The Australian-British celebrity chef, restaurateur and cookbook author John Torode has brought his culinary prowess to television as a host and on-camera personality in a number of series. He is a judge and co-presenter of MasterChef UK and Celebrity MasterChef UK, previously also fronting Junior MasterChef UK. He also hosts John & Lisa’s Weekend Kitchen for ITV and has, more recently, fronted several series that combine the food and travel genres. Torode was recently awarded an MBE on the Queen’s select Platinum Jubilee list for services to the food industry, broadcasting and charity.
His latest, John Torode’s Ireland, is a six-part discovery+ original that sees Torode dive into the local culture of the Emerald Isle—from the seafood of Kerry to the lamb of Connemara, the Victorian pubs of Dublin and the Michelin-starred restaurants of the Dingle Peninsula. The series is being sold internationally by Parade Media. John Torode’s Ireland, produced by Cornelia Street Productions, premieres at 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 21, on Food Network and will also be available to stream on discovery+.
TV REAL: When did TV first intersect with your career as a chef?
TORODE: It was in the early years of my being in London. I trained as a chef in Australia, and then came to London when I was 25. I did a short film about food of the world called World on a Plate for Helen Williams at the daytime program This Morning [on ITV]. I loved doing it; it was great fun. After we finished filming, I said to her, If you ever want anybody else to do some more telly, I’d love to do it. She looked at me and went, “Really? Lovely, brilliant!” And the next thing you know, they got me into the studio to do a screen test. That’s where it started, in 1996.
TV REAL: What brought you to Ireland for the new series?
TORODE: The lockdown during the pandemic had such a huge effect upon productions everywhere. You couldn’t really travel, and distance became a bit of a tyranny, because the further away from home you were, the more difficult it became to do something like that. And also, Sarah [Sapper] and David [Kerr], who run Cornelia Street, were interested in the food and lives of people closer to home—rather than many things I’d done before like [in] Asia, the Middle East and various places in Australia. We had a conversation about it. Ireland was so close that we were able to fit it within our schedules to go back and forth.
The beauty of it came in the fact that we realized that we could actually do a series over a period of about six months, rather than normally when you do a food series, you do it very quickly—five or six weeks. This time it was six months, which meant we saw the change of seasons, various different parts of Ireland and the way the world worked a little bit more. We realized very quickly, after the first couple of days of filming, that there was just so much to see, so much to talk about and so much to do—far more than we ever anticipated.
TV REAL: What did you learn on your journey that surprised you the most?
TORODE: Very quietly and in a way that is unsuspecting, Ireland is going about this extraordinary food revolution. When you think about Ireland as a country, you probably think of an Irish stew or something similar to that. But actually, the influx of people into Ireland as immigrants over many decades has had a massive impact upon the food of Ireland and the people who produce it.
One of the things that we really hit upon was the amazing partnerships between husband and wife—sometimes from different cultures. For instance, we had a couple who made smoked salmon. He was an Irish lad who owned a pub, and his wife had a smokery that smoked salmon. She shared her love of Nordic food, pickling, smoking and everything else, and she realized that Irish salmon was so wonderful that she could take on this amazing project. What is really evident throughout Ireland is this amazing influence that has come over many generations and decades into food to make it what it is today. The food of Ireland is extremely varied; it’s really exciting and unique in the fact that it’s taken on so many different cultures. One of the other things that’s happened is that a lot of young Irish people have returned to Ireland with the influence of other countries, especially in their food and culture, and set up their own little places doing amazing things. The international influence upon Ireland is enormous, and its food revolution is great; the quality of food throughout the whole of Ireland is unbelievable.
TV REAL: Being that travel has had its restrictions and filming some new protocols, did you encounter any challenges during production?
TORODE: One of the things we took advantage of was social distancing. We realized fairly quickly that to have contributors be able to talk to us, we needed to have more than one person. Therefore, this idea of a combination of partners—husband and wife, people who lived together or whatever it may be—became something of an advantage for us. We got so much out of these two people because they could be next to each other, have a conversation and talk to each other, whereas I would have to step away. As far as the shot is concerned on camera, it didn’t look bad for the fact that it was the two of them and then me having a conversation.
A great example was at Redmond Farm, run by two brothers who are builders. They also own hotels and grow their own beef and vegetables. Because we were able to talk to them together and go out to the farms, we were able to explore a lot more. People were willing to show us the land and the landscape a lot more than just concentrating on their own little world.
It did have its challenges. You’ve got to think about the size of your crews and have a smaller crew. You’ve got to think about the distance you travel, when you travel and how you travel and having your own little pods of people who work together. But we took advantage of those and used them to get the great content that we did—and we have got some fantastic content.
