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Interview: Gregg Wallace, 'Spoon for Hire'

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Gregg Wallace from MasterChef

© Shine Ltd

Tim, Tom, Jackie and Sara will square off for a semi-final showdown on tonight's MasterChef. Only three spots are available in the grand final, so one chef will be leaving the competition this evening. We caught up with judge and all-round good egg Gregg Wallace to get his views on all-things MasterChef, those controversial auditions and the upcoming celebrity series.

How pleased are you with the final four this year?
"I'm very pleased, but also surprised. I'm surprised that Annie didn't make the final four. She was one of my tips for the final three. I think she let herself down and I was really surprised she wasn't there. But of course, I'm very pleased with the guys we do have in the final four."

Has the change of format this year made it harder for you to vote people off the show?
"That's a great question. As soon as I hear the words change of format, I get scared. That was the whole point of the change of format. We get to the better cooks quicker. But of course, the by product of that is that me and John get closer to these guys feelings-wise. Not personally, because we don't spend any time with them outside of MasterChef, but you do really get close to them. And obviously this week we'll lose another one, which is very, very difficult."

James Perry was a very popular character with viewers. Was it tough to send him packing just before the semi-final?
"Oh mate that was hard, and it was quite an unpopular decision judging by the comments on Twitter. I think that just shows how real MasterChef is though. It's always about the food and not the personality or how much we might like a person, because what a great guy he was. The question is, will he regret that MasterChef tattoo now?"

We have a vegetarian in the semi-finals. As a meat lover does that surprise you?
"We've never had a vegetarian get so far. But, no, I'm not surprised. I've loved Jackie from the start, right from the first audition. However, if you had said to me right at the start that we would have a vegetarian winner, I would have said no, so I guess there is a slight element of surprise. But some of her stuff is just phenomenal. It's really bold stuff."

Were you shocked by the amount of coverage and criticism the change of format got earlier this year?
"Oh God I was really amazed! Really amazed! I thought hang on a minute, we're a cookery show. No-one has invaded a Middle Eastern desert here. It can't be that important. We are a cookery show, but it seemed to really bother people. But it was only the first couple of shows that were changed so much. It was for a good reason and I think people can see that now. It was so we could have access to the better cooks faster than we have done before. Now, I think you see the fruits of those labours in the latter stages."

Do you think people will be happy with it next year when they are used to it and understand the end result?
"Well, actually, we have regularly changed and tinkered with every single MasterChef series. I would not be surprised if it doesn't change again. You have got to remember, I'm not a policy maker, I'm a spoon for hire."

Were you ever worried about the X Factor comparisons?
"I didn't worry about it because people were still writing about the show. We actually ended up with more viewers than the year before. It was obviously all okay. But I think people sometimes read articles and lines stay in their heads, such as the X Factor one. But X Factor is such a phenomenon in this country, I'm sure we're not the only ones who have been compared to it. I think it's easy for any competition like this to just say, 'Oh it's like X Factor'. But I don't really see the similarities, I really don't. I don't think people saying that have actually seen the rest of the series. X Factor this, X Factor that, there really aren't that many similarities."

What's been your favourite challenge this year?
"Ooh, I think a challenge coming up is the hardest one. It's a wedding in Australia. You can't get a wedding wrong. Even if you were doing ham and cheese toasties for a wedding, the pressure would be enormous. You have to get that spot on and that's a high pressure situation. But this semi-final tonight as well, the pressure on that is unbelievable. To get to the final 20, then to the final four and then just miss out on the final - that is heartbreaking. Heartbreaking!"

A new celebrity series will be airing later in the year. Are you excited?
"What amazes me about the celebrity version is how quickly it goes from being a gig to having the same passion you get on the amateurs and the pros. When you start eliminating people it gets under their skin and very, very quickly. They come in thinking they know TV, how it works and say that they won't take it too seriously. But that front doesn't last very long at all."

Last year's celeb final had a brilliant standard of cooking. Can you match that?
"Yeah, we match it. Don't worry about that. There will another Lisa Faulkner. There will be another Nadia Sawalha."

> 'MasterChef' The Final Four: Gregg Wallace's verdict

MasterChef continues next Wednesday at 9pm on BBC One. The accompanying cookbook, MasterChef At Home, is out now (DK £20). For details on MasterChef Live events, please log onto www.masterchefliveevents.com.

MasterChef continues tonight at 9pm on BBC One.

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