His new Channel 5 travel show Big Weekends Away sees the TV presenter explore some of Europe’s greatest cities in his own inimitable way, while over on the BBC he’s back with a new series of the perennially popular Masterchef, which he’s been co-hosting alongside John Torode for the past 16 years.
Wallace’s new travel series sees him visit a string of famous cities including Istanbul, Berlin and Rome. He also spent three days in York which is the subject of tonight’s episode, to find out more about a city that is dripping in history.
His visit was filmed last year before the latest lockdown. “I’d been twice before but I saw so much more this time and what stays with me is how much history there is, it’s just incredible. And how friendly the place is. You’ve got to remember I’m a Londoner and we tend not to talk to each other. But what a lovely, friendly place York is.”
Wallace spent time with a local historian learning about the story behind the city’s walls and went to the Minster where he met some of the stonemasons.
“I actually went up on the roof and there may just be a tiny little bit of Gregg Wallace on the roof of York Minster. I know it sounds ridiculous but I’m incredibly proud of that. Next time I’m there with someone I’ll say ‘look up there, I did some work on that.’”
He also met up with Michelin star chef Tommy Banks who cooked him a medley of rhubarb dishes. “Yorkshire rhubarb isn’t new to me. I’ve been a champion of it for years and I put my name to the campaign to get it European recognition, and I’ve met the fabulous Janet Oldroyd numerous times so I’m well aware of the fabulous forced Yorkshire rhubarb. I also know Tommy Banks, who is a real talent, and I got to enjoy a feast of rhubarb put on by him and his team which I didn’t expect.”
Wallace is a bit of a marmite figure, you either warm to his ‘matey’ persona or you don’t. Though he must be doing something right otherwise he wouldn’t have been such a regular fixture on our TV screens over the past decade and a half.
He’s often described as being a former greengrocer, though that’s not entirely accurate. Yes, he was in the business of selling fruit and veg, but he wasn’t a one man band working out of a market stall.
He started his catering business in 1989 at the age of just 24 and built up a reputation for supplying top quality produce. “All the top London chefs and restaurants were my clients. There are even chefs today who still call me ‘Greg the veg,’” he says.
He reels off a list of famous names who were customers of his: “Marco [Pierre White], Gordon [Ramsay], Jamie [Oliver], Michel Roux Junior at Le Gavroche, the River Cafe... I supplied the lot and I was good at it, and I cared about it.”
He started eating out at some of the restaurants he supplied and says that’s where he learned about food.
His move into the world of TV and radio came about, as is so often the case, by happenstance. He spotted food trends before they took off and started working with British farmers and growers to promote their produce.
A trade magazine, The Hotel and Caterer, did a feature on him and the freelance journalist who wrote the article also did work for Radio 4’s food programmes and he was invited in as a guest on one of the shows. This went well and he ended up co-presenting Veg Talk on Radio 4 before moving into TV.
It’s often forgotten that he was the first presenter of Saturday Kitchen, but it was MasterChef that made him a household name. “It’s been the pivotal moment of my life and it made me famous overnight,” says Wallace.
He and John Torode were paired up in 2005 when producer and director Karen Ross revamped the show. “It used to be a Sunday evening, very middle class show,” says Wallace.
“They would invite people in and give them all the time in the world and get them to do three courses. Then Karen came in and brought in two blue collar boys, John Torode and me, and completely changed its feel, apparently to quite a bit of resistance from the BBC. But she was right.”
The chemistry between the two presenters was there from the beginning. “John and I knew each other for ten years before MasterChef because he was one of the chefs we were supplying when he was at Mezzo in Soho.”
Working so closely together, he and John spend the best part of six months a year filming, could easily become grating. “We don’t get on each other’s nerves but we do watch each other’s mood changes, depending on what else is happening in our lives. He is a fabulous man, John Torode. I had a chat with him just this week. I said ‘I’ve been a bit down’ and he said, ‘yeah, I know.’ And I said ‘you know it’s never about you’ and he said, ‘yeah, I know that. Nice to have you back smiling.’
“It’s a relationship some people seem intrigued by because we don’t socialise outside of work, or visit each other’s houses. That doesn’t mean we are not incredibly close, we’ve just found a formula that works for the pair of us. I’m not closer to anybody else than John Torode, he knows everything about my life, we just keep it within the confines of MasterChef. It takes up so much of our lives we don’t want to put something else in there that might upset the equilibrium.”
Like Strictly Come Dancing, The Repair Shop and The Great British Bake Off, MasterChef has become a firm favourite with many viewers, and Wallace feels at home in the MasterChef kitchen. “I’ll never stop doing it. I’m really happy there. I can see a time when I’m too old to do it, but I reckon they’ll still get me to do guest appearances.”
The latest series is the 17th since the format changed and he believes its recipe for success is fairly simple. “It’s about people and you’re watching those people striving to do their best, and there is so much emotion that comes out of that.”
Another crucial component is the fact that both he and John are at ease in front of the camera. And not everyone is. “I’ve talked to people off camera who are experts in their field and can wax lyrical about their specialist subject. But you stick a camera in front of them and they go to pieces,” says Wallace.
“So you never know how someone is going to react to the camera. I’ve always treated it like another person is there, it’s never phased me and I’ve always liked it. It’s a bit like performing in a way, you just have to think quickly and be natural.
“If I put a spoonful of food in my mouth and it’s glorious, the easiest thing to do is go ‘oh, mate.’ Everyone at home will understand exactly what you mean. You don’t have to go into long, elaborate detail. Sometimes a simple ‘corrr’ will do...”
Gregg Wallace’s Big Weekend in Yorkshire airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 5.
MasterChef continues on BBC One
The challenges of filming during lockdown
Filming MasterChef, as well as Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef: The Professionals, during this pandemic has brought challenges. “What we couldn’t do was go on location so it all became studio-based, but it worked. We couldn’t go out to restaurants but we could bring the great chefs into the studio,” says Wallace.
“One of the innovations that came in was we got the contestants to make two plates of food, one for me and one for John. Brilliant. We should have done that before instead of us elbowing each other out of the way.”
Having strict protocols on set allowed them to keep filming. “All credit to the production team because we’ve now filmed nearly three series during this plague without a single incident.”