in East London in the autumn which will specialise in birds and now this, taking on the presidency of RASE in October.
He’s promising to have a very hands-on year in the role at the charity which since 1840 has tried to support farming and rural industries through a policy of “science into practice”.
What is RASE?
RASE supports farming and the rural industries by spreading information about the best in research, development and practice. Established in 1840, it is a charity which now has 6000 members and aims to bring the best of British agriculture to the attention of members and others through shows, events, conferences and awards. One of its key events is the Royal Show which happens annually at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, where RASE is establishing a “Centre of Rural Excellence”. More info at www.rase.org.uk
He’s unfazed by the prospect. “There’s nobody in life I know who’s sat around on their arse and done very well,” he says. “You don’t get anywhere in life unless you work hard,” he adds (although his version includes an expletive).
Meanwhile, however, it’s MasterChef for which he’s most well known, the popular show which is expected to get between four and six million viewers when it comes to a conclusion next Thursday evening (28 February).
Filming finished a while back, but John’s tight-lipped about who will be crowned the winner. It was, he explains, filmed on a closed set to preserve secrecy, so only a handful of people are aware of who will scoop the top spot. “Not even my wife knows.”
His love of food certainly comes across in the show – but it’s meat that the straight-talking restaurateur is most enthusiastic about. “I believe in it. I feel passionate about it. This top floor has built its name on bloody great steaks.
“To me, the greatest thing about a Côte de Boeuf is that it’s charred on the outside, almost well done on the ends, medium to medium rare in the middle, and blue in the centre.”
On the day FW visits, there are Longhorn, Shorthorn and South Devon steaks on the menu (a 10oz South Devon rump, aged 23 days, will set you back just over £25).
He’s a big fan of rare-breed meat. “This is where people get it very wrong. Everyone thinks it’s rare and therefore endangered. It’s rare because we’ve stopped eating it and breeding it. For it to survive we must continue to eat it.”
We have an instinct to spear things
Often referred to simply as SOS, Smiths of Smithfield has taken away the traditional line of supply, rarely uses a middleman and butchers in-house, so ensuring complete provenance. They thank – and name-check – their suppliers on the menu. They also, John points out, undertake regular road trips, visiting suppliers and farmers.
As a “connoisseur” of steak, presumably he doesn’t have a lot of time for vegetarians? “I don’t have a problem with vegetarians. I’ll champion anything I possibly can. But I believe as human beings, we are designed to eat meat. We have an instinct to spear things.
“People don’t really understand why I don’t get on with domestic pets,” he adds, laughing. “I like animals – but, the problem is, I mostly think they should be eaten.”
John traces his love of food to growing up in a rural community in New South Wales, where he had relatives involved in horticulture and agriculture.
His was an unusual path to take at the time. The stereotypical image of an Australian is, after all, someone who plays lots of sport and spends all their time outdoors. “Not me. When I was growing up, I didn’t fit into that lot. I’d much prefer to cook.”
His contemporaries found it strange in Australia in those days the notion of a guy going into that line of work could, he says, spark a comment like: Do you dress like a lady on a Friday night?
“The idea of being a chef was a bit weird – it was frowned upon when I started. But I loved it.”
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So, by 17, he was in kitchens and, though he rarely cooks these days in SOS, he’s never lost the buzz. “I love doing it. The enjoyment will never wane.
“I see myself as a traditionalist, whereby I take an idea – say, an Italian idea – and I do it traditionally but using British produce – taking another community’s idea and doing it here.”
He couldn’t understand, he says, the way people “dumbed food down” when he first arrived in this country. Why people didn’t celebrate it. “It was weird. I think it’s extraordinary and needs to be celebrated. I have tried as an Aussie to promote what is brilliant about this country – and that is that it does produce some of the best food in the world.”
He’s worked in some of the nation’s top restaurants, including Pont de la Tour, Quaglino’s and Mezzo (and was resident chef on ITV’s This Morning with Richard and Judy in the late 1990s) before opening the Grade II listed SOS in 2000.
His task now with the RASE is to help make food “user-friendly” and to forge links between his profession and agriculture. “I want to learn. I want others to learn more about my industry and how the two can come together to be something that is brilliant so that every restaurant in the country is promoting what is brilliant about what is on their doorstep.
“I don’t want to come across as a food bore. We need to do it in a way that makes it egalitarian – but also makes it aspirational.”
What RASE says:
RASE reckons this will be a great opportunity to “really trumpet” the case for British food and stresses that John Torode is someone who “really practises what he preaches”.
It highlights how he’s been leading the way among chefs in
“This is a terrific development for RASE,” says Hugh Oliver-Bellasis, its council chairman. “John sources 100% British.
“RASE will use his presidential year, with John’s full backing and support, to give UK farming the highest possible profile and to create greater awareness of the ways in which farmers can access the growing and profitable food service sector.”
People who love wine know how grapes are grown, he points out, so why shouldn’t the same apply to food? Why shouldn’t people, he wonders, know about the pedigree of animals or the care of an apple tree?
“I find the whole food chain very exciting. Everybody should understand how agriculture works and what the real issues are.
“Everybody should understand,” he says, using another distinctly un-RASE expression, “what goes in their gob and where it comes from.
“I’m real about this. I’m not mucking around. This is seriously, seriously important.”
And with that, he’s off. You can’t help but wonder what the more traditional elements of the RASE will make of him. In an organisation used to the great and the good, it’s inevitable that there’ll be a few raised eyebrows.
Still, if all else fails, he can always try a Batman analogy.