Cooking with John Torode at Leekes
November 19, 2015

I’d be lying if I said John Torode was my all-time favourite chef (sorry if you happen to read this John). I mean, I find him and Gregg Wallace quite entertaining sometimes on Masterchef, although have always wondered why they yell at each other. But someone whose cookbook I’d dash out to buy? Not really.

So when I was invited to an event that promised its guests would: “be inspired by the culinary skills of TV chef John Torode” at Leekes in Coventry, my acceptance was based purely on curiosity. Firstly, I’d never been to Leekes before, even though it’s only about half an hour from where I live. In fact, I’d never heard of it. And secondly, I wanted to see if I would, indeed, be “inspired” by Torode’s culinary skills.

John Torode at Leekes

If you too haven’t heard of Leekes, it’s a Welsh-based company that was established by James Henry Leeke in the Rhondda in 1987 and has grown to a chain of huge department stores. Inside the Coventry-branch is a glass-walled demo kitchen (sponsored by Neff, in case you don’t notice from the pictures) which has apparently previously been graced by the likes of Gino di Campo, Jean Christophe Novelli, and now, John Torode.

It was a full house and I felt rather privileged to have had a seat right at the front, which meant I could even make you guys a little video down at the bottom of this post. Why would you want to endure that, you wonder? Well, because folks, it was actually quite an entertaining afternoon.

John Torode cooking at Leekes, Coventry

Mr Torode was there to promote his book (obvs) My Kind of Food, which is a collection of dishes that he likes to make – stuff for family and friends, rather than restaurant diners. Yeah, yeah, I thought. They all say that, then they’re packed with complex recipes full of Krypton Factor-esque instructions and ingredients lists as long as the terms and conditions in a Vodafone contract. If you haven’t heard, cooking isn’t my strongpoint, and while I’m slowly learning, the last thing I need is another chef telling me how simple it is as they prepare a croquembouche from scratch whilst telling you their life story at the same time.

Not so with Mr T. I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of the demo, you can get an idea in the video. But anyone who shows you how to make a curry paste from scratch – then tells you that if you haven’t quite got time, it’s okay to use a jar – gets my vote. A bit of reality at last! I mean, I love a ‘scratch curry’ (as we call them in our house) as much as the next girl, but I sure as hell haven’t got time to do one when I get in at 7pm, and still get to bed early enough to not be dead when the 5.30am alarm goes off. It’s that idea of knowing when it’s okay to cheat that shows a bit of understanding about the way us mere non-Masterchef mortals live.

Watching John Torode at Leekes, Coventry

We got to see a few recipes from his book – ‘posh curry cutlets’, passion fruit pudding, and posh French toast. The curry paste was for the cutlets, that were coated in it (along with a few handy hints of how to cook meat) then roasted on a nice combo of potatoes and chickpeas. I managed to snaffle a cutlet at the end (you could eat it once you stretched past a sign that said it was at your ‘own risk’) and it was pink, tender and well spiced, just how it should be.

There was a quick lesson on how to make a simple sponge mix (which formed part of some cute little passion fruit and mango self-sourcing puddings) as well as custard – all part of Torode’s quest to help people understand the basics. His advice is that if you know a few basic skills you can adapt them to all sorts. And eventually you can do really crazy things if you want to. “If you know the rules you’re then allowed to break the rules”, is his advice.

John Torode piping sponge

The final treat was posh French toast – thick doorsteps of bread stuffed with whatever you like (banana in this case), then coated in egg and fried. And obviously served up all nice and chef-y with maple syrup and grated chocolate.

What’s so impressive about that, I hear you ask? It’s not like he was doing Heston-style experimental cooking, or award-winning fare to knock your socks off. Well, what impressed me (and plenty of the other people by the looks of things) was that it was simple cooking for normal people.

If you’re like me and you can’t chop an onion in 12 seconds flat or end up close to tears when you’re trying to second-guess what a recipe means, it’s quite refreshing to have someone who cooks for a living to tell you that that’s okay. And to try to show you stuff and write about it in a way that makes it less – rather than more – intimidating.

Learning to cook from John Torode

The curry sauce jar was a shining ray of light for me. As was Torode’s example of how frustrating it is when people give you instructions like: “until the custard just coats the back of the spoon”. I have lived this moment and suffered the consequences of its lack of clarity in the all-too memorable (for me anyway) Crema Catalana incident.

So to be told by John Torode that he’s “a believer in writing recipes and books that work” was a bit of a beacon of hope for me. Of course, there was plenty of entertainment in between that seemed to appeal to the wide range of people who had turned out to see the big man in action.

But the best part for me was that the experience made me feel a lot calmer about this cooking malarkey. I’ve done a few cooking classes, all as part of the grand plan to try to get my culinary skills more on a par with my eating ability, but they’ve still left me a bit intimidated. It was a bit different after this little afternoon of cooking fun in a random home store on the outskirts of Coventry.

Posh curry cutlets by John Torode

Potato accompaniment to posh curry cutlets by John Torode

As I watched this man from the telly laughing and joking as he whipped up some dishes, my inner domestic goddess seemed to rise from wherever she’s been hibernating, took a great big stretch and started limbering up ready to tackle some cooking.

Maybe it was the glass of bubbles they gave me when I arrived. Maybe it was the delicious smell of spices and the taste of the lamb cutlet. Or maybe it was John Torode’s words: “Most of the time the people you cook for love you, so they’re going to forgive you.”

That stuck with me, and it’s spurred me on to have the confidence to get my cook on. Oh, and if you were wondering, yes I did buy the book!

Eat with Ellen meets John Torode

I was invited to the event at Leekes free of charge, but I bought the book with my own hard-earned cash.