Gregg Wallace on MasterChef and work/life balance

Gregg Wallace. Picture: Contributed
Gregg Wallace. Picture: Contributed
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Gregg Wallace only has a week off between now and Christmas. His schedule is exhausting and he wants it to stop. Except the MasterChef judge keeps taking on more work. It’s an issue he hasn’tyet sorted out with his life coach, he tells Janet Christie

I’ve no idea where I am, speeding through the streets of central London somewhere in a black cab, riding shotgun with MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace who is talking machine-gun speed about food, fame and anything else you care to ask him. The interview had started over breakfast in a cafe in Marylebone, but Wallace is a busy man, and time is short. He has to fit in a visit to his life coach before lunch at the House of Commons to talk about a possible Gregg Wallace cookery school for schoolchildren in Kent, then there’s a meeting, another interview and yet another meeting so when he says, “I’ve gotta go, see me life coach. You can come in the cab with me if you want,” I do.

Forty five minutes earlier the sedate Viennese ambience of Fischer’s cafe and konditorei had been shattered by the arrival of this cheerful force of nature. “Allo! he shouted as he arrived, “you’re interviewing me. And you’re early!” his greeting a friendly accusation. There’s a face-splitting smile and a powerful handshake. “I’m having breakfast, want some?” he says, and we’re off. It’s early but Wallace has been up since 4:30am, a legacy of his barrow boy days when he started out selling vegetables in Covent Garden.

He orders. On the menu his sausage sandwich includes a fried egg.

“Just the sausages please,” he tells the waitress.

“No egg?” she enquires.

“No, that’s just wrong,” he says, calling after her, “I want that struck from the menu!”

She giggles.

At 50 he’s slimmer than he looks on the telly, where he and fellow judge John Torode have just wound up the 11th series of MasterChef, and very dapper in his posh black lunch suit. A few years ago he hit the scales at 16 stone and his high cholesterol forced him into a rethink. He lost more weight in last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, in which he was voted off in the second week.

“I’m in the gym five days a week and then I swim one day a week. I also have an instructor and he’s a tough little f***er. He pushes me really hard, but the joyous feeling you get when you finish hard exercise, it’s incredible. I was worried about my cholesterol but also I don’t want to look at myself being fat on the television. It’s an image-conscious industry. I still do the Weight Watchers app every day. John [Torode, fellow MasterChef judge and friend of 25 years standing] cycles to work, he thinks that keeps him slim.”

Wallace’s weight problems began in his twenties when he launched his greengrocer’s business.

“I did go wild, because I had never been in a restaurant ever in my life, and all of a sudden, I was 24 years old and started my own company and restaurants amazed me. So I ended up having problems, because I went out for lunch and dinner, and was boozing all the time. I got really overweight, high cholesterol and was sinking far too much alcohol on a daily basis. But I loved the buzz of it. I carried on doing that into my forties, then it had to stop.”

When he’s not on TV or radio, he’s at home in Kent with his girlfriend Anne-Marie Sterpini, who he calls Anna, and his kids Tom, 21 and Libby, 18.

“Tom’s at university doing what I believe is called ‘drunken economics’. He’s doing very well at the drunken bit, and Libby is determined to be an actor. I tried to dissuade her because I see the pain actors go through, but she said ‘Why can’t I do what I want to do and if it does go horribly wrong I can pick up the pieces at any time?’ I thought that was a very powerful argument.”

Wallace has brought up his children as a single parent, since his marriage to their mother Denise, his second wife, ended in 2004 and he got full custody. Back in 1991 he was married to Christine for six months, and then in 2009 he met his third wife Heidi, a teacher 17 years his junior, on Twitter after she asked him a question about celery and pollock. The couple married in 2011 but she left him after 18 months. Now’s he’s engaged to Anne-Marie Sterpini, a 29 year old caterer he met on Twitter two years ago when she asked him a question about rhubarb.

He’s very proud of his girlfriend and asks if he can show me a picture?

Yeah, go on. She’s very beautiful, but does she get on with his kids?

“Yes, I think that’s one of the things that brought us together, because she could see I’m very close to my family, just like she is to hers.”

With such a busy schedule that he has only a week off between now and Christmas, the planned wedding will have to wait.

“It’s unlikely to happen before next year,” he says. “And then babies. I mean she’s a 29-year-old Italian, what are you going to do? Her family will garotte me if I don’t. She said to me straight away, you do realise I’m going to want to have children and I said yes I do.”

With marriage on the cards, Wallace is catching up with his mother Mary, who has also been married four times. She lives a ten-minute walk away and the pair are close.

“Yes, we like a marriage me and my mum,” he says smacking his lips over his sandwich.

“Even though it didn’t go right, neither of us ever gave up on the idea of romance. We knew we did want someone in our lives.”

Is it because you’re romantics, optimists, or both?

