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A grand unified theory of Gregg Wallace

The TV personality might seem a mere interloper among culinary sophisticates, bellowing about “meaty” meat, but his insistence on the plainest means of expression offers a version of essentialism for the modern era.

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In 2015, Charlie Brooker’s satirical TV review Screenwipe ran an item on the strange ubiquity of Gregg Wallace, the food presenter best known as the mainstay judge, “ingredients expert” and “pud” enthusiast across the various iterations of Masterchef. Over increasingly fast-cut footage of our man turning up in a constellation of culinary, magazine, reality, light entertainment and quiz shows, a bemused Brooker concluded, “Say what you like about the TV licence fee, you can’t complain you don’t get enough Gregg Wallace for your money.”

Five years on, in a very different world, Wallace’s ubiquity continues, serene and unabated. The seventh series of Eat Well for Less? aired in September, while Inside the Factory has been through two runs in 2020, including a special “Keeping Britain Going” series designed to reassure a panic-buying public on, among other things, the strong and very long state of the UK’s toilet roll supply chain. Masterchef’s hive mind is still finding new ways to insinuate its way into the schedules, and the 13th series of Masterchef: The Professionals is currently on screens. (The one where Wallace plays senior dinner lady to Monica Galetti’s headmistress and Marcus Wareing’s executive head.) Outside of television, Wallace has, with chilling logic, moved on from food to workout videos.

In his eagerness to burnish his Gregg Wallace spotter’s badge, however, Brooker overlooked the most important moment in his own critique, which came from the first ever episode of Eat Well for Less?. On this BBC One series, Wallace and fellow stentorian grocer-cockney Chris Bavin take in hand a family overspending on food and over several weeks attempt to impart the knowledge that supermarket-own products cost a lot less than brands yet “taste exactly the same”; that home cooking is healthier and cheaper than takeaway; and that keeping a dustbin full of Mars Bars within reach of the sofa might be an obstacle to weight loss. The footage is then edited for entertainment purposes into an hour-long highlights package, interspersed with recipe ideas and other short items. (In a recent episode, for example, students from the University of Exeter reflect on what they are looking for in a tortilla chip.)

In the very first episode, Wallace and Bavin enter the kitchen of the Booth family before they return from their weekly shop. Wallace drops to his haunches, pulls open a cupboard and ogles the contents therein, expressing shock at how full it is. “There is no point buying this stuff for inside-cupboard decoration. Just put tinsel in there,” he says, somewhat cryptically. After noting the inefficiency of buying lots of small pouches of rice when the Booths might have invested in one really big bag of rice, he moves on to the pulses section, shouting, as he pulls out one tin after another, “Beans! Beans! Beans!… there’s beans everywhere!”

An experiment: go to your kitchen, open one of your dry store cupboards, have a little poke around, and see if you can replicate what Wallace did. Do bear in mind that these are your own cupboards, not those of another family you met briefly today, when you jumped them in the supermarket. I’ll wager that, regardless of your living circumstances – detached house or cramped studio, good sound insulation or paper walls – and regardless of how understanding your partner, neighbours, children and pets are, you will not be able to do it. You will be unable to shout “tomatoes!” or “yeast!” or “nutmeg from 2009!”

What kind of a man is it, then, that can?

Who is Gregg Wallace, and what is he trying to tell us?

***

In the gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 1-2, it is written: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was with the beginning with God.”

“Word”, a translation of the classical Greek logos, here describes the concept of a universal divine reason that exists in the material world, yet which transcends all the imperfections inherent in it. A common interpretation here is that Christ is the logos, as incarnation of this duality of the immanent and the divine.

In contrast, a common interpretation of Gregg Wallace is as a greengrocer, albeit a very successful one. A greengrocer who somehow lucked his way into a lucrative presenting career, a Loose Women, OK!-magazine-on-a-slow-week level of celebrity, and an eventful marital history, thanks to his peculiar anti-talent for shouting the basic qualities of foodstuffs at amateur cooks, while pulling facial expressions that are as baroque as his language is plain.

As the New Statesman’s Rachel Cooke wrote in her review of the most recent series of Celebrity Masterchef, “Fifteen years into his reign at the Masterchef franchise, and [Wallace] still operates in an adjectival realm in which lemons are lemony, cream is creamy and potatoes are, probably, potato-y.” And it is true that, in Wallace world, lamb might be described as “rich and meaty”, a lemon is “zingy and sharp”, garlic butter has a “buttery richness” and chilli sauce a “real kick of chilli heat”.

So Wallace might be seen as a mere cheerful interloper among culinary sophisticates, representative of every TripAdvisor gourmand who ever wrote “the burger was tasty and cooked to perfection”, a populist rejoinder to proper food critics. (On Masterchef, these creatures of broadsheet privilege are confined to appearing in one round.)

