I didn’t tell anyone I’d applied for the show. I was far too embarrassed; Loyd Grossman was a bit of a joke when I was growing up and the format was very staid. When I turned up at the studios after getting through the auditions, I started mucking around and doing handstands in the waiting room. I didn’t take it seriously. Then they asked everyone to come in for the first challenge and make mashed potato. They rolled out these huge cameras and my hands started to shake. I was absolutely terrified. My mashed potato was lumpy but I knew it had flavour. I said to John [Torode], ‘Ignore the lumps, just taste it!’ Winning the show in 2005 when I was 28 was amazing. Up until that point, my life had been a catalogue of failures: I’d screwed up my A-levels; I didn’t get into Oxford University; I’d been sacked, I’d been made redundant. I’d spent my 20s being miserable. For the first time, this was someone saying: ‘You’re ok. You’re on the right path. You can do it.’ I still feel choked up talking about it.
On co-founding Wahaca:
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in life is to go out, say yes, and turn up to things. A mutual friend introduced me to my business partner Mark [Selby] and I feel so lucky to have met him. It’s been brilliant to share the fun moments – and the dark times. I’m not the kind of person that needs all the limelight or to always be in charge. By sheer chance, our skill sets work well together; he’s not very good in the kitchen, I’m not very good on detail. Together, we’re a great team.
On getting it off the ground:
Before staring Wahaca, I’d spent six months working in restaurant kitchens. But opening and running your own kitchen is an entirely different ball game. We had to learn on our feet. I think our combined passion got us through. People didn’t really know about Mexican food back then so we had this almost evangelical drive to show that it wasn’t about cheap shots and greasy tortilla chips; it’s fresh, delicious and healthy. We had this crazily inexperienced team when we started out – I think the average age was 24 – and we were buoyed on by the energy. Mark and I lost so much weight when we opened the first restaurant because we didn’t stop working. We joked that we should have strung up a hamper in the restaurant so we could sleep there.
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