“Well, I don’t know about my mum; I think she is almost Buddhist in her approach to life in that she’s not going to work very hard at any particular thing and she’s not going to let any particular thing trouble her. I’m very different. I aspire to things and I worry about things,” he says.

Later this month Wallace is heading to the Ideal Home Show exhibition in Glasgow, where he has his own restaurant at the event.

“I love it. I just have to talk to the customers. I like people and I like talking to them. But it gets me into trouble with people like you, journalists. It’s better to clam up.”

What does he wish he hadn’t said or done? Hit the headlines for thumping someone allegedly noising up his girlfriend in 2012 perhaps?

“The list is endless. I don’t read the press. They see a womanising football hooligan. I see a very in love history buff that likes to cook and drink a bit of white wine.”

Two years ago at the Ideal Homes Show in Glasgow, he found romance in the arms of the model Cara Falco, who he went out with after the breakdown of his marriage to Heidi Brown. Does that sort of thing just happen to him?

“Yeah it does. Do you know why? It’s not that women think it’s glamorous, it’s just that if they’ve watched you on television you’re not a stranger. They think they know you. And because other people want to talk to you too it looks like you’re one hell of a popular guy.”

Was he successful with women before he was on telly?

“I don’t know about successful, but I’ve always been able to meet and date girls, yeah, always. Do you know why I’ve got such a beautiful young girlfriend?” he asks. I want to say is it because he’s loaded, but settle for a politer ‘no’.

“It’s because I’m nice. It’s because I’m not a git. It’s because I’m decent. You just have to be you, and just take your chances.”

Is it true he reads Winnie the Pooh to Anna in bed?

“It’s true I read it to her, but not in bed. They try and make it smutty! I’ve been a big fan of AA Milne since I was a child, and Anna has so many childlike qualities in that she’s so girly and loves Disney films, so I said, can I just read you some Winnie the Pooh? She was like, No!. I said, ‘please, please’, so we sat on the sofa and I started reading and I could see her feet bouncing up and down with excitement because I was doing the voices and really getting into it. She loved it.”

Go on then, do the voices.

“Well, Pooh [he does a Pooh voice], I think sounds like this, because he’s a bear of very little brain. And he’s not unlike Eeyore [switches to Eeyore] who’s obviously a manic depressive, sigh. Then there’s Piglet [his voice goes up an octave or two] and then obviously Kanga is ‘hello dears’, a bit Claire Rayner.”

By this point, it was the Claire Rayner impression that did it, under the table my feet are starting to twitch too.

He doesn’t just read AA Milne, but has a real love of history books too, just having completed Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

“He wrote it in the late 18th century, so you’re reading two histories, the decline of Rome and also the political and geographical perspective of an Enlightened Briton from 1775.”

“I’m a huge history fan: Roman, medieval, dark age history. “It’s the story of how we got here, the never-ending story. It’s wonderful to know why we act in the way we do, wear the things we do, eat the things we do and why other societies and languages and customs are different. History is just fascinating. I love it.

“I mean, I was watching the debate going on in Scotland last year with real interest, and as a historian, I thought it was a shame they didn’t break away, because I really wanted to see what would happen, how things would evolve.”

Wallace was born in Peckham in London in 1964, and his parents divorced when he was 14. He left school and left home at 15, started selling vegetables in Covent Garden, then set up his own wholesale greengrocery business.

Wallace has obviously got the gift of the gab with his ‘not many of them to the pound missus’ banter, but how did he get into radio?

“That was a pivotal moment in my life. A trade magazine did an article about my work with British growers and the journalist, who also worked for Radio 4’s Food Programme, said to them you have to meet this greengrocer because he sounds like a typical barrow boy but he really knows what he’s doing. They phoned me up and said we want to do a programme on you and because I was really nervous, thinking I’m not a Radio 4 voice, so I dragged my mate Charlie Hicks along. They loved the pair of us and gave us our own show called Veg Talk on Radio 4. That’s where it started.”

“I didn’t set out to do radio or get on TV. Nobody on television sets out to do that. Clarkson didn’t go to TV school, nobody does.”

Wallace did Veg Talk on Radio 4 for seven years with Charlie Hicks, then moved onto Saturday Kitchen from 2002 and has now clocked up a decade on MasterChef, Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef: The Professionals. Then there are the other TV projects like Eat Well for Less, Turn back Time, Harvest, Supermarket Secrets, Who Do You Think You Are? and Strictly Come Dancing.

Wallace turned his life around through his hard work and ability to take the opportunities that life threw his way and run with them.

“I’ve no ambitions for a yacht or a helicopter, but I want to feel secure,” he says. “I’ve been poor. And I’ve felt bad about it. It made me sad and it made me angry and I don’t want to go there again.”

His mother Mary had Wallace when she was 20 and the man he grew up thinking was his dad, later turned out not to be his biological father. This was in fact Gerry, who worked with Wallace in his greengrocery business. Was he traumatised by this revelation?

