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Table Talk: TV Masterchef judge goes back to his 1970s roots

Gregg Wallace, a judge of the popular British television cooking competition Masterchef, has gone back to his roots with a new 1970s-inspired restaurant in Bermondsey, southeast London.
/ Source: Reuters

Gregg Wallace, a judge of the popular British television cooking competition Masterchef, has gone back to his roots with a new 1970s-inspired restaurant in Bermondsey, southeast London.

Born in neighboring Peckham and a former Bermondsey resident, Wallace opened "Gregg's Table" last week in the Bermondsey Square Hotel with a retro menu inspired by food from the 1970s.

Wallace has been supplying fruit and vegetables to restaurants since 1989 but is now better known as co-presenter of the BBC's Masterchef series.

The cuisine from the 1970s may not be not renowned for its finesse but Wallace is keen to put his own spin on old favorites like prawn cocktail, lobster thermidor, chicken kiev, cheese fondue and black forest gateau.

"The menu is based on food I grew up with," he told Reuters.

"When I mentioned the dishes, everyone had fond memories and were intrigued to see what we would come up with. Memories are not always as good as what we actually ate so I took this as a challenge."

Wallace is not the only chef who trawling the 1970s for inspiration these days.

TV chef and author Delia Smith has said last year the decade's cooks were more in touch with what the public wanted than many of today's celebrity chefs and experimental chef Heston Blumenthal created a 1970s retro feast for celebrity diners on a television series in 2010.

The decade has a lot in common with ours today. A Conservative government was in power, economic growth was slow, unemployment high and austerity measures biting.

Does that mean we've become more nostalgic for the food.

"I wouldn't say we were going back to 1970s austerity. Not when I see the success of places like Heston's Fat Duck," Wallace said, referring to Blumenthal's restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, which charges 180 pounds ($290) per person for a 14-course tasting menu.

Wallace's 90-cover restaurant is modern but reminds us of the era with popular 70s products like salad cream stacked on shelves.

With prices for main meals ranging from 12 to 34 pounds, the food puts a twist on the old favorites. The crab paste starter is thankfully worlds away from the sandwich spread found in supermarkets, using fresh Cornish crab meat and presented in small glass jars with capers, parsley and toast.

Boiled beef and carrots is served with a consomme in a teapot, mulligatawny soup in a flask with an onion bhaji on the side and spam fritters take on a new identity in the guise of beer-battered ham hock.

The restaurant can seat another 100 people outside and Wallace is hoping brunch, snacks and cakes will be a hit in the summer.

But cooking doesn't get much tougher than this, to use a catchphrase from Wallace's TV show.

The restaurant's slow service was criticized in the first week of opening and it faces fierce competition from some established and popular eateries in nearby trendy Bermondsey Street.

Wallace, who also runs Putney restaurant Wallace & Co., thinks there will be an appetite for the retro food.

"The restaurant is very much the same as others (nearby) - a good eatery. From the feedback, everyone seems to like the food."

Unlike on Masterchef, he will be leaving development chef Mark Blatchford in charge of the kitchen.

"I will be there at least three times a week, eating. I tend to walk from table to table with a glass of wine in hand chatting to people. I don't mess about with the running of the kitchen," Wallace said.

Wallace is currently filming a new series of Masterchef, in which he judges competitors' food in demanding challenges along with Australian-born chef John Torode.

Wallace is known for his sweet tooth from the series and is particularly proud of the new restaurant's desserts.

"'Dessert' is too french - it's 'pudding'. I would recommend the spotted dick with a glass of brandy poured over it or knickerbocker glory," he said.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)