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John Torode

In his new book, Sydney to Seoul, John Torode embarks on a food odyssey creating vibrant recipes inspired by his travels from Australia and through Asia. From fresh Aussie breakfasts to delicious Asian curries, big bowls of tasty noodles and barbecues influenced by both Sydney beaches and Korean grills, the book is a captivating journey to some of John’s favourite places around the globe.

“The book is about who I am and what I love. My favourite place to travel is Asia; I love the flavours, the diversity, the herbs, I love the chillies, the people and the markets. I love everything that goes with it,” John enthuses.

“I am hoping the book will get people to travel. Or get people to walk through China Town and pick up a bunch of something they don’t recognise, buy it and go home, learn about it and cook with it.”

Though John now calls north London home, he lived in Balham and Streatham for 13 years from 2001. “In south west London there are so many great Asian grocers. In Earlsfield there is the Thai Grocer along Garratt Lane, which is fantastic, and Tooting has fabulous stalls in the market. They’re all great places to buy quality ingredients,” he continues.

“We lived in Balham and Streatham Hill for years and I still have connections down here. Balham has changed a huge amount. When I was living here Hildreth Street Market had Milk [the café] on the corner and that was about it. There was the Jamaican fish shop, there was the halal butcher at the far end of Hildreth Street and it was still very much a West Indian market. That’s mostly gone, which is a bit of a shame but now what you have is young trendy people eating brunch on a Saturday and a different buzz.”

Raising his children in the area, John had several go-to family favourites. “Dip and Flip on Battersea Rise makes great burgers – my kids always talk about it. I have really fond memories of Buonasera on Northcote Road as well. I love those guys, and the squid with courgettes is always fantastic. Milk is really good and the team has always done interesting things over there. It’s owned by an Australian guy who knows his stuff.”

It’s little surprise Milk – the Balham café known for its brunches – is on John’s list. While John is credited as one of the main players in introducing Australasian food to the UK during the mid 90s, he is also the chef who turned breakfast on its head when he opened his iconic restaurant, Smiths of Smithfield, for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner.

“I opened Smiths up for breakfast in 2000. I remember telling my major shareholders and them saying ‘breakfast?’”, John laughs mimicking his shareholders’ incredulous tones. Fortunately despite their reticence, John went ahead with his vision and Smiths became the place to brunch in London.

“We did about 40 covers on the first weekend and the next Saturday I think we did about 180 and the following Saturday we did 650. And from then on, Smiths became the place where everybody went for breakfast and brunch. They travelled across London for us – it was absolutely huge. People started to come and have business meetings and the whole thing erupted. I’m really proud of that – we broke the mould. Then suddenly you’ve got the Wolsley opening up for breakfast. I used to open Smiths at 6.30am and by 7am every day I would have a waiting list of around 30 to 45 minutes.”

Today, much of John’s time is taken up with his presenting duties on Masterchef where he has won over millions of viewers thanks to his straight-talking style and passion for flavour – a theme that runs through his own dishes. “Let’s be fair, we’re all time pressured so there’s things in Sydney to Seoul that will just take minutes and there are recipes that will take hours. It’s about the time we’ve got to hand. The same goes for the time of year – there’s a recipe in there for a whole grilled fish, and that’ll be great when the sun is shining and you’re outside in the sun. But if it’s a cold rainy day I would probably make a flavoursome rendang, a big plate of noodles or a tasty Asian soup. In the book there are some really easy ways to make broth with noodles, dumplings or chicken that I think are wonderful.”

“There’s a tofu salad with sesame and pumpkin seeds, which I made the other day and I honestly forgot how good it was. It’s all about trying things. I hope I will get people eating tofu and stop people thinking of it as some kind of weird thing. Tofu is magical!”

Talking to John about spices, ingredients, and yes, even tofu, could make the most unimaginative cook get creative. “When I went to Asia for my cookery shows, the producer would often just send me out into a market to see what there was and what people were cooking.

It’s a wonderful way to experience the cuisine.” It is this immersive style of cooking that is likely to frame his next project as well. “I’m about to head to Egypt where I think we will take a similar tack. I’m fascinated by Egypt as I really don’t know much about it. And that’s what excites me as I don’t know what will be there and what we’ll find.” 

 Photo Yuki Suguira © Headline Home 2018