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Travel inside the mind of celebrity chef Theo Michaels

Celebrity Chef Theo Michaels poses for the camera holding a bowl of food

Photography Mowie Kay, taken from Rustica published by Ryland Peters Small

The culinary culture is teeming with fascinating people. Unique narratives. Unique experiences. Unique insights. We’re always looking to expand our knowledge-based horizons, so we’re picking the brains of some of brightest minds in the BBQ game and beyond.

First up the multifaceted and multi-talented Mr. Theo Michaels. Theo is a chef, presenter and award-winning author specialising in Greek Cypriot and Family friendly food.  He is also the co-founder of FiveDinners.com – an online, curated meal planning service. We could wax lyrical about Theo’s accolades for hours, however he is much too humble to allow us to do that. You can see for yourself on his website.We’re so excited to delve into the depths of such a diverse mind, so let’s get into it.

 

Big K: Thanks, in part, to your MasterChef run, you are often referred to as a ‘Celebrity Chef’. What difference does fame add into the cooking equation for you if any?

Theo: None really, I don’t see myself as a celebrity; I just happen to have a good face for radio ha-ha. Actually I am quite comfortable performing in front of large crowds or on TV – it doesn’t faze me. I love food and people, and I believe the need to please people is inherent within every chef. Basically it’s all about giving people joy. Cooking in front of them or making them laugh… it’s a total pleasure for me. Food is a funny thing– it’s disposable art. You spend days prepping and cooking, presenting for it to disappear within a matter of minutes – the only echo left is people that are happier for eating it.

Big K: What is the biggest challenge in creating a Cookbook?

Theo: Usually the start – my process (and I can’t speak for anyone else) is to create the contents list – this is the starting block for my books. I list out 60+ recipe names/ideas and my editor and I start to work that into a balanced list of recipes. From there; some will make the cut, others don’t, and some end up inspiring new dish ideas for the book. The other biggest challenge is when recipes don’t quite go right the first time you cook them. You end up cooking and testing the same recipe half a dozen times, tweaking tiny little bits to get it right. Actually, now I think about it – it’s probably my family that bears the grunt of having to taste the same thing for a week!

 

Theo Michaels sits on a sofa flanked by two presenters form the TV show – The Morning show.

BBC Morning Live September 2021

 

Big K: What is your cooking/BBQ philosophy?

Theo: Fresh top quality ingredients – amazing fuel (I only every use real wood or lumpwood charcoal) and keeping it simple with a few flourishes for flavour. For me, half the flavour comes from the wood/charcoal. This is why I’ve never been a fan of gas; I like the natural element of real wood and lumpwood. Equally, you can’t turn poor ingredients into good; but good should not be confused with expensive. For example, beautiful fresh sardines or mackerel (incredibly cheap) – but fresh are fantastic and delicious. Same as meat and vegetables; it doesn’t have to be prime cuts, just exceptional quality.

For me BBQ is about that; good fuel as the base flavour, exceptional ingredients and then just a little something else to bring it alive; whether that is a good squeeze of fresh lemon over those sardines, or a zingy salsa drizzled over a rib of beef. That’s the holy trinity for me; fuel, ingredients, seasoning/sauce. I love the honesty of barbecue food – that primal element of cooking over flames or embers. There’s something I find quite romantic and pure in it.

Big K: It’s clear that you are a proud of your Cypriot roots. What makes Cypriot and Greek food so special to you?

Theo: Obviously my heritage; so many chefs will take inspiration from childhood memories and that’s the same for me. However I also just enjoy the natural ‘village’ style of cooking found all over the Mediterranean and other Latin countries in South America. In fact, it’s a topic that made the backbone of my book last year – Rustica – Mediterranean village food. It goes back to that honest approach of good quality ingredients, minimal manhandling and simple serving. I don’t want a tomato that tastes of anything else – compliment it with a little splash of vinegar, a generous dusting of salt and pepper, maybe the odd herb – but if you’ve got an amazing tomato, bursting with flavour, that’s a beautiful thing to be enjoyed. The notion of village food is big for me – eating local, sustainability, diets high in vegetables, legumes, fish, there is a whole gambit of reasons why ‘eating like a villager’ is the way forward. It’s what those little villages have been doing for generations and we’re just starting to cotton onto it ourselves.

 

Theo Michaels on the set of the Morning Show with a plate of fresh food and vegetables in front of him ready for cooking.

ITV This Morning August 2021

 

Big K: Where do you find inspiration to create your dining experiences for Elsewhere Events?

Theo: All over! Sometimes it’s a smell I might catch, or a piece of artwork, or something I’ve spotted on TV, or a random thought that passes through my mind! It comes from anywhere and everywhere – I think the key isn’t so much ‘where’ inspiration comes from but being ‘open’ to it. Inspiration is all around us every minute of everyday; it’s just a case of embracing new ideas and seeing where it goes.

Big K: How would you say your cooking style has evolved over the years?

Theo: I think it started much more fine dining, higher end cooking with foams, sauces, tons of bits on a plate and as I look back I think that was more about my lack of self-confidence in the kitchen and over compensating. As the years have gone on and my confidence has increased in who I am and what I cook, I now cook what I enjoy; simpler foods cooked exceptionally well with little pockets of flavour. And I think most chefs would agree – you cook what you love. For me that fine dining has evolved into a more casual, honest, style that I enjoy.

Big K: Do you think people are educated enough about food – origins, production etc.

Theo: Not even close; food is too cheap and we need to change our habits drastically. I don’t say that as promoting veganism; it works for some, but I don’t think that is actually the answer. Again, this goes back to Rustica and embracing the ‘eat like a villager’ mentality. We need to increase the breadth of ingredients we use and how we use them. I never see dandelions available in the shops – yet ‘horta’, as we say in Cyprus, are available all over Cyprus/Greece (and in the UK!); they are a super food and everywhere! We should be looking at rabbits, goats, old dairy cows, even chickens that are passed their egg laying days and a little tough – perfect for bit of slow cooking. I could go on this for ages so for the sake of our readers I’ll leave it at that and mention my book Rustica is a good place to start (always self-promoting!)

Big K: What is the best bit of cooking advice you have ever received?

Theo: Cook what you love. That, and during MasterChef John Torode used to tell me off all the time for being messy. I never really ‘got it’. But after working in food professionally for the past 7 years I realized why he was so hot on keeping things neat and tidy. He had the benefit of professional experience, where at the time I was just a guy who cooked at home. Cooking food within any professional or commercial setting simply isn’t possible without a clean kitchen and clean station. So even though it took a few years, now I get it.

 

A promotional image for fivedinners.com – a curated meal plan service

 

Big K: Finally, would you say cooking is an art form or a science?

Theo: I tend to think of baking as a science; using exact amounts for exact durations at exact temperatures – that’s not my thing! Doesn’t fit my style or personality (plus being Greek we’re always late!). It’s the same with fine dining; the work to create food is much more exact to reach (almost) perfection. Where as for me, the recipes I create and food I enjoy most to cook and eat are more relaxed…more art than science. In saying that, cooking is alchemy and a good foundation of the science behind how food cooks is vital.

Well Big K Fam! We hope that you found this brief meander through Theo’s cerebral chambers extremely enlightening. It has been an absolute privilege our end that’s for sure.

All this talk of food making you hungry? Or perhaps you’re fed up with deciding what to cook every night? Then check out FiveDinners.com – every week they issue a new meal plan with five delicious recipes and a shopping list so you know exactly what you need to get for the week – great huh!  Try free for two weeks at FiveDinners.com

Well that about does it for now you lovely lot. See you again soon in the blogosphere.