Gary Maclean: Scotland's food needs to go back to basics

Written by Tom Freeman on 14 February 2018 in Inside Politics

How MasterChef winner and national chef Gary Maclean plans to cook up a better diet for Scotland

Scotland's national chef Gary Maclean - David Anderson/Holyrood

If celebrity chefs are the new rock stars, then Gary Maclean’s life is certainly fitting the bill. After winning a reality TV show, he increasingly gets recognised in the street, embarks on overseas tours and is writing the obligatory book. 

But amid the whirlwind of selfies and autographs that has followed his victory in MasterChef: The Professionals, Maclean recognises that the culture which surrounds it is part of the problem.

“Good cooking is a hobby, a spectator sport,” he tells Holyrood.

“Obviously I’ve seen it in the reactions to MasterChef. Everybody will comment on how amazing a dish was and everything else, but are they transferring that passion onto their own plates? I don’t think so. It’s like football. We’re a nation that watches football but we’re not playing it.”

Perched on a high stool in a kitchen in City of Glasgow College, where he teaches, it is clear that Maclean’s keen interest in food culture in Scotland has been just as important as his public profile in his elevation to the new position of national chef.

Holyrood’s interview is sandwiched between a gig cooking a Burns supper for the Prime Minister and friends in Downing Street and a trip to India with a student to take part in the international Young Chef Olympiad.

Maclean says the lifestyle is not that unusual for a chef.

“The reality is when you’re a chef, you’re working in environments that people aspire to be in, whether it’s a five-star hotel or Number 10. I think that’s just part and parcel of being a chef.”

But a long-running appearance in a television show means people have seen Maclean in high pressure situations and therefore there is a sense of familiarity from strangers who feel they already know him. 

He describes the editing on reality shows as “incredible”, distilling key moments from hours of footage. There is a sense Maclean was cautious about how he came across.

“I think any competitor on these type of shows, as long as they can go in and be themselves, whatever that might be, people can buy into it,” he says. 

“To be fair, it is cast as well, so I didn’t get on the show because of what I’d done before or anything like that, I was cast because I was good at talking and they didn’t have another bald guy with a beard, you know?"

Maclean took two fellow MasterChef competitors with him to cook a Burns supper for Theresa May, both of whom relished the occasion.

“I also brought one of my best friends with us, who helped supply the food and stuff, so it was amazing to be in that environment with three people I really love to bits. You don’t normally get that either, so it was a pretty special occasion.”

There is no sense Maclean felt under any additional pressure cooking for the Prime Minister.

“The reality is it is a plate of food. It’s a plate of food, that’s it. I don’t get under pressure for that. Real things get me under pressure. Issues with life and stuff like that, that’s the sort of stuff people should be pressured about.”

Anyone who has watched MasterChef would argue that a professional kitchen is a very high-pressure workplace.

Maclean says his experience doing live spots on STV2 kept him relaxed on set.

“By the time I got to MasterChef, I couldn’t care less about the cameras,” he says.

“I couldn’t care less about Greg Wallace and all that. I just thought ‘I’m going to do what I do. That’s it.’ And I did. I didn’t really change what I cooked, the style of food or try to be more clever than I am.”

Becoming Scotland’s first national chef, however, “certainly” brings pressure and responsibility. Maclean describes it as a long-term project which starts with “planting little acorns”.

The role is designed to raise awareness of sustainable and healthy eating ahead of planned Good Food Nation legislation, and to promote locally sourced, locally produced food and drink. 

But Maclean recognises the public health challenges Scotland faces before it can claim to be a ‘good food nation’, with two-thirds of the population overweight or obese, leading to poor health outcomes and with a clear gap in behaviours between the richest and poorest in society.

Despite there being “a lot of doctors, a lot of politicians, a lot of people really passionate about getting that sick image of Scotland away from us”, Maclean doesn’t believe anyone has “one right fix”.

“There is definitely a passion for food in Scotland. We have the most amazing produce but we still have the worst diet in Europe, so there’s something gone wrong in the middle,” he says.

The problem, according to Maclean, is “100 per cent cultural”, which goes back to the relationship with food, which has changed with every generation.

“Our kids aren’t seeing our food first hand. We’ve lost the relationship with home cooking,” he says.

“Your parents probably didn’t cook; my parents’ generation didn’t cook. My grandparents, who were born in 1910, they were the last generation who were really cooking in the house every day, so it’s 100 years ago. We’re talking   one hundred years of change. I think we’ve lost that ability to pass down those skills, those basic, basic culinary skills to survive.”

Like many keen cooks, Maclean’s own relationship with food grew out of a reaction to his diet as a child. As part of a large family growing up in the Glasgow suburb of Knightswood in the 1970s and 80s, his diet was “typical of that era”.

When Maclean lambasted convenience food during a television appearance his brother contacted him via social media to say “you grew up on that”, only for his mother to quip back: “No, you never, because we couldn’t afford it.”

“My mum had to cook – veg badly, mince boiled, and egg, chips and beans for dinner. It’s maybe not quite as bad as convenience food, but it’s not good eating.”

However, the family diet was also a product of the times.

“When you look back, even trying to find fresh vegetables other than cabbage, carrots, tatties and leeks, it was a different world.”

Despite this, Maclean took an interest in cooking but the possibility of becoming a chef “didn’t feel like a career option” at a time when “nobody spoke about a career”. 

Apart from Chinese, Indian and Italian establishments, he remembers only three restaurants in Glasgow, all of which were too expensive to eat in. 

“I remember someone saying to me, ‘you should be a chef’ and I thought how the hell do you become a chef? 