[see also: Celebrity Masterchef returns – and never in the entire history of television has a show been so misleadingly titled]

What this view misses, however, is the role of the ideal in Wallace’s work. Far from espousing crudity, he offers a version of essentialism for the quantum age; one where insisting on an ingredient’s unalterable nature, crucially, does not obscure the human agency of the culinary act, as long as it results in “a really good plate of food”.

On Masterchef, “a really good plate of food” is that which articulates its ingredients’ ineluctable this-ness, as well as the talent of the chef. A “really good plate of food” proclaims from on high that the lamb is rich and meaty, the lemon is zingy and sharp. A really good plate gives us the peachiest peach, the butteriest butter or the blossomest blossom, a kind of Plate-tonic ideal. In this light, Wallace is less bellowing slaphead stuffing his face on national television for the umpteenth time, and more high priest performing a rite of sacred forms, loud hailer of the chocolate logos – the culinary commingling of the human, seasonal and contingent with the ineffable and the divine.

Similarly, when Wallace shouts “beans!” into the cupboard of a family he has only recently met, he is not merely recording that family’s predilection for expensive bouts of bean buying, but celebrating noisily the quintessence of beanhood.

Wallace’s approach is generous. It broaches the difficulty of describing to an audience elaborate, fussy food by using simple, unfussy terms they can immediately understand, all through a persona animated by simple delight (his favourite word). Wallace’s madeleine would be nothing so fancy as that, but something indisputably comforting and uncomplicatedly delicious – steamed chocolate pudding and custard, or jam roly-poly, or an apple crumble that made up for a whole week of terrible school dinners. His insistence on the plainest means of expression emphasises food as something we all share and enjoy – a communitarian politics of the common pud.

***

It may be in Inside the Factory that Wallace’s method finds its purest form. Here, Wallace and co-presenter Cherry Healey interrogate the modern industrial processes servicing the Great British public’s appetite for its most popular victuals, including tea, Bakewell tarts, crisps, pasties and tinned soup. In recent series it has also examined non-comestible areas of national life, such as wax jackets and mattresses.

The first thing to note is how extraordinarily pleased Wallace and Healey – ever eager to demonstrate that it is possible to be both credulous and incredulous at the same time – are to see everyone. If the TV work ever did dry up, Wallace could charge vast sums teaching politicians and royals the secret of his Greggariousness – how to arrive at an industrial unit on a grey day rocking a hi-vis tabard, or a hard hat, or a self-ironising hairnet, talk to some normal folk, and then pretend to help them out by pressing a few buttons or tipping something into a feed, all without looking stiff or condescending or awkward.

Inside the Factory has also seen Wallace cultivate a talent for getting very excited by quantities. Take this typical exchange from the “Keeping Britain Going: Toilet Roll Update” special:

“How many rolls are there on that lorry?” he asks his handler.

“52,000 rolls.”

Wallace considers what he has learned in his time at the factory so far.

 “So that lorry would last me… 500 years?”

 “Yep, that would last you around 500 years.”

Over at the pasty factory, he enquires: “So, how much swede have you got in there now?”

“2.1 tonnes on this delivery.”

“2.1 tonnes of swede! How many pasties will that make?”

“184,000 pasties.”

“Crikey!”

It was, for personal reasons, this episode that I found the most affecting. With its sad grey meat and flaccid puff pastry, the Ginsters pasty is something I had hitherto associated with the most abject moments of self-abasement – with poor choices made in the chiller aisle at petrol stations and savage, wriggling-on-a-pin hangovers, all intersecting with complex feelings of guilt and shame at betrayal of my Cornish heritage.

And yet, through Wallace’s mad, pantomime eyes, the mass-produced pasty becomes not a source of shame but a thing of substance and wonder. (Pasties, it transpires, can be used to generate power via their ability to produce methane, regardless of whether someone has digested them first.) And the pasty factory becomes not a place of industrial ugliness, but an arcadia where “the meat emerges as uniform 5mm-thick ribbons of mince” and employees sport and gambol among machinery producing “one continuous sheet of dough with microscopic layers of fat inside it”.

***

And so perhaps, in the end, for all his high-wire metaphysics, Wallace offers us two simple truths, and the rest is mere cupboard tinsel. First, when meeting somebody you haven’t met before, at least look like you’re happy to see them. Second, make the most of what you find, wherever you find it. Wallace urges us, in these straitened, locked down times, to probe deep into the apparently unremarkable store cupboards of our lives, locate the joy of the thing within, and testify.

[see also: How the new Question Time format shows the Goggleboxing of our politics]

Peter Williams is the New Statesman's head of production