Tony Rodd burst on to our TV screens earlier this year in MasterChef. With great facial hair, bow ties, a flair for immaculate desserts and a deft touch with a sous vide machine, he stood out early on. Tony made it to the MasterChef final and since then has left a successful career in recruitment to pursue his love of food. He is a busy man and much in demand; I caught up with him in between his preparation for a dinner party that night and a barbecue the following day.
Where did your love of food begin?
I was brought up by a Greek-Cypriot family, and within that community food is very much about bringing people together: sharing the time, the space, the food, the drink and conversation. It wasn’t fancy. It was often 25 people sitting around the smallest dining table you’ve ever seen, elbow to elbow, with big pots of tasty food in the middle. My nan, who at the time would have been in her seventies, would have spent the day cooking, and everyone just tucked in. It was homely food, but authentic and tasty. That’s where I think my initial love of food came from and understanding what food meant: it was about getting people together.
Did you cook much at home?
When I lived with my mum she pretty much cooked all the time. I was quite studious when I was at home. I used to go an hour and a half to school and back every day. I lived in East London and then Essex, and my mum got me into a very good school. Because of that I had to travel. Being brought up just by my mum, she had to work. So I had to deal with two trains each way, buses and walks from the station, so my day was very much up early, back late, do my homework. I didn’t have time to cook.
When I hit 16 or so I was probably more interested in going out and getting drunk than I was in cooking. When I moved out at 18 I had to fend for myself. I can’t really remember, but there was probably a short period where I lived on ready meals and things like that. From memory I don’t think it was long before I thought, hang on a minute, ready-made meals are awful.
I needed to find something that tasted better and, not having much money, I started to cook and that was it. I was sharing with other people and living on my own between 18 and my early twenties. I was always someone that was interested in cooking: I liked food.
The older I got, the more I appreciated food. The more money I had, the more travelled I was. By doing that I started to get tastes for different types of food. That’s where I think a love of classic French food started, but it still wasn’t something I cooked. If I cooked at home I’d cook what my family called peasant food; cheap cuts of meat slow cooked for flavour and tenderness. It was all about flavour, but didn’t necessarily look nice. I had to change that when I entered MasterChef to accommodate their hour and a half time slots.
Up until MasterChef were you still cooking this more traditional type of food?
I always wanted to try and get a lamb kleftico recipe into MasterChef. It was something that I loved and that my friends and family knew me for, and it tastes great. But realistically I couldn’t get it under an hour and forty five minutes, and it’s really a four hour dish. Making it look pretty on a plate is also quite tricky. I really struggled with that.
When I was coming up with initial ideas I thought, it’s got to look pretty on a plate and it’s got to be done quickly, what can I do? I had to call upon all the meals and flavour combinations I’d eaten and come up with a new style of cooking. It’s now what I’m known for, and I enjoy cooking and eating it, but at the time it was very difficult for me to reset things.
What was it like going into the MasterChef process and coming out of your natural comfort zone?
I think MasterChef itself is about coming out of your comfort zone, because nobody would ever put themselves under that kind of pressure to cook in front of a camera crew, John and Gregg, cook food they aren’t necessarily comfortable with, and have it critiqued quite so strongly. You’re already out of your comfort zone and it’s not like you’re ready for it.
People asked me if I thought I could win. My mum also asked me that and I said no, because you see the quality of the food that people make in the finals and it’s not the kind of food I was ever able to cook. But that’s because I never tried, I never pushed myself. Just by entering the show, you challenge yourself to cook different ingredients, different styles and use different presentation techniques. You do develop as a cook. And that’s all I was doing; I was just trying to cook something I wouldn’t normally cook and essentially I was able to do that.
What style of food do you most enjoy cooking?
To be completely honest I enjoy cooking everything. I really like coming up with the creative ideas, especially flavour combinations and presentation which mean taking something traditional and flipping it on its head. I’m doing a meal in October for an art studio and I’m theming all of my food on the artist, Richard Hamilton, a pop artist from the 60s to the 80s. I’m getting the opportunity to style all my food based on his influences and his presentation. Doing things like that, having that creative outlet, is fun.