“Well, I always got on with Gerry, so it wasn’t at all unpleasant when I found out he was my dad. I’d never got on with Alan who I thought was my dad and I didn’t feel a particular bond, although I did to his mum and dad. My grandad, Sidney Wallace, was an exceptional man. His family came down from Scotland when he was very young.

“But it didn’t affect me because at this point my whole life was going to s**t anyway. When you get a breakdown, a complete breakdown, of the family unit that’s your base as a child, that’s everything you know, and if that’s collapsed around you…” his voice fades.

“I had been brought up in a happy home, well I don’t suppose it was happy for my mum, but I had my grandparents upstairs and I liked that. But it disappeared at the age of 12,13 and by 14, my mum and dad are having screaming, aggressive fights. Then mum moves in with Gerry and goes from working class to middle class overnight and I’m struggling to keep up. By that point, no one really know where I am and what I’m doing. No-one’s really looking.”

Wallace was also struggling to overcome childhood abuse by a family friend, the husband of his baby-sitter that happened when he was eight. He wrote about this in his autobiography, Life on a Plate, which came out in 2012.

“I’m glad I spoke about that because people have to know that the people that do this to children, it’s mental as well as physical, aren’t necessarily sleazy, unshaven men with macs on. No, no, no, they’re the people that are close to you, who nurture the relationship so it’s very, very friendly.”

What would he say to the young Gregg Wallace?

My life coach said that to me too. If the 15-year-old Gregg Wallace could see you now, what would he say? And I said he’d say, ‘is that me?’ His eyes fill with tears.

“See, I’m welling up now.”

At this point the photographer arrives to take pictures and we move from a table to a window booth.

“Shall I pop me clothes on the chair?” he says, brightening.

He wipes his eyes and rallies with some of his terrible jokes while she attempts to take his picture. The man has more cheap cheese than Lidl.

“Why should you never eat clowns? Because they taste funny.”

The photographer reciprocates with “Why do elephants drink? To forget.”

He laughs like a drain at this one and hits back with “What do you call an Italian with a rubber toe? Roberto.”

Then he follows up with, “They found my local baker unconscious in his yard, with whipped cream and hundreds and thousands all over him. The police reckoned he’d tried to top himself.”

So what’s next? I ask him, trying to get the interview back on course.

“It’s a retail outlet selling men’s and women’s clothes. Next.”

Sigh.

“OK, I’ve done this brilliant series that I’m really proud of. It’s called Inside the Factory: How our Favourite Foods are Made. It’s three one-hours looking at the mass production of milk, bread and chocolate. You know we eat 4,000 KitKats a minute. And there’s going to be more Eat Well for Less. I like doing telly. You can be at Buckingham Palace one week and down a sewer the next. And food just fascinates me.”

Photographs done and dusted, Wallace is pulling on his jacket, accusing us of being “Ooligans!” for crushing it in the melee, and insisting on picking up the bill.

“I like it in here, I can walk to my life coach easily,” he says. Except today time’s short and he needs to hail a cab.

“I love you. I love your work,” he shouts over his shoulder to the delighted chef as we exit.

In the taxi I ask why he needs a life coach?

“Because I worried so much about things. She got me through Strictly when I was ready to walk, and I carried on seeing her since then.”

Ah yes, Strictly, when Wallace’s golden touch didn’t extend to his feet, although he is a qualified rugby coach.

“I love dancing! I’m a good dancer!” he protests, but admits he just couldn’t master Strictly.

“I think it’s because if I’m not brilliant at something I work really hard to make sure I’m competent. But this, I didn’t have enough time, so I knew I was going out there middling to bad.”

Wallace’s enthusiasm for his life coach is boundless.

“Let me tell you how brilliant this girl is. I was going to a charity do and miserable about it because I’d have to be TV’s Gregg Wallace and people would want photos of me, and to talk to me all the time. And she said, but it’s a rugby charity, you love rugby, they’ve got a bar, you love beer. Why not go with the sole intention of drinking beer and talking about rugby? How do you feel about it now. And I said, yeah, amazing. She taught me this one single sentence that resonates because it’s so true: the difference between happy and unhappy is what we tell ourselves.”

So Wallace is happy, but today’s schedule is frantic, and that’s without any filming.

“I’m too busy. It’s got to stop,” he says. “I want it to stop. I want to marry Anna, have children, buy another home in the middle of nowhere with an acre of land so we can hide. Just calm down.”

The taxi comes to a halt, we jump out, Gregg plants a kiss on my cheek, pauses a nanosecond to do his cheeky grin for a snap I can tweet, then streaks off into the concrete and glass of his life coach’s office. I stand reeling, returning to earth and locating myself somewhere in the vicinity of Marble Arch, grinning like a fool after the Gregg Wallace experience.

• Gregg Wallace will be at the Ideal Home Show Scotland, at the SECC, Glasgow from Friday to 25 May, www.idealhomeshowscotland.co.uk