Standing in the reception area of City of Glasgow College, there is no doubt that Gary Maclean is a celebrity. Visitors turn around as they walk past him in his chef’s whites, and students and staff greet him. His face is now known far beyond the college walls. In December, he was named winner of the BBC’s MasterChef: The Professionals – beating restaurant chefs from across the UK to claim the illustrious title.
Maclean admits that going on the show was a risk. “This was the third time I applied,” he says. “I didn’t think I would go out really early. Getting to the final 12, I was happy – I thought people at the college might high-five me in the corridor and that would be that.”
But the 45-year-old senior lecturer progressed through the competition and, as the final round aired and he was handed the MasterChef trophy, social media “went mad”.
“My phone was essentially useless for two weeks,” he says. “I got about 3,000 messages and some are still coming through now. The reaction was 10 times what I thought it would be: being recognised, strangers coming up, crowds outside up against the window of the college training restaurant to take pictures and wanting to see me in class.”
Much of Maclean’s time in recent weeks has been filled with press appearances, as well as charity dinners and other engagements.
Back for seconds
The father of five has been connected to the college for almost his entire career, enrolling in 1988 as a student at what was then the Glasgow College of Food and Nutrition, and returning as a lecturer shortly afterwards.
“I was a couple of years out [of college] and then they asked me back to cover a class,” he recalls. “I ended up covering it for 13 years.”
Although Maclean was also working part-time in leading kitchens across Scotland, opening restaurants and making his name outside the classroom, being a lecturer quickly became his passion.
“No matter how big the job I had at the time, nothing happened on a Wednesday when I was teaching,” he recalls. “I thought of that Wednesday as my day off. And I always knew I would be full-time eventually.”
What I lack in being a teacher, I make up for in being a chef
Maclean made the move to full-time lecturer in 2010. “What I lack in being a teacher, I make up for in being a chef,” he says. “The students saw that some weeks I was opening two restaurants. I think that was a great mix. I could talk about current trends, about what is currently happening.”
Support from the college was crucial to his success on the show, he adds: “We are very forward-thinking as a college and always trying to get better. My line manager has been incredible and so has everyone else at the college. The team has been brilliant. They saw lots of themselves in my dishes.
“I always say, if we had a competition in here, I don’t think I would win. That is the standard we have here.”
The college even helped him to prepare for the competition in less obvious ways. “There were only three dishes I practised before I went down,” Maclean says. “I practised them loads and loads. I even tried them out at principal’s dinners – I just snuck them in there.”
While Maclean is keen to take advantage of the opportunities that are coming his way, he is also determined that the college should benefit. “I want to take full advantage of this for the college,” he says. “It is giving value to college education. We don’t see the value in being qualified in this country, but these days, it is more important than ever that the people coming into the industry are qualified.
“This shows how good college education really is. I have even had schoolteachers come up to me saying how brilliant this is for education.”
He adds: “There is a massive demand for me to be in a restaurant. People want to eat my food and the college is looking to take advantage of that”.
Although Maclean says it is too early to announce what the plans entail, he insists that they will “100 per cent” involve his students: “That is the whole point.”
Maclean has no intention of reducing his time at the college, though, or turning his back on FE. “If I can do a few hours here or there and help the whole building, that is great. I can potentially have a much greater impact,” he says. “It helps the reputation. But if I teach 18 hours a week for the rest of my days, I am happy.”
In Maclean’s first class after the MasterChef final was aired, students decorated the room with balloons and handed him a trophy of their own.
By and large, though, little has changed. “I have not missed a class,” he insists. “I am fitting everything else in around classes.
“My students now are the same ones I had in August, before the show started. If anything, I am getting more stick.”
But HND student Ellie MacKinnon, 19, says that Maclean’s students were all “really happy” for him. “It is impressive to think we have a college lecturer who won MasterChef,” she adds.