It’s difficult to discern the line between Gary Maclean’s recently-acquired twin identities as TV’s MasterChef: The Professionals 2016 winner and as Scotland’s first national chef. Both roles have propelled him into near-celebrity status, with the attendant ever-growing appointments diary. He says his life has changed dramatically since taking on both, yet the baseline under it all is his life-long vocation as a food educator: the father-of-five has been a senior lecturer at City of Glasgow College for decades, even during his career as a restaurant chef.
Distilling all that into one cookbook must have been a quite a challenge, then.
“It took me a year and it was really hard,” he admits brightly when we meet in the teaching kitchen at the college (see my photo above), where he’s preparing a £125-a-head dinner with former fellow contestants on his MasterChef team while helping students follow the guest chefs’ recipes. “I knew from the get-go how difficult it could be. I naively thought I had a book already there, because I had lots of recipes written down. I assumed it would be a case of picking 150 and that would be it, job done.
“But then we realised that the vast majority of them were for pastry [sweet dishes]. Chefs don’t write down savoury recipes, because all the technique, understanding, method, is all in your head. I didn’t have any savoury recipes, save for risotto or what I’d written for magazines.
“So I had to dump all 150, plus five days’ worth of photography of dishes I’d spent days and days writing and preparing, and start again.”
His second pitch to the publisher - whom he knew as a contributor, while head chef at Yes in Glasgow, to its 1999 chefs’ recipe book, Glasgow On A Plate, edited by Ferrier Richardson – was somewhat more refined.
“I started from the ingredients. When it comes to cooking, everybody seems to on autopilot, buying and cooking the same things week in week out, and even parking in the same spot at the supermarket. From my experience of teaching and demonstrating, these are intelligent people – heart surgeons, F1 engineers - who for one reason or another just can’t cook and have got into the trap of reproducing the same half-dozen or so meals on rotation.
“I want people to get off autopilot, start using their brains and think about what they are going to cook and eat. I reckon the skills I can pass on to achieve that are based on me being a dad, a teacher and a chef.”
He describes his book as “for grown-ups for whom cooking is a complete mystery” – the modern generations who have grown up on ready meals, out-of-home eating and working mums, who lack the knowledge about cooking from scratch once handed down from their mothers and grandmothers. “It’s like teaching a common-sense cookery course. There’s nothing gimmicky,” he says.
All the same, it does look pretty sophisticated. The artful photography is achingly aspirational and there are recipes for such delights as salt pickled beetroot, duck leg confit, lemon sole tempura. There are plenty of Asian and Morroccan-inspired dishes too. And pakora. And there’s a foreward by Marcus Wareing, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Marcus in London’s Knightsbridge, who as a MasterChef: The Professionals judge described Maclean’s cooking as having “nailed the flag of Scotland to the mast of the MasterChefUK kitchen”. Which could, I suggest, be quite daunting for the nervous home cook.
“They’re not difficult at all, they’re all easy,” he responds when I challenge the simplicity of, say, rustling up a lamb tagine or potato and Parmesan gnocchi. “It’s all about planning ahead and spending a bit of time.” In other words, prioritising food as an essential – and enjoyable - part of our lives.
To be fair, alongside these are the solid foundation dishes such as pea and ham soup, whole roast chicken, braised beef and chips. He also gives an extremely useful step by step instruction - in 1000 words - on how to chop an onion. There’s also instuction on how to joint a chicken, brown meat properly on a high heat to intensify the flavour (most of us tend to be fearful of this and timidly put it on too low a heat), use up leftovers, use a slow cooker, and bake blind. There is Millennial material aplenty: ramen, chicken katsu curry, mac’n’cheese, braised pigs’ cheek, all highly suitable for round-the-table with friends.
He devotes an entire section explaining the benefits of planning. “Cooking is a serious business,” he writes. “I can think of nothing that will improve your diet and wallet more than planning. Food is expensive, but if you spend a little time each week planning what you are going to buy you will save a fortune, you’ll learn new cookery skills - and it can be the start of a much more varied diet.” Batch cooking is one of his favourite things to do at home: he devotes a day to it once a week and cooks to music. This can save time in the kitchen during the week, and he gives vital advice on how to store food safely.
He wrote his book on the table in his open plan living/dining room at home, wearing earphones to block out the telly and using a highlighter pen to mark off each item on his notebook as he worked through his list. Surrounded by family, colleagues and students for most of his life, he describes the writing process as “a very lonely, solitary job”. Yet throughout there is a running commentary from Maclean the teacher on each page, his voice guiding us through the minutiae of getting to grips with the cooking-from-scratch habit.
Although he mentions Scotland rarely if at all, it’s possible to discern his Glaswegian accent in the little expressions he uses - “Tuesday tea”, a “wee bit” and “I like to get that out the way” - which I find both charming and reassuring. The photography was done in the gardens of City of Glasgow college, with Painting & Decorating students providing the backgrounds.
I’m curious, though. He focuses his entire working life on promoting Scotland and Scottish produce, yet not as an author. Was that intentional? “The book isn’t Scottish, it’s homey,” he says. “It has to attract a UK and international audience. Cullen Skink is in there because it’s a cracking soup at any time.”
As National Chef - a 20-days-a-year unpaid post he started around a year ago - he works from an electronic diary shared with his contact at the Scottish Government. He regularly puts in many extra hours, teaching at schools, doing demos, running campaigns and putting in guest appearances at events. “I get lots of requests every day,” he says, “But I said that whatever I do, it has to involve young people and food education.”
He says he never stops learning, and that he one thing he has taken from the role is food poverty. “Kids are going hungry in Scotland,” he says. “Summer hunger – when they don’t get enough to eat during the school holidays … I’ve seen a lot of that.” Can he influence Government policy on this – and indeed on its Good Food Nation ambitions?
“I’ve met amazing, fantastic politicians from all sides,” he answers cautiously. “I haven’t met anybody I don’t like. Everybody has great intentions; they all want to do the right thing. But I don’t really want to get involved in politics.”
He clearly prefers to lead by example. And interesting coda to the main body of the book is that there are no specific recipes for children. “There is no kids’ food in the book, there’s the food my own kids like getting engaged with using two hands – rolling, wrapping, folding, even clearing away and storing,” he says. “That’s how they will connect with food.”
He reckons children’s menus in restaurants should be banned. “I believe they’re half the problem. If you make it different from what adults eat, then real food will terrify them. They’ll think, ‘how bad must it be if they have to hide it from me?’
“I believe the most important job of a parent – or any adult entrusted with the care of young children - is teaching kids to cook. Cooking is a life skill that really does mean life.”
* Kitchen Essentials: The Joy of Home Cooking, by Gary Maclean, is published by Black & White on October 18, 2018, at £20.
[This exclusive interview was first published in The Herald Arts & Books Magazine, October 13, 2018.]