He's the straight-talking, no-nonsense chef you may be a bit nervous inviting to dinner. Luckily for us, MasterChef judge John Torode is the one laying on the feast in Abu Dhabi next month.
Torode built his reputation in critiquing amateur cooks' dishes; now he's risking it all by taking on traditional Middle Eastern recipes at Taste of Abu Dhabi. And, we're all hoping his kibbeh isn't, to quote the man himself, "all a bit flim-flam".
“I’m a massive fan of Middle Eastern food and I find the region fascinating,” Torode tells me enthusiastically. “You have cuisines that go back thousands of years, like Emirati and Lebanese, and the tastes are just phenomenal. But the pressure will be on, of course, in front of plenty of people who are experts at making it.”
Torode in the Middle East
Torode – and his diners – need not be too worried, though, as he knows what he's talking about when it comes to Middle Eastern cuisine, having cooked at home with Emirati families. The Australian chef filmed two episodes of his food and travel show John Torode's Middle East in the UAE last year, where he fell in love with the Emirates and the food that has been passed down through generations.
The chef also took over the kitchen at Dubai's famous Ravi Restaurant, where he tried his hand at traditional Pakistani breads and curry dishes. "We went to Ravi's and cooked there with the chefs. It's the places that draw the crowds of locals that I'm interested in and the food they cook on the streets," he says.
"Everywhere I visit in the world has an effect on my own cooking, and I love the subtle spices you find in food in the UAE. It's definitely had a huge influence on me. One of my favourite local dishes in the UAE was salted tuna in rice [malleh]. We also made some beautiful kibbeh. It was gorgeous."
As well as his beloved kibbeh, Torode waxes lyrical about sweet luqaimat dumplings, and is a big fan of the country's seafood markets, rising early to get down to the waterfront and haggle for fresh fish. Market traders, then, should be on their guard in early November, when Torode will be touching down in Abu Dhabi once again ahead of the festival, and there'll be no reining him in when it comes to exploring the city's cuisine. "I'm not interested in sitting in five-star hotels eating food I could get anywhere else in the world," says Torode. "I want to meet the people cooking the food, and hear their stories and learn their recipes.
"Last year we went to the fish market, and picked up a load of fresh seafood and cooked it using traditional methods. I think that's the best way to learn about the food and culture of a place. I also spent some time in Dubai during Ramadan and was fortunate enough to have iftar with some Emirati families. It was an honour to learn about the local culture and customs, and it felt like a really special time to be in the UAE."
Torode on 'MasterChef'
Despite his grand plans, his stint at Taste of Abu Dhabi will be part of a fleeting visit, as he has started filming for MasterChef with co-host Gregg Wallace as they search for the best home cook in the UK in the show's 16th series. It's a busy time for Torode, who also co-presents John and Lisa's Weekend Kitchen with his fiancee, Lisa Faulkner, on Sunday mornings on UK channel ITV.
He has also described his working relationship with Faulkner as a "honeymoon", although his partnership with Wallace is a little longer in the tooth. "We've been working together for over a decade, and you could say that we're like an old married couple," Torode says with a laugh. "We do argue and bicker, we go to different restaurants, we dress differently and we like different things, but we work well together. I hadn't seen him for six months or so before we started filming the new series, but we slipped straight back into it."
The chemistry between the two is undoubtedly one of the key ingredients to MasterChef's success, but how much of their on-screen banter is scripted? "Absolutely none," insists Torode. "What you see is what you get. Gregg and I decide who leaves, who stays and ultimately who wins. We don't even have hair and make-up," he says. "It's as real as it gets."
That’s not to say there’s no fun involved. “All of the production staff have their own sets of cutlery in their pockets, so if there’s a nice dish, everyone can get stuck in then and there,” he says. “Filming is going great so far. Gregg and I always think we’ve found the winner by week three and a couple of weeks later they’ll be gone.”
Torode at Taste of Abu Dhabi
For a man who has found international fame, opened his own restaurant (Smiths of Smithfield in London) and travelled the world perfecting his craft, Taste of Abu Dhabi might seem like just another day in the life of a celebrity chef. But for Torode, it's such festivals that make his work so rewarding. "Events like this are so important to the local community," he says. "We all need to eat, and food is something that brings people together; it's something that we can all talk about without anyone feeling excluded. This time I plan to seek out the local, family-run restaurants that have been serving up the same dishes for generations. For me, that's what exploring new countries and cultures is all about."
The three-day food, drink and music festival will run from Thursday, November 7 to Saturday, November 9 at du Arena, and if you miss Torode at the fete itself, you'd do well to head off the beaten track, where you'll likely find the celebrity chef in a backstreet cafe up to the eyes in kibbeh. "The heat," to quote another of Torode's famous phrases, "really is on."