We meet the original MasterChef maestro to talk about his sauce, music, and love of crisps.
Loyd Grossman arrives for our 8:30am breakfast meeting at The Wolseley and orders fruit salad and a pot of Lapsang souchong. The 62-year-old is looking pretty dapper in a dark blue suit, crisp white shirt and tortoise shell sunglasses. “I flew in from New York last night,” he tells me as he pours his tea.
He first arrived on these shores from his native Boston aged 24 and began working as a journalist. “When I arrived in London, every cliché about British food was enjoying a great deal of currency!” After 38 years in the UK he’s surely close to going native, yet he can still recall that outsider’s view of things. “In the mid 1970s - when only perhaps 50% of the population actually went to restaurants - a perfectly normal middle-aged couple would walk in to have dinner, and they'd look terrified.”
We briefly discuss that most British of subjects, the weather. “Back then, if there was ever a hot day or warm evening, literally the only place you could sit outside in London was one of two Greek restaurants on Charlotte Street.” We are, he agrees, eating in a much less intimidating space today. “The amazing thing, aside from the fact that we're eating more exciting things than ever before, is the social democratisation of the restaurant.”
So the young Yank hack got a job at that most British of publications, Harpers & Queen. “In those days there were only a few publications in the country that had restaurant critics; Fay Maschler at the Evening Standard, Bevis Hillier on Vogue. The restaurant Critic for Harper’s went off on holiday without filing her copy, so the editor asked me to fill in for her, and that was in 1981.”
Journalism led to TV work, including Through the Keyhole, but in 1990 a new competitive cookery show devised by Quadrophenia director Franc Roddam hit the airwaves. “I was never really interested in the competitive element of the show - how do you compare couscous to say a fish pie? It was just a clever mechanism to allow a professional chef, a celebrity who enjoyed food, and an amateur cook to talk about cooking, that had never happened before.”
The winner of the first series was Joan Bunting, who cooked mussels stuffed with pistou; quails stuffed with couscous with pine nuts, raisins and spring cabbage; and ‘floating islands’ - pretty racy stuff for 1990s Britain.
“It was a very new experience for the contestants, they’d never been in a studio, or cooked in a strange kitchen, and there was nothing to compare it too,” Loyd tells me. “Now anyone who’s on any competition is doing it because they want to be a celebrity, they want to wallow in that transient fame, whereas the people on MasterChef just wanted to cook. When you watch some of the music talent competitions, when every contestant was asked why they’re doing it, not a single one said ‘because I love music’.”
In 1995 Loyd launched his own brand of sauce in conjunction with a food manufacturer (it’s produced under licence by Premier Foods). “When I started making my food, I was never going to be in a position when I rented out my name - the fun of it is actually doing it,” he tells me. It wasn’t always fun to begin with however.
“The first time I had an appointment with a buyer for a major supermarket, I took a jar of sauce out of my briefcase and he said, ‘tell me about the sauce’. So I said, ‘well it’s made with extra-virgin olive oil and crushed tomatoes,’ and he stopped me right there. ‘No, how much are you going to sell it for?’ he asked. I said ‘Well, I think £1.29 for 350ml’. At that point he went absolutely ashen, leaned over his desk - and he was quite a big guy - and said, ‘if my wife spent more than 99p for 500ml… I’d kill her’. And I thought ‘I can’t believe I’m getting involved in this”’!
It’s clear that after nearly 20 years of doing it, Loyd is genuinely devoted to his range of sauces. He’s on record as saying, “with my name on the pot, I feel personally responsible and accountable for what is contained in the jar.” So admits to being devastated when in November 2011 a jar of his Korma sauce was found to contain traces of botulism, which hospitalised a family in Glasgow. “It was extremely upsetting. Safety and hygiene are paramount; you just can’t relax over those issues. I have two issues that guide me: safety, and how do you make it taste great.”
Loyd and Premier immediately began a full investigation in conjunction with the FSA, and the problem seems confined to that one particular jar. “We are absolutely satisfied that the jar left the factory in immaculate condition,” he says. The investigation has since focused on transportation.
We move on to food labelling and successive government’s attitudes to the Nation’s health. “How do you label foods as 'good' and 'bad'? Is that just a way of avoiding educating the public in how to have a balanced diet?” he says. “I mean, I love crisps! But when I buy a packet of crisps I don't want a skull and crossbones on the packet, after all I might only eat a packet of crisps once a week. It's eating a packet of crisps three times a day that's not so good for you.” Moderation is the key he tells me. “Unfortunate moderation is the most boring message in the world. So policy makers would much rather say 'let's put a red light on this'”
Do you like hospital food?
Successive government’s approach to catering in the NHS equally draws his ire, as Loyd tried to tackle the poor quality of hospital food. “It’s so bad and could so easily be sorted. But there’s not political willpower to do it. During my involvement with the issue, which lasted five years, I reported to six different Minsters. I spent five years banging my head against a wall with people who didn’t care.”
“So any more plans for telly?” I ask him. “No, it takes up too much time. I hung up my spurs in 2003”. He’s hardly idle though, and though he still clearly loves eating and talking about food, other interests such as his work with The Churches Conservation Trust, The British Association of Friends of Museums and other artistic and charitable organisations demand much of his time. As indeed does music: it’s a pub factoid that Loyd’s punk-influenced band ‘Jet Bronx And The Forbidden’ reached #47 in the charts in 1977 with ‘Ain't Doin' Nothing’. He’s recently reformed the band. “We’re playing tomorrow in Brighton,” he tells me, so he’s clearly not ‘doin’ nothing’ these days. Good food, the arts, music and culture - “would you describe yourself as a bon viveur?” I ask him. “No I don’t think so, as that sort of implies you’re just dabbling in things.” And with that his phone rings, “Peter, I'm just on my way.”
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