Gregg Wallace has become a staple of the British television diet, as recognisable and ever present as baked beans, fish fingers and a Sunday roast.
In fact, in the years before he found his calling sampling heavenly (or otherwise) cuisine on the nation’s screens, his diet did’t extend much further.
He tells Jane Graham about his student years, his grandfather, his wedding day and what he wishes he could say to his younger self.
At 16 I was desperate to find my way in the world. I’d messed up school, I had no qualifications. I’d left home, I was working in a dry cleaner’s in Peckham, and I was struggling, really struggling. If I could go back to that boy now, before he left school, I’d say, get your head down. You can do this. Don’t rebel, just stay there. Get your exams, go to university, have a ball. As it was, I was wondering what on earth was going to happen with my life. I didn’t have a great deal of prospects.
My parents split up when I was a teenager and though I didn’t see it at the time, it absolutely must have had an impact. I was brought up in a happy environment. My grandparents lived upstairs. Then we moved away, which was a bit of a wrench for me, being away from my grandparents. My mum and dad’s relationship started to break up, then mum had a relationship with somebody else, and I just didn’t feel like I fitted into that new life at all. I stopped going to school, I actually got a part-time job when I should have been in school. And then I completely drifted out of education and left home.
There were lonely times when I first lived on my own. But I suppose not having the family base to get comfort from does make you independent. I realised that it was now really down to me. I had to find a way to earn money, to be able to move up. I felt very keenly that I didn’t have as much as everybody else. And that made me feel competitive.
My mum moved up socially and I didn’t feel that I was in that social sphere, or that I wanted to be. I really liked being the person from Peckham. That’s where I was comfortable, rather than in that middle-class utopia. However, I wanted to succeed. I wanted my accent and my values, not theirs. But I wanted as much money as them.
I didn’t look after myself particularly well in those first years of living alone. My diet was fish finger sandwiches, fry ups, McDonald’s and kebabs. The world of better food didn’t enter my life until, after working as a warehouseman in Covent Garden market, I started my own fruit and veg company when I was 24. And cooking came even later than that, when I had children and started cooking for them.
If I could go back to talk to my younger self I’d tell him to start eating healthier. I’d say, mate, learn to cook. A whole new world of opportunity will open up for you.
Just buy two steaks in the supermarket, go home and put them in a pan. Get two slices of bread. You’ll be fine, honestly. It’s really, really easy to do. I promise you’ll like it, you’ll like it a great deal.
If I went back to the young Gregg and told him what was going to happen he’d say, oh my God, am I on the television? Is that my house? That is ridiculous. He’d be absolutely gobsmacked. He might also say, I’ve got no hair. Where has my hair gone? But apart from that he’d just be saying, no way, no way. I’m famous? There’s no way. I think he would have just been completely overjoyed. He would never ever have guessed I’ve made my name through food, and the love of good food. That would amaze him.
I jumped at the chance of doing MasterChef. And I think I do a decent job on it. What does amaze me is how fat I was. I’m like wow, look at the state of you, you are a right mess. You’re out drinking, you’re eating the wrong foods, look at the state of you. I am proud of myself for sorting that out, I really am. I think it’s one of the things, as well as my success in television, I’m most proud of. My transformation into a fitter me.
People always assume I’m a chef. And they also think I’m gonna be a champion of anything local, seasonal or organic. When actually I was brought up in a housing estate, so what I really like is instant coffee and food out of tins. People always give me really horrible, harsh, disgusting coffee that I never like. But for me, my favourite food is minced lamb, tinned peas, and rhubarb crumble with rhubarb out of a tin.
I have a 26-year-old son, a 23-year-old daughter, and a 17-month-old baby. The first one, Tom, scared the life out of me; I think I spent the first three months of his life in the pub. I really liked him when he started walking and talking. When he got to five years old and he could play rugby I really, really liked him. The middle one, the little girl Libby, we’re really close now, but as I’d gone to a school with all boys, I didn’t know much about little girls. So it took me far longer to understand Libby. Then I got custody of the pair of them and became a single parent when they were eight and 10 years old so obviously we were very, very close. But I don’t think I was a particularly good parent. I chose to work instead of being at home and just threw money at the problem. The baby, I just adore. He’s just the cutest thing, he reduces me to tears every time I see him. But again, I’m not here enough, I’m away so, so much. But to be a father at my age is a brilliant, wonderful thing. You see it all very differently.
I’d tell my younger self what I now know; it doesn’t really matter how much money you make, or what happens in business or your career. What you need is a secure base, no matter what happens, and that secure base isn’t financial, it’s emotional. I think I was lonely back then, I was always searching for somebody. So I forced relationships along where I maybe shouldn’t have. If I could go back to my younger self I’d say, with all of the marriages – don’t do it. You don’t need to do this. I wasn’t a happy soul, I was out drinking all the time. And people who are out drinking, they may be laughing in the bars, but they’re not happy. Happy people are at home, unhappy people are in bars.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be my grandfather. My baby boy Sid is named after him. I was only 21 when he died – it was a deep blow. I got a phone call saying he was in intensive care so I rushed to the hospital and held his hand. The nurse said, he knows you’re here. And he never woke up again.
I’d like to sit with him and tell him what a wonderful and loving man he is. Tell him that he had an enormous impact on my life. And also just show him how well I’ve done, what a family man I am. He wouldn’t care about the money, he’d just care that I have three children and they’re close to me.
If I could go back and relive any day it would be my wedding day. I was just so in love with that young woman, so in love. It was such a joyous occasion. We had it in a Tudor castle decked in flowers. We had an Italian feast – my wife is Italian. We had a jazz singer, and two opera singers. And we danced to Moon River because that was playing the first time Anne told me she loved me. I had told her I loved her a few weeks before and she said, ‘I know what you want me to say, but I’m not just going to say it. When I feel I’ve fallen in love with you I will tell you’.
So I was disappointed at the time, then weeks later in my flat in Putney that song was playing and she came over and sat on my lap and told me she loved me. So that’s why we chose that song. I would just like to do the whole day again, take some deeper breaths this time. In fact I’d like to do it once a month.