WHEN Gary Maclean said in The Herald last year that he wanted to be Scotland’s first national chef, someone in the Scottish Government was obviously listening. Within a few months, the Masterchef winner, serial restaurant-opener and college lecturer had landed the job and 2018 is the year he gets going, with some strong views on how to make us shop, eat and cook better. Compulsory cooking in schools? Absolutely. A tax on fat and sugar? No way. Scotland has the best food in the world but the worst diet, says Maclean, and it’s time we had some new ideas to make things better.

Day-to-day, the 46-year-old chef’s base is the City of Glasgow College, where he is senior chef lecturer and where the walls are decorated with huge 20ft-high pictures of their most famous teacher, decked out in his chef whites. Maclean has been at the college for more than seven years but in the last two his profile has risen considerably. In 2016, he won Masterchef The Professionals – pretty much the toughest cooking competition in the world; he has also returned to the series as a judge and makes other frequent appearances on television; last week he cooked haggis and venison for the Prime Minister at No 10’s Burns supper.

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When I ask him about the latest string to his bow and whether he’s intimidated about being the first national chef, Maclean says no, which isn’t arrogance talking - it’s just based on the fact he knows what he’s doing. He shows me round the college’s huge college kitchens and lecture rooms where he leads the HND professional cookery course and the adjoining restaurant where the students cook for the public. In his time, Maclean has opened 80 restaurants for Glasgow Museums and the G1 group among others. He has also worked in education for a long time and for food manufacturers and then there’s the small matter of cooking for his five children every week (he has trouble getting his kids to eat just like any other parent).

All of this makes him highly suited for the new job as national chef but Maclean says he was aware that it could be a poisoned chalice. “It could be,” he says, “and there’s nowhere to check to see how to do it because I’m the first and no other country has done it either. But that’s an opportunity to make it your own.”

Top of the list of priorities is promoting Scottish produce and reversing the decline in people using locally sourced food. “The reality is that you can go out and buy strawberries now from Peru but taste them – they’re not nice! It’s habit. People just go round the supermarket picking up the exact same stuff they did before, regardless of season.” Other cultural and social trends are also to blame, says Maclean. “When you look back, it’s working parents and the rise of the supermarket – one shop that does all. And those shops are buying globally. Less time to shop, less time to cook. This has been 50 years in the making.”

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Maclean even sees the trends in his own family. The Glaswegian grew up in a family of seven (his dad was a painter) and mealtimes were, in his own words, survival stuff. “What we were eating was no different from what anyone else was eating,” he says. “People who had a bit of money were buying convenience food, but my mum couldn’t go and buy frozen pizzas because it was a fortune. So food was made – it was mince and tatties, it was staple food that my granny would've been making. “ The problem now is the link has been broken so that much of Maclean’s generation don’t know how to cook. “Convenience food got cheaper,” says Maclean, “and families got smaller.”

So the obvious question to ask the national chef is how we can fix the problem and he says the most important step we could take is to make cooking and food education compulsory in all schools. “Learning to cook is just as important as learning to write,” he says. “Cooking is a skill that you need regardless of what you do with your life. If everyone understood the basics, the fundamentals, they would cook. I think more people spend more time pondering over a pair of shoes than over what they buy in a week for food. Cooking should be compulsory in schools. PE is compulsory and what you eat is just as important as what you do.”

Maclean doesn’t believe, though, that we can get back to some lost time when we all sat round the table eating home-cooked food. In his own home in Glasgow, things are pretty busy – he has one child at university, two in secondary, one in primary and one in nursery so food is often grabbed at convenient times. “We’ve lost that whole table thing which I was never that convinced happened anyway – it’s an idealistic way of looking at how we grew up but the reality is we didn’t. Most folk sat in front of the telly and ate their dinner on their lap. I don’t think we’re getting the table scenario back for most people but it’s finding another way of eating well and conveniently.”