TV REAL: What do you hope that viewers take away from having watched this series?
TORODE: I always try to go about a journey not as somebody with superior knowledge, but as somebody who just wants to learn. What I love about traveling and food is that I get to meet people and experience things and go into homes and situations that many people never experience. I hope that [this series] opens up a little bit of a real world as to what goes on, not just the world of restaurants or hotels or food markets, but the real side of the people who make the yogurt or the cheesecakes, the people who smoke the salmon, the people who brew the beer or make the meat. I hope that people see that there’s a lot more to actually how food and drink come about and where it comes from and the true love and excitement that comes from these people who spend their lives wanting to produce great food. There’s a great love of food and great love to show off Ireland, and I hope that comes across in the series.
TV REAL: What do you think is the global appeal of John Torode’s Ireland?
TORODE: There are so many of us who know something about Ireland, and there are so many of us who have a little attachment to Ireland. So many of my ancestors came from different parts of Ireland—some of my father’s side of the family, some of my mother’s side. We went to the Guinness Brewery, for instance, and they have kept a journal and log of every single person who’s ever worked at Guinness. So, if you think that maybe one of your family members was in Dublin at some time or somewhere else where there was a Guinness brewery, you may be able to find out a little bit more about your family.
Everybody there is so enthusiastic about wanting to show you around and talk about music and culture. Then you walk out the door and you are in this amazing country that has got the most beautiful landscape. Yes, at times it’s a little bit wild and woolly, but that’s the beauty of it; it’s this amazing, natural place. I think that will bring a lot of people to it. I do hope that John Torode’s Ireland will make people go to Ireland—and not just fly to Dublin or Belfast, but jump in a car and discover the mountains or maybe go down to Cork and discover the old markets; just to go out a little bit more than they normally would.
One of the things that we as people do now when we travel is that we actually travel. We don’t just go to stay in a hotel for a week and wander around a bit and go to the shopping center. We travel, and Ireland is brilliant for that. A couple of days here in a hotel, a couple of days there in a hotel, and you’ll see so much! As you cross counties, you’ll experience completely different things, almost like you’re experiencing different cultures. I love that about Ireland.
TV REAL: Do you think viewers get to see another side of you in John Torode’s Ireland than what they’ve seen on television before?
TORODE: I think so. When you’re discovering new worlds like in the Middle East or Asia, it’s lots of foods that many people do not know about. What I’ve done here is demystify things that many people do know about, but just never had any idea of how they’re made or created or the amount of work and energy that goes into them. Ireland is an extraordinary [food] producer and island, whether that be for fishing or farming. We are talking about a small island that is surrounded by water—land and sea come together. For me, it was about indulging in this great culture, which I knew a little bit about, but not very much. I’ve got to say to the Irish people: Excuse me for my ignorance; I’m sorry and should have been there a long time ago.
TV REAL: How has the food genre of TV programming evolved over the years, and what type of shows in this space do you feel are resonating best with viewers these days?
TORODE: People want to see the real stuff. Food and television have changed in the fact that people want to see really real food; they don’t want to necessarily see made-up, make-believe food. When they want to see travel, people want to see that they can actually do it and be involved in it themselves, be inspired by it and at the same time, not feel challenged by it. It shouldn’t be a challenge; it should be something that is obtainable and accessible. It should be egalitarian; it should be all-in immersive.
For instance, when we go to little towns or places in Ireland, it’s about being able to actually walk up a street, go into a pub and buy something that really exists there. There was this amazing little pub where out the back was a lady making toast sandwiches in a van using extraordinary Irish produce. Then, once you’ve got your toast sandwich, you can go back to the pub and have yourself a pint. It’s not a movie set, it’s not made up; it’s real.
When we do go away now, food has become such an important part of that journey. Where we go to eat and how we experience that as a cultural thing, regardless of where we go in the world, is really important. For me, that’s what is exciting, and food television can take people there.
TV REAL: What’s next on your wish list for television work?
TORODE: I feel as though I’m blessed in what I do, but the pandemic has put a little bit of a dent in the timeline of what I would like to be doing. I would love to go back to Australia, especially Australia’s west coast—it’s still barren, and a lot of it is unseen. I still haven’t been to Japan. Food is able to break down all barriers of language. I found that out when I went to Argentina and was able to cook food among people who did not know English. We were able to sit and cook together because there’s an amazing international language to preparing food.
I want to inspire people and give them a helping hand in understanding that food shouldn’t be frightening; it should be exciting; it should be interesting. As an Aussie, I’ve always been told, and I’ve always preached, that good food should be accessible to everybody. That’s what Ireland has done. There’s a lot of the world to discover where that still exists as well. That means getting out there as much as I possibly can.