MasterChef star John Torode discusses his new series exploring the cuisines of South Korea, how he and partner Lisa Faulkner make their relationship work when they spend time apart and why we might need to change the way we think about the foods we eat for breakfast.
MasterChef star John Torode has been cooking for a long time and he thinks we might be doing breakfast all wrong.
The TV star has just got back from filming in Asia and his travels have prompted him to question why we eat what we do for each meal of the day.
His ideal way to kick off the morning is with the food he ate while he was filming his new series in South Korea – meat, rice soup and kimchi.
Now sitting back on a sofa in a London office, the Australian-born chef, 51, says: “In this country, I still believe, the relationship with food is quite tenuous.
“I think there are still a lot of people who consider it to be fuel and I know quite a few people who just need to eat, it’s not ceremonial.
“If you go to Thailand, everybody is concerned about what they are going to have for lunch, in China everybody knows what they are going to have and what things mean and the stories behind them, we aren’t like that.
“The thing about Western food that is interesting is the definition of what you are allowed to have for breakfast, what you are allowed to have for lunch and what you are allowed to have for dinner.
“Because I have this thing where I love Asia, for me breakfast is brilliant, I can have rice soup, I can have some kimchi, whatever I like.”
But this idea is horrifying to his partner, EastEnders’ star Lisa Faulkner – “Lisa says to me, ‘that’s not breakfast food!’ Breakfast food is a piece of toast and a fried egg.
“What is for lunch? A sandwich. But I don’t like bread very much so what do I have?
“But in Asia I can have whatever I want and at dinner time I can have the same thing I had for breakfast if I want to and it’s not considered to be weird.
“I think it’s really interesting the way in which we have been told what we are allowed to eat. We know cornflakes were introduced by somebody to feed an asylum but we have adopted it and the clever marketing people have told us we should eat it for breakfast.
“As a child I wasn’t allowed to drink milk because I have quite a bad allergy to it, however, everybody else was told they had to drink milk for calcium to get strong bones.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nutritionist, all I know is I’ve never broken a bone and I never had milk ever and I think an Asian breakfast is a very good thing.”
The breakfast was not the only thing Torode fell in love with on his eight-week trip round Korea – he also took a liking to Spam.
“Spam is massive there,” he says. “At Thanksgiving you give gift boxes of Spam. Now I’m a Spam lover.”
His new passion even extends to an enthusiasm for a bizarre dish dubbed army stew – “a pack of instant noodles, kimchi, stock, Spam, baloney, frankfurters, tomato ketchup, boiled together with sliced cheese across the top. It’s delicious, it’s bloody fantastic. It’s hot dog and noodles, it’s brilliant.”
He loves it so much he is planning to make it for his four children, saying: “The first thing I thought was ‘I’m going to have to make this for somebody because it’s just so wrong it’s absolutely right, cheesy hot dogs and noodles.
“I haven’t made it at home yet, I don’t think Lisa will appreciate it but I think my kids will like it.”
The long periods he spends away from home filming these kinds of series, including those eight weeks in Korea and the stretch he’s just returned from in China, mean he and Faulkner have established a system so they aren’t apart for too long.
“I have a pact with my partner that we don’t do more than three weeks,” he says.
“The deal is whenever I’m filming anywhere in the world, I do a three-week block maximum and then I come home. You have to, otherwise it’s just too long.”
That means he films for three weeks, hops on a plane back to England, spends a week with his family and then picks up where he left off back on location.
He adds: “It takes a while to get your head around it all, your stomach getting used to western food again.
“In Korea I didn’t eat anything western at all, I would do a three-week block and come home, a three-week block and come home, then went out for another two weeks.
“Suddenly you come back and it’s weird. You also have to get used to making your own bed but the one thing I really love about being home is opening a window, hotels are all hermetically sealed.
“The first thing I do when I get back is usually get out in the fresh air as much as I possibly can, mow the lawn, that is the first thing, and get stuck into the garden.
“That is voluntarily,” he stresses, “I don’t do anything under instruction.”
Torode has been presenting MasterChef with Gregg Wallace since 2005 and that means he is now recognised all over the world, saying: “It’s normal. In Korea I got recognised a few times, it depends where you go though, if you’re where the white faces are, where the tourist spots are.
“I was just in Beijing and I was walking down the street and this person came up to me to ask for a photo, a Chinese person who used to live in England.”
He says his recent series about Asia has inspired some of his fans to get on planes to visit those countries and that is what he hopes to achieve with his new show
“What I’ve done is a show where I go on an adventure to learn and people come with me and have a look.”
:: John Torode’s Korean Food Tour is on Good Food from July 17