I love cooking curries and I love eating curries, but it’s not something I’m ever really going to do professionally as it’s not something I’m known for. Again I never made desserts, but I have great fun creating them because you get to be so outrageous with them. You can’t necessarily get away with that in a savoury course.
Have you always been a naturally creative person?
Yes; I come from a family that were tailors, seamstresses and fashion designers, so I made a lot of my own clothes and was comfortable doing that. I studied Art and Architecture, and that was always a passion of mine. I also spent 13 years recruiting architects so that was my industry. I’ve always been interested in the creative side of life in general, whether that’s music, art, theatre, and bringing that to my food now is something I love doing.
You’re known for your elaborate dishes and great presentation. What are some tips or shortcuts you’ve learned along the way that people could use at home?
For preparation, work out how long things last and what you can prepare in advance. For example, you can make meringues a week in advance and you can freeze them too. I stick mine in a Tupperware box, put them in the cupboard and they’re done. I make my purees days in advance. Again you can freeze them and then just bring them back to the right temperature.
With prepping meat there’s no reason you need to do things at the last minute; get it all done and put it in the fridge. Get your sauces cooked up, maybe not reduced down completely, and just before you’re ready to serve, bring them back to the heat. So when it comes to prepping, I’d always say get as much done as you can in advance, whether that’s just dinner for you and your partner in the evening or a dinner party when you have friends coming over.
I think when it comes to making things visually appealing and serving them, squeezy bottles and piping bags are great tools. If you’ve got a puree or a sauce, you can put that in a squeezy bottle. Put the bottle in a pot of warm or hot water, or if you’ve got a sous vide machine put it in the water bath. This will bring it back up to the temperature that you want. Then when it comes to serving, the sauce is contained in one container. You can then do a nice line or dot or a squiggle; you can do whatever you want to make it look really pretty on a plate.
Likewise if you have mashed potato, piping bags are great. Pop the piping bag with mash into hot water and as long as it’s tightly sealed, you’re not going to let any water in. It’s all self-contained in disposable bags which you can throw away afterwards. You can make it look pretty as you can pipe the potato into a nice shape.
In terms of shortcuts, using these types of tools is good and nobody in the home environment tends to think of that. I learned it in a kitchen with a professional when I did my first popup and I thought it was great. In my kitchen now I can see four squeezy bottles and two piping bags on the side, and there’s probably a load in the fridge.
What cheaper cuts of meat do you recommend for the best taste?
Generally when you look at meat, anything at the front end of the animal is going to be a cheaper cut of meat. They’re working muscles, which means they’re slightly tougher, but have more flavour. As they’re tougher they need to be cooked slower and for longer.
Lamb for example is quite an expensive meat; if you go for a shoulder of lamb rather than a leg of lamb, you’re cutting the price down by a third to a half. It will need to be cooked for twice as long, but the flavour you’ll get out of that is a lot better. That will go for pretty much every cut of meat; the further forward you go, the cheaper you get.
There are always going to be cuts of meat that are more expensive because they’re popular, beef cheeks for example, but that will come in and out of fashion. I always say talk to your butchers and ask what’s cheap and what’s tasty. They’ll give you advice on how to cook it.
Likewise for seafood, if you have a fishmonger, have a chat with them. If you’re going to use cheaper fish, and you’re not going to get loads of flavour out of it, dress it up with a really nice sauce or vegetable. Don’t feel you need to put expensive ingredients on a plate. You can use just a cauliflower and make it taste great.
Who or what inspires you at the moment?
I’m probably most inspired by classic flavour combinations, like Pimm’s and lemonade as a combination. Everybody knows that Pimm’s and lemonade works so I’ve tried to make it weird and wacky by making it into this crazy dessert. On MasterChef I did a black forest gateaux which is a retro pudding. What I decided to do was bring it up to modern times with tempered chocolate, mousses, sponges, gold leafing and chocolate soils to try and flip it on its head.
When I first entered MasterChef I was looking at classic recipes by Michel Roux Jr, who’s my biggest food inspiration. I’d look at people like him and Massimo Bottura, and the guys from Noma and Eleven Madison Park. I think now I’ve realised it’s difficult to get inspired by those guys without copying what they’re doing. Instead what I try and look at, for example, is what flavours Marcus Wareing put together or Michel Roux Jr used in his recipe. Or what flavours work well in a cocktail people like. Then I just use those flavour combinations and work from that.
Sometimes I really just get it wrong, but I will eat anything if you warm it up. I will sit there and say, “Mmm, I love lamb. I love chocolate. I love quince. Quince, chocolate, lamb together – I’m not sure that’s going to work”. But if it’s all on a plate I’ll work through it, but at the end I’ll say, “I’m not doing that again”.
What’s been your biggest disaster?
I don’t know from memory, as you try and forget about it and move on. Those disasters also develop into great menus in the end. I think the disasters I remember more are about technique. I made a jaffa cake pudding and was expecting to knock it out in a couple of hours. I think it took about three days of trial and error to try and get the textures right in the mousses and the sauce, and then the flavours weren’t working through. That was a disaster of three days.
Likewise with my vegan dessert that had no egg, no cream, no butter – it was really hard trying to make a dessert that had a cake, a mousse and ice cream in it without using all those ingredients. In the end it wasn’t a disaster, it was a fantastic dish, but the process itself had some disastrous outcomes.
I’m fortunate because I’ve got the time and the facilities to do this, whereas I know when you’re a home cook you often don’t have the ingredients to waste or the time to dedicate to it. You need to stick to something that’s a bit tried and tested. But what I’d always say to people is stick to something tried and tested when it comes to the technical side, but when it comes to flavour combinations just see what works. If you don’t like parsnips, stick a carrot in instead; don’t feel you need to be restricted by what a recipe says.
I think people would be surprised to know that you do a lot of work out of our small home kitchen. How do you make it work effectively?
I think you need to be quite organised in what you do. It comes down to time management. I won’t necessarily do everything at the last minute. I’ll be preparing all throughout the day or the week, so that I’m only ever looking at one or two things at a time.
You need to work as clean as you can; I don’t mean necessarily just for hygiene purposes, but you can’t be prepping your meat next to your desserts and having it all on the same chopping board. Make sure you have things tidied away. I tend to have a rubbish bowl on the worktop so I’m not back and forward to the bin.
Keeping your fridge organised is really useful. I’ve got a couple of fridges, but if you know your fridge is pretty much empty and you’ve got the space to store stuff hygienically, you’re fine. It’s just about organisation really.
What big things are coming up for you over the next few months?
I’ve got about four or five different areas I’m working on. One of them is private dining, which I’m really enjoying. I get to cook for people in their homes. I get to write bespoke menus for people based around their tastes. I then cook in their kitchens which is obviously quite alien at times. I chat to people’s guests, serve them the food, and it’s a real private personal service that’s fun and creative every time. I’m getting to do this all around the country, which makes it even more interesting. People normally want to eat something interesting so the menus have been really varied and really exciting.
I’m doing supper clubs which are great fun. I’m trying to take these on tour around as many different parts of the country as I can. At the moment it’s pretty much London and the Home Counties, but I’m going to try and take them to the Midlands, the North and ideally Scotland and Wales if I can. There are places that do miss out and I get tweets from people asking when I’m going to come to the North as they want to eat my food, so it would be nice to do that.
I’ve got the night I mentioned with a bespoke artist’s studio doing food based on the work of Richard Hamilton. That’s going to be really exciting as I’m going to get to change the style up to be really creative. I’ve also got something coming up at L’Escargot which will be a real French theme. I’m going to try and go a bit classic French with a burlesque boudoir feel. I might try and make it into a full night with music and entertainment as well.
I’m also working on a book that’s coming along slowly. It’s going to be themed on how to do dinner parties and pretty looking plates of food. It will give people advice and the freedom to be a bit creative, and not just follow the recipes. It’s due out in 2016. I’m also doing a bit of filming for websites and TV. There are two possible TV shows I’m working on. One is me travelling around the country cooking with food producers and farmers. The other is cooking at home with friends and family.
The last thing I’m doing is teaching and demos. I do demo days at food festivals; I’m over in Oxford [for Foodies Festival] on the bank holiday Saturday and then Market Harborough on the Sunday. I’m doing some teaching in Borough Market in October in their little demonstration kitchen. I’m doing teaching at a culinary school in October; they want me to go out and do it for a corporate company in a big stately home. These events are really fun as you get to work with interesting people and just give a little bit back.
Tell me a little more about the different brands you’re working with at the moment.
I’m working with Divine Chocolate, which is a Fairtrade-owned company and is very reputable at what they do. I’m doing some work with the Fairtrade Foundation as well. I’m also working with Movember and am an ambassador for them. I’m doing a couple of launch parties and will be doing a meal raising money for them, plus some promotional stuff.
I’m doing work with Burton Sous Vide. They’re the sous vide brand I tend to use for all of my slow cooking. I love their machine, it’s brilliant. We’re writing some recipes that they can use for their customers, and also some instructive videos to put on their website so people can look at how to use their machine in the home environment. The Burton is the size of a microwave, so it sits on the side in the kitchen. It’s a great tool.
It doesn’t have to be for long cooking; I do some things in it for fifteen minutes and other things can be in there for three days. It doesn’t have to just be meat either. I’m doing my corn on the cob for a barbecue tomorrow in the sous vide first and then finishing it on the barbecue.
Does cooking in a sous vide change the taste of food?
Yes and no. A lot of the time it’s more about controlling the cooking method. For example, you can put corn on the cob on a barbecue and you can find that it burns quite quickly as that barbecue has hot heat. Instead if you cook it slowly so that it becomes nice and tender, when you’re putting it on the barbecue you’re adding in that charred flavour.
I’ll be doing the same with a beef brisket. That’s been cooking for about three days; it’s had a whole day smoking and then two in the sous vide. I’ll put in on the barbecue tomorrow just to finish it up. The beauty is that I know it will be cooked all the way through and because it’s a tough cut of meat, it’s going to be beautifully tender as it’s been cooking for so long. It will still be pink in the middle as I don’t have to cook it at a high heat for a long time.
I’m going to cook my rabbit saddle for a dinner party tonight in the sous vide and then finish it in the oven. The only reason I’m doing that is so it’s safe to eat. I can guarantee that it’s going to be cooked through and I’m not worried. Also I can sit and drink wine with my friends; I’m not going to have to man the stove.
When you get the chance, where do you like to eat out at?
I don’t get out as much as I like to any more as I’m so busy, but I’m going out to Michael Sanders’ pop-up. He was on MasterChef last year. He does a supperclub and has given me loads of advice on how to run mine. I’m really excited about going there as I haven’t been to one of his before. Having said that I did also go to Tredwell’s yesterday!
What’s your favourite ‘secret’ London restaurant to eat at?
Chez Elles Bistroquet on the Whitechapel end of Brick Lane; it’s a tiny little French place run by three French girls right in the middle of an area known for curry houses. It’s the most amazing traditional French food; it looks beautiful, tastes amazing and has a real homely feel about it. If I’m able to eat out, that’s where I eat because the food is, in my opinion, exquisite. It’s one of those little places that not many people know about; it’s well priced, not expensive and it’s in the middle area that you wouldn’t expect. I just think it’s great.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given you so far?
Stick to what you love. There’s no point doing something if you don’t enjoy it. Don’t be afraid to push and challenge yourself. I’ve learned a lot and developed a lot by entering MasterChef, and also afterwards by working with different chefs and trying different things. I never would have been as good now had I not pushed myself. I’d be cooking the same 30 dishes over and over again. I’m only able to do this because I’m willing to take a risk, but whatever I do, I cook stuff I enjoy eating.
Also, cook from the heart. By the last couple of rounds of MasterChef I knew I wasn’t going to win, because Simon was just so good. I got to a point where I realised I’d done better than I ever expected and was enjoying it, so decided to have fun with it. From that point on I just enjoyed the process, enjoyed the cooking and cooked from the heart.
I made a Michel Roux-inspired dish and then cooked a fish course that I absolutely loved on the anniversary of my Nan’s death. That was a really emotional day. With those dishes I was cooking with all this emotion, all this love and everybody loved the food. I enjoyed cooking it, I enjoyed eating it and I think that’s important. If you don’t cook from the heart, it’s evident in your food. That’s a bit soppy to end, isn’t it? [laughs]
You can keep up to date with Tony’s events via his Facebook page or Twitter