Talented chefs compete on our television screens each year to win the coveted MasterChef: The Professionals title. Winning the competition can put previously unknown chefs on the culinary map and gives them the chance to work with some of the best chefs in the world. FIONA FORMAN speaks to previous Masterchef champions Derek Johnstone and Steve Groves about their experience on the show and what happened next.
MasterChef: The Professionals continues to be a huge ratings success for BBC Two, regularly pulling in millions of viewers absorbed by competing chefs fiercely battling it out. Competitors are put through a series of challenges, from 10-minute skills tests to cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants for some of the world’s best chefs. Joining Michel on the judging panel is Gregg Wallace and Michel’s sous chef, Monica Galetti. They make a harsh but fair trio – contestants receive scathing, yet constructive criticism. Once filming has ended Michel continues to mentor many of the contestants, giving them the opportunity to learn the ropes in his two-Michelin-starred restaurant kitchen at Le Gavroche.
We caught up with the winners from the previous series, Derek Johnstone, crowned 2008 Masterchef champion, and last year’s Masterchef champion Steve Groves, to find out how winning the show and having Michel behind them has propelled them to the top of the culinary world.
WHAT MADE YOU ENTER THE COMPETITION?
My head chef at the time approached me as he had received an application form from the BBC. Initially I was quite reluctant as I didn’t want to be on television, but I filled it in and sent it away anyway and it just snowballed from there.
HOW DID YOU FIND BEING JUDGED BY MICHEL AND GREGG?
It was nerve-wracking walking into a room to see them standing there, but it was a fantastic opportunity and they helped us and gave us advice. It was a really enjoyable experience.
DID THE PRESSURE OF THE SHOW AFFECT YOUR COOKING?
I think it did, it’s very hard to cook to 100 per cent of your ability under the circumstances – being on camera and talking to Michel, obviously I was nervous, but I had to cook to my full potential. I think they took it into account.
WHICH OUT OF THE TASKS DID YOU FIND MOST CHALLENGING?
Without a doubt it was the task at Browns, when we had to cook for the Michelin-starred chefs and the Michelin inspectors. I found it very nerve- wracking and tough, but at the end of day I look back and it was my most enjoyable experience as well, I relished it.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COOKING STYLE?
I’m still trying to find my own style, I’m still quite young so I’m trying to take a lot of things from other people and incorporate it into what I want to do. My cooking improved all the time through the competition, and it’s come on leaps and bounds since too.
DID YOU EVER THINK YOU WOULD WIN?
At the back of my mind I was always saying to myself, ‘I’m doing this for the experience’, I never thought I was going to win, but then suddenly I was in the final and there were only three people left. It wasn’t until the second or third round of the final when we were cooking for the Michelin- starred chefs at Browns and I was getting feedback that I thought I could win.
HOW WAS THE TIME BETWEEN WINNING THE COMPETITION AND THE SHOW BEING AIRED?
It was a bit of an anti-climax. After I won I went back to the job I had before the competition. I had to carry on as normal, if I left and went to London people would know. You want to tell everybody, but you can’t, so by the time it actually comes on television you’ve got over the fact that you’ve won. When I went back to work I told my head chef and general manager because they’d supported me throughout, they gave me the time off and paid for my travel expenses, so I owed it to them to tell them I had won and that I was going to go and do some work for Michel at Le Gavroche. They were the only people I told. I think my family knew as I said I was going to move to London, but I didn’t tell them, I didn’t want to ruin the surprise for them.
HOW WAS YOUR TIME WORKING AT LE GAVROCHE?
It was amazing, it took my cooking up another level. It’s a tough kitchen and it’s busy but all the guys in the kitchen are great, and to work under somebody like Michel was just fantastic. The skills that I learnt there, you just can’t find them nowadays, it was an amazing experience and opportunity.
YOU ARE SET TO BECOME HEAD CHEF UNDER ALBERT ROUX AT HIS NEW RESTAURANT AT GREYWALLS HOTEL IN JANUARY, WERE YOU EXCITED TO BE MADE HEAD CHEF AT SUCH A YOUNG AGE?
I’m 27 now, so it’s quite a young age to be a head chef, but Albert said I have a lot of potential and that I can do it, so I just have to prove him right. I’m training under another Roux protégé, Robert Bates – it’s been fantastic.
IS IT NICE TO RETURN TO YOUR ROOTS AND WORK IN SCOTLAND?
It’s lovely to be back in Scotland, I’m close to my friends and family, though unfortunately my girlfriend is still in London! I love Scotland, and the produce we get up here is fantastic, I’ve got chickens and herbs in my garden.
WOULD YOU EVER LIKE TO OPEN YOUR OWN RESTAURANT?
I think that’s every chef’s ambition; you work hard because you want your own restaurant. I would love my own, but at the moment I’m surrounded by good people, and I’m getting guided and taught new skills, there’s no need for me to rush away
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO ENTER MASTERCHEF?
It was a chance to cook for Michel Roux Jr – to have someone like him critique your food is an opportunity not to be missed. He’s one of the big players in the industry so it was a great opportunity.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS KNOWN YOU WANTED TO BE A CHEF?
Originally I wanted to be a fireman. When I left school at 16 I couldn’t join the fire brigade until I was 18 so I went to catering college as something to fall back on. I always enjoyed cooking but it wasn’t until then that I thought, ‘Wow this is really good fun, I can really get on with this’. It just went on from there and took over.
HOW DID YOUR COOKING STYLE DIFFER FROM THE OTHER TWO FINALISTS?
I think I was a bit more adventurous, I tried to use more modern techniques, and I went out on a limb to separate myself from them. I knew if I tried to play it safe then there wouldn’t be anything to make me stand out.
WHICH WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT TASK IN THE COMPETITION?
The 10-minute skills test at the beginning definitely. It was the first time