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However, Maclean does get a little bit nostalgic when he talks about other aspects of his childhood. “I can count on one hand the number of days I spent indoors between the age of 10 and 16,” he says. “You were out, running about, getting chased by the police or whatever you were up to, but you were outside. Even if you were just walking, you probably walked five miles a night just doing your teenage stuff.”

Maclean thinks the current obesity problem among children – a record number are now starting school in Scotland overweight or obese – is partly because children are not outdoors as much as he was, but he also blames takeaways. Wimpy was a treat when he was a kid, but now McDonald’s and KFC are a ubiquitous part of many kids’ diets, and Maclean isn’t even much of a fan of the Scottish chippy. The problem, as he sees it, is that takeaways and other rubbish food is relatively cheap, so people keep buying it.

So surely the solution is to tax the bad food and drink to make it more expensive? This year the Scottish Government will finally be able to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol and the UK Government is going ahead with its sugar tax, which will increase the prices of drinks like Coke and Red Bull. There are also campaigners who think we should be going further and taxing fatty food as well. The theory is that if people won’t change the way they eat, then we’ll force them to by taxing them.

Maclean is not a fan of the idea however and thinks taxing food would hit the poor. “I think there’s a lot more we need to do before we start taxing food – the risk is that we start punishing the poor,” he says. “It could be an extra £3 a week and for some people that’s a lot of money, but they are still going to spend it because they can’t change their life based on £3.” He’s also not that keen on the idea of forcing manufacturers to cut the fat and sugar in their food for the same reason. “The reality is it then pushes the price up.”

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Where Maclean does think there has been improvement is in the labelling of food, although he worries the customers who are looking at labels are probably quite heath conscious anyway. It’s part of a slight suspicion you detect in Maclean that far too much of the subject of cooking and health is elitist. We chat about some of the cooks and chefs on the telly. “It’s all quite middle class isn’t it?” he says.

What’s refreshing about Maclean is that he is the antithesis of the trend, a working class boy who’s conquered the middle class milieu and done it with good humour and self-confidence. “I’ve won the biggest fine dining competition in the world,” he says, “and I’m not a fine dining chef.”

He has also resisted what would have been the obvious route after his Masterchef win: opening a big restaurant with his name above the door. “Every day someone says: 'when’s your restaurant opening?'" The idea is not off the table, he says, but he feels like he’s done the whole restaurant-opening thing. “There’s not that burning desire to risk my kids’ house for my dream of owning a restaurant,” he says.

Instead, he’s at home as much as he can be passing on the good habits he’s learned over the years to his kids. For breakfast every day it’s porridge (no salt or sugar) and he’s also taught all his children to love vegetables by taking them down the aisles at the supermarket and letting them choose their own veggies and take them home to cook. Not that he’s immune to some of the food weaknesses we all suffer from. His great food pleasure? Bread. And his big hate? What else but Brussels sprouts.

Career high

Masterchef – it was the hardest, most stressful competition a professional chef can put themselves through and to win it was awesome. But also to be asked by your country to help with food is another major achievement.

Career low

I had an interview for Disney for head chef at their British restaurant at Epcot. Their cuisine was fish and chips. The idea is you do your 18 months, get your visa, and then move into fine dining. Disney’s high end food is incredible. The first question in my final interview was “so you want to cook fish and chips?” and I said “no” – that was the interview over. I was young and naïve.

Best advice received

Don’t chase money. Work in the best places whatever the pay.

Favourite music

Enya is my competition music.

Last book read

Probably a cook book. I have about 400. I’m also writing a book which will be getting back to the real basics of cookery – this is my experience of cooking as a dad at home. It’s not going to be a cheffy book.

Best trait

I think I’m good with people.

Worst trait

Work too much

Ideal dinner party guests

Laurel and Hardy – they have an amazing story. Stan Laurel, pictured, went to school in Rutherglen and his dad ran one of the theatres in Argyle Street. They are my comedy heroes. Harrison Ford as well – he’s like a superhero – every time he’s in the paper, he’s saved someone’s life.