Recipe for success
PUBLISHED: 11:28 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:03 20 February 2013
MasterChef's Gregg Wallace has become famous for casting a critical eye over great plates of food. Pat Parker finds out why it is polo that will bring him to Essex
NEXT month sees one of the most glittering events of the county's social calendar, with the exclusive Duke of Essex Polo Cup being staged on July 4. Held at one of the county's finest stately homes, Gaynes Park near Epping, the event has in the past attracted stars such as Rod Stewart and his wife Penny Lancaster, as well as Brendan Cole, Danielle Lloyd and many more.
VIPs will be arriving by helicopter, before being wined and dined by top chef Jean-Christophe Novelli and subsequently treated to a celebrity fashion show, comedy act and charity auction. Legendary bookmaker Barry Dennis will also be taking bets on the world-class polo match - Great Britain versus Argentina. And before the match starts, the match ball will be delivered by a sky-diving team, in a spectacle unique to the Duke of Essex Polo Cup.Among the many celebs attending this year is MasterChef judge, food writer and purveyor of fruit and veg to London's top restaurants, Gregg Wallace.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was the prospect of the three-course VIP luncheon created by Jean-Christophe which he was most looking forward to. 'If he's preparing it, it will be brilliant,' enthused the man famed for his love of a good pudding. 'He's a very talented chef.'
Gregg, 44, is a very busy man. When I spoke to him, he and fellow judge John Torode were in the middle of filming MasterChef: The Professionals. MasterChef and its various offshoots now take up 200 days of his year. On top of that, he also runs his fruit and vegetable company, Gregg's Veg, from Secretts Farm in Surrey, which offers direct order produce to the public as well as supplying London's top restaurants. He has also put his name to the new Inspire range of ready-to-cook vegetables, and is opening a new greengrocers-cum-cafe in Clapham.
It's a successful and glamorous lifestyle that is a far cry from Gregg's origins in Peckham, where he grew up in a house with no bathroom and an outside toilet. 'We were very poor,' he tells me. 'If it moved, we ate it, and if it stayed still, we nicked it.'
He was particularly close to his grandparents, who lived upstairs. Gregg has fond memories of his granddad telling him bedtime stories about knights and castles, and the Romans. It inspired in him a love of history he has never lost.
'I'm a frustrated academic,' he tells me. 'I'm a massive history buff. I have a stack of history and food books. My ambition now is to study for a history degree. My second ambition is to have enough time to do a history degree!' He left school at 15 with no academic qualifications. 'At the time I was supposed to be knuckling down, I found girls. Geography and maths came a shabby second.' He also left home, often dossing down on mates' floors. At one point he got involved with a Millwall football gang and was arrested for threatening behaviour.
He tried his hand at a number of jobs, including working in a dry cleaners, window cleaning, roofing and cab driving, before finally getting a fruit and vegetable stall in Covent Garden market. A natural salesman, he had the chutzpah to walk into swanky London restaurants and chat up the chefs. He started supplying fruit and veg to Stringfellows and swiftly added a glittering list of restaurateurs to his client list.
'It seemed really easy. All you had to do was make friends with chefs.
I used to knock on the doors and walk into the kitchens of famous restaurants. They were more scared of me than I was of them. They wondered who this lunatic was who'd just come into their kitchen.'
By the time he was 30, his business, George Allan's Greengrocers,
had a turnover of around £7.5 million. Then, in the late 90s, he had
a lucky break into broadcasting.
'A trade mag did an article on me and the freelance journalist who wrote it suggested to Radio 4 that they came down and met me. And they did, and then gave me and my mate Charlie (Hicks) our own show.'
The show was Veg Talk, which ran for eight years. Gregg soon transferred to television, presenting Saturday Kitchen. 'I found television a doddle compared to radio. You didn't need to keep on talking - all you had to do was point at a frying pan.'
But everything came crashing down in 2002 when his company went into receivership, he and his second wife divorced, and the next year he
found himself replaced on Saturday Kitchen by Antony Worral Thomson.
'I couldn't do it all,' he says now of the collapse of his business.
He started again, and Gregg's Veg is now thriving. In 2005, the BBC decided to revamp MasterChef, and Gregg and Australian chef John Torode were chosen to present it. The show had previously been
fronted by the patrician Loyd Grossman, so the choice of Gregg and John was a brave one. 'It was amazing,' says Gregg. 'They put working class boys into a middle class show. It was a very bold move by the producer, Karen Ross, who's a TV genius.'
The show also demanded a great deal more of its contestants than the old MasterChef. 'It used to be Mrs Corby Trouser Press from Tonbridge making souffle. And the contestants had about three months to practise preparing three courses. Who couldn't do that? You could train next door's hamster to do that. But now, they're given ingredients with no prior knowledge. It's massively more pressurised.' So What's the worst dish he's had to sample? 'Lorne Spicer on Celebrity MasterChef once gave us scrambled egg inside a raw cabbage leaf with seedless grapes.'
Gregg says he and John have a great rapport on and off screen, but the two frequently disagree about the MasterChef judging. 'It happens all the time. But John usually wins the argument. He's tougher than me,
he's stubborn. He just won't listen to argument.'
It comes as a surprise to discover that Gregg is not a big fan of organic fruit and veg. 'It's silly to believe organic is best. I think the promotion of it has been ridiculous. I get very nervous when food gets swallowed up
by the middle classes. I think if you're a grower of organic veg, it's such
a stupid claim to say they taste better.
A lot of people who buy organic food think they're buying local produce, whereas 85% is imported.'
Gregg would like to see legislation stating that at least 10 per cent of all fresh produce in supermarkets has to come from within a 60-mile radius.
Living in Whitstable, Kent, with his two children, Tom, 15, and Libby, 12, Gregg says he's unlikely to bring the children to the Duke of Essex Polo Cup, although he might bring a girlfriend. He's had several over recent years.
I wondered if, after two failed marriages, he'd like to settle down again?
For a moment, the shouty Mr Wallace sounds quite wistful. 'That would be a really nice idea. Falling in love again would be a great thing.'
See Gregg at the Duke of Essex Polo Cup on Saturday, July 4, at Gaynes Park Estate in Epping
• Individual All-Day VIP Tickets cost £150 and include a Champagne reception, canapes, a three-course luncheon created by
a fashion show, a comedy performance, a charity auction and entrance to both VIP evening events. A £270 VIP Gold Ticket includes helicopter arrival or limo pick-up.
•Admission to the general public family area is £10 for adults (£15 on the door), and £5 for under 12s,
(£7 on the door).
Call 01992 563433, email firstname.lastname@example.org or www.dukeofessexpolocup.com