gregg wallace: minister of dinner

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Image: Charlotte Knee Photography www.charlotteknee.com

Gregg Wallace has become a familiar face on TV over the past decade. With hit shows such as ‘Eat Well For Less’ and MasterChef attracting millions of viewers, he has experienced the delights of Michelin starred restaurants as well as help those on a tight budget save money and eat healthier. Here, the former greengrocer talks about teaching children cookery skills in school, his love of Angel Delight and helping families cook cheap, quick and healthy meals.

Hi Gregg. How are you?

I’m good. I’ve been in the gym since 6am. I was in bed at 8pm last night, watching Alien.

Is this a typical day for you getting up early?

Because I work in television there is no normal routine. MasterChef has the most routine but Eat Well For Less doesn’t because it’s families all over the country and Inside. If I am at home then I’m in the gym with a gym instructor at 6am.

It’s easier to get up early when there’s a trainer waiting for you in the gym!

It’s that I’m an old greengrocer so my default position is to go to bed early and wake up early, that’s what I do. Left to our own devices me and Anna would be in bed by 8.30pm. Then I’m normally up around 5am. That’s what I like to do.

It’s interesting doing all those different things…

I think only people who have worked in television should be allowed to run the country because they experience life in the UK from every different angle, as opposed to some people who have a job where they travel from one place to a place every day and meet the same sort of people every day. Television people meet everybody from royalty to beggars and everything in between.

Would you want to do that kind of job? Doesn’t sound as much fun as what you do…

What? Run the country? I’d like to be Food Minister – minister in charge of dinner, if there was such a thing.

Maybe you could stop the axing of school lunches. What do you think about that?

I didn’t know anything about it. I haven’t got an opinion on that but I would, however, like to see cooking classes in school. Just an hour a week from the age of five up until the time you leave. That would be enough.

One thing that Eat Well For Less has taught me over the three years now is there’s a chronic skills shortage in the UK, making people reliant on expensive pre-made foods. People buy them for two reasons – one: they don’t have the skills to prep food and secondly: because they honestly believe it saves them time. I wandered round the supermarket the other day to these subliminal messages. It had Meal Solutions above the cabinet. I wasn’t aware it was a puzzle that needed solving.

It’s subliminal brainwashing isn’t it?

If you tell people this, and you convince people… How many times have you heard: ‘We’re cash rich but we’re time poor’. Who wants you to believe that? I don’t believe that is true. It’s telling us that we’re busy people. We haven’t got time to cook and also cookery is a chore akin to ironing so what you should do is treat yourself and spend more money on your food than you would do if you prepped it yourself.

This is highly dangerous and if we carry on going generation after generation of de-skilled people we’re going to be completely and utterly reliant on ready-made foods.

What are your thoughts on ‘clean eating’?

I don’t know what that is. It’s the first time I’ve heard that.

It means no refined sugar, no wheat, dairy, that sort of thing.

Urgh, I don’t like the sound of that at all. I want to eat Angel Delight and toast. That’s rubbish. That sounds like an extreme to me, like it would put the majority of people off. I’m talking about the majority of people cooking their dinner, that’s all I want. It can be dirty eating or clean eating. I don’t care. I want you to cook your own dinner.

How can we encourage that?

What I really would like to do, which I think would solve everything, is if I could convince lots of people that time in the kitchen could be their time – and it can be fun time. It’s more constructive than having your bottom on a sofa. That’s what I’d like rather than come home and: ‘Oh I have to do this thing’, I want people to go: ‘I’m looking forward to that’.

When did ready meals start to take over?

We got to this point after the second World War where all the advertising was about labour saving devices in the home. Women had been working during WW2, more so than ever before and it was likely they would want to carry on. You were having less women at home.

I spoke to my grandmother – she was in her nineties when she died – and I talked to my mother about this. Everything was about labour saving and it carried on. The hugely popular Cadbury Smash robots laughing at humans peeling and mashing potatoes. There was a whole generation – my grandmother’s generation – who deliberately didn’t pass on those skills to their children because they thought they were burdening them.

A whole skillset go lost. Now it’s a tricky one. I’ve had a look at food cultures – my wife’s Italian – and if you look at rural France and the south of Italy, where you’ve got serious quality food culture you’ve actually got a big majority of people still working on the land on food production. You’ve also got a big majority of women not working. Now I don’t think that’s a price that Britain would want to pay so quite what we do I don’t know. I’ve got some ideas but I’m not sure. What that means is huge swathes of the population now who can’t cook, don’t know how to cook and are spending far more money than they need to because they’re scared of cooking.

That’s a real shame…

I would love to do a TV programme where I just do cheap, quick, healthy meals. But I don’t know what format to deliver it in rather than just stand their cooking, which I think may be a little bit passé. Every time we do a simple recipe on Eat Well For Less we get inundated with requests for that recipe so I know there’s a huge appetite.

Even when we do things like cook dry pasta. I really would like to do it in a fun way. I’ve got all the recipes. I’ve been thinking about this now for two years. Not continuously, I’ve been to work in the meantime, but I can’t think of a format.

Every format I think of comes up in a hybrid of MasterChef and Eat Well. You can’t just rip off the people you’re working with. I want to do something other than what the TV people call ‘chop and chat’.

We have got serious problems and I do get nervous of it. I’d like to introduce cookery back into schools. Start off with veg prep, move your way through putting a piece of fish in the oven to bake. Really simple things. Making a pasta sauce with tins of tomatoes. Shepherd’s pie, soups, so that people would leave school with basic cookery skills so they could feed themselves and their families cheap, healthy food. We’re missing out so much by not doing it. I’m not an expert but I’m sure if we all knew how to do that we’d all eat healthier foods as well.

Could that also help people who rely on food banks?

I don’t know. When we started doing Eat Well For Less people said you should do it with people who really are on the breadline. When  we investigated we found out those people  had bigger issues than food. We weren’t social   services. It would be pointless.You’d be  painting over the cracks.

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