“I just got lucky. My brother got me a job out in the Trossachs. I asked him to see if he could get me a job washing dishes so I could see the kitchen and what it was like, and I got the call back saying, ‘I couldn’t get you a job as a dishwasher, I got you a job as a chef’. That was me. I was 15 years old. 

“It was a really nice country house hotel, local produce, beer, pheasant coming in in feather. We had time share. It was just a different world and I loved it.”

The early years were not spent “chasing the money”, which allowed him to develop his skills, skills he now passes onto students. 

After doing part-time night classes at the college, he was asked in to cover a class.

“I ended up covering that class for 13 years. A day a week for 13 years, every Wednesday. I had massive jobs, I was running G1 group and was exec chef for Buzzworks in Ayrshire and all that, but when I sat for an interview for any of these jobs, I’d say I’m off every Wednesday because that’s when I teach. 

“There were no meetings and no restaurant was launched on a Wednesday because I was here.”

Teaching has also helped his career, allowing him to enter national competitions.

“Much as I’ve had amazing jobs and won awards and things, I don’t think my career really kicked off until I went full time teaching in 2010,” he says.  

Teaching has not been restricted to the classroom either. Maclean talks about going into high schools with City of Glasgow College to do culinary demonstrations and talks on nutrition.
“For me that was an amazing experience,” he remembers.

“Fundamentally, we need to get our kids educated in food. It shouldn’t be seen as a secondary subject. I think it’s as important as maths and physics. If you’re rubbish at physics, it doesn’t mean you die at 50 because you don’t know how to cook. People learning to cook, and I’m not talking about terrines or something like that, I’m talking about cooking a bit of chicken, being able to boil veg properly, things like that.”

Home economics as a subject at school, according to Maclean, has become too focused on potential careers in the hospitality industry.

“I would say that subject is much more important to the nation than just trying to recruit the next generation of chefs. 

“There’s been a lot done on physical education and how important that is but fundamentally, if you have a kid running around for two hours a day and then they go and have a sausage supper for lunch, it doesn’t matter. Those two hours are gone. I think physical education and food education should be closer linked.”

Food education must start in the early years, Maclean argues, especially when children are not seeing cooking at home. 

“It’s a long-term battle and we have to be starting with our five-year-olds. If they’re not seeing that food at home, they should be seeing it at school.”

But with both parents in many families now having to work, many say they just do not have time to cook.

“I think they don’t have the skill so they don’t have the time,” says Maclean.

“I think a lot of people try a bit of cooking and they car crash. And we’re all creatures of habit. Everybody is cooking – or just heating up – six or seven things in a week and they go in a cycle. ‘Wee Johnny likes that,’ or ‘my husband likes that,’ and no one is prepared to take the risk and change.

“Even folk who cook are cooking the same things.

“We shop on the same day, in the same supermarket. We park in a similar place, we get our trolley from the same bit, and we go round the supermarket picking up the same stuff we picked up the week before. You go home, take the chicken out of the bottom of fridge and put it in the bin, and replace it with the chicken you’ll put in the bin next week. That’s it. That’s the world.”

It is a problem which some other countries do not have, Maclean points out. 

“If you’re an Italian, you mum is showing you how to cook. She’s showing you how to cook in an organised way, as well as flavour, seasoning, purchasing, everything. So, all those life skills are being passed down by parents. In Britain we’re not teaching our children to cook. We aren’t teaching those life skills because we aren’t doing it.”

Maclean gives the example of Bridging the Gap, a community charity in the Gorbals which works with refugee families from all over the world.

“Each time they meet, one or two of the group do the cooking and they cook food from their country, and they’ve still got it, the food culture.”

Another example of sharing cooking skills are projects for children who receive free school meals which gather parents in the school holidays to cook for their children. Maclean himself has volunteered with Meals and More.

“They are learning skills, the kids are getting a nutritious meal and having fun and the parents are buying into it. It’s not like a handout. The parents have cooked the lunch. They’re learning skills and the kids are getting fed.”

Projects like this are “just not enough”, says Maclean, adding, “it’s a shame it has to be charity”.

So, what can he bring to the national chef role? Maclean sees the position as one which will “have the ear of people making decisions”, although he says he will not use it as a soapbox. So what will he say, then?

“As a member of the general public we hear advice we are given. It comes down from leafy heights. There was one about ‘ten a day’. If you have an individual who isn’t having any in a day and they now hear they need ten, it’s just so far removed from where they are. It’s an impossible hurdle, so they don’t bother.

“I don’t think Scottish people are any different, but I don’t think anybody likes being told what to do. We have to work with people who want to do it.”

Scotland has shown it can be bold in legislation like the smoking ban. Maclean says food and drink is more complicated, but it does need the same “ethos, impetus and ambition”.

He isn’t keen on the sugar tax, however.

“I don’t think the sugar tax thing is going to work. People won’t change because something goes up a few pence. 

“Things like tackling sugary drinks, energy drinks. Things are being done about it but you could stop that at source. Look at the new Irn-Bru, which has half the sugar but tastes the same to me.”

Didn’t the manufacturer do that to avoid the sugar tax, though?

“Maybe someone at Barr’s is thinking for the people as well, it’s not all about that pound. I bet it’ll cost them more to make. Sugar’s cheap and that’s why it is in all the food.”

If tax and public health diktats are not the answer, how else can Scotland replicate the ambition of the smoking ban when it comes to food? His forthcoming book will focus on the basics.

“I think it starts at nursery, introducing young people to fresh food. The other thing is people need to know how to cook food. There’s no point in handing a kid a cabbage and they hand it to someone else who cooks it for 40 minutes. 

“I love cabbage, but I couldn’t eat one that had been cooked for 40 minutes.” 

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