Picture of chef Theo Michaels
Photo credits: Mowie Kay © Ryland Peters & Small

A conversation with TV chef Theo Michaels

Theo Michaels is a chef, award-winning author, with 8 published cookbooks (and one more on the way) and TV presenter, appearing in Big Zuu’s Big Eats, The Food Network and as the resident chef on Steph’s Packed Lunch, after beginning as a contestant on MasterChef 2014. After appearing on This Morning earlier in the day, Theo and I had a chat about his career and tips for student cooking.

Johannah Mathew: How did you get started as a chef?

Theo Michaels: I used to run an IT and engineering recruiting business for 7 years, then I sold it and sat on the board for another seven years. On a whim, I applied to MasterChef, found myself on the show and realised I had all this passion again, which I had lost, so I decided to follow that. My background is Greek Cypriot and our whole culture is centred around the kitchen and dining table, so food has always been a massive part of my life.

JM: How would you describe your cooking philosophy?

TM: For me, it’s all about simplicity, using beautiful ingredients and letting those ingredients shine.

JM: Do you have tips for cooking beginners?

TM: Good food doesn’t have to be overly expensive and start looking at different ingredients. For instance, chicken thighs and drumsticks are cheaper than chicken breast and they’ve got more flavour. Also, planning your meals is super important, because you end up prebuying and not wasting ingredients – something like a beautiful pasta dish can be really cost effective, simple, and delicious. Making the journey of cooking as big as the destination (eating the dish) is great as well. You know, pouring a couple glasses of wine with friends, whipping something up and making that a pleasurable experience rather than a function to get the result.

JM: Do you have tips for people who have the basics but want to expand their skills?

TM: Yeah – don’t be scared to fail! I’m a self-taught chef, so there’s been tonnes of trial and error. For instance, in the process of writing cookbooks, there’s been loads of recipes I’ve wanted to make that just didn’t work, but through those failures I’ve been inspired by things I hadn’t thought of, ending up with me creating something beautiful. Also, try ingredients you haven’t cooked with before: go to different shops, like Turkish, Greek, Indian and Asian supermarkets, because you open up a tonne of different ingredients you’ve not used before, it’s a great way to be experimental.

Don’t be scared to fail!

JM: What were your favourite meals to cook as a student?

TM: There were loads of pasta and rice dishes, they’re cost effective and really filling. A great meal is pasta, with a bit of olive oil, garlic and tomatoes, cooked down and then you can throw in a packet of frozen mixed seafood and it’s absolutely delicious.

JM: What are some cooking essentials?

TM: I would invest in spices, they’re cheap, last for ages and can change a base to something completely different. For example, with a tomato sauce, you add smoked paprika, Chipotle flakes and coriander, and suddenly you’ve got this slightly Mexican vibe going on. Or you add curry powder, turmeric and garam masala and you’ve got the base of a curry happening. So, you might have a Bolognese left over that you had with spaghetti, which you can now have with rice to make a chilli con carne. Canned ingredients are great as well, you know, chickpeas, green lentils, butter beans, cannellini beans – they’ve got high fibre and protein and last for a long time. Also, pastas and rice – try out different types of rice too, like arborio rice or paella.

JM: What’s something you do as part of your job that people wouldn’t expect?

TM: I think the idea of being a chef can be really glamorised, but a lot of it is spent, you know, chopping garlic. Also, dealing with suppliers, sourcing ingredients, equipment failing, getting them fixed. There’s also a lot of hard work spent alone, creating, which doesn’t necessarily get seen after whatever it is is created.

JM: Do you have any advice for people who want to go into the culinary industry?

TM: Get a job and work in the kitchen, even if it’s a pot washing job, start surrounding yourself with that experience and environment. Getting trained and going to culinary school is great, but actually getting hands on experience is really important, because it can be a very fast paced, regimented and pressurised environment.

JM: Are there any food trends that you are excited about?

TM: Plant based foods are really maturing, especially away from synthetic, processed produce. Like, we’re now creating some incredible burgers, made purely out of actual plants with great seasoning and flavours, which are still healthy.

JM: Do you have any advice for vegan cooking.

TM: There are some great village culture cuisines, that have incredibly delicious recipes that barely use any meat. For example, Indian cooking and Mediterranean, Japanese and Chinese rural food, as often having meat would be a luxury, so instead they would invest in really good vegetables and spices. So, I would say get a little experimental and try recipes you wouldn’t usually.

JM: What have been the most exciting aspects of your career so far?

TM: The variety of adventures this career has given me. I love doing live TV, it gives me a massive buzz. We’ve also done some incredible events – we were on a private island with like 400 guests for 3 days, and we were cooking all this incredible food with interesting setups. I just love serving food and people enjoying it, that’s the basis of it.

I just love serving food and people enjoying it!

JM: What have you been working on recently?

TM: I’ve been working with SmaterNaturally with this incredible, unique strain of broccoli, that’s recently been clinically tested to help people with type 2 diabetes. I’ve been working on a lot of recipes on how to use their soup. I’m wary of medical claims, but they have invested so much time and money into researching how to help others, which I love. Another project I’ve been working on is a great site for students: fivedinners.com. It’s a totally free meal planning service and you can put whatever dietary requirements you have into it, as well as how many people you’re cooking for. So, every week our algorithm will develop an ingredient list and 5 meal plan. It’s also great because you can cut down your expenses and waste, as you’re only buying what you need and you’re being more experimental in the kitchen.

For more information visit Theo’s, SmarterNaturally and FiveDinners’ websites.

Photo credit: Mowie Kay © Ryland Peters & Small

Photo description: A photo of chef Theo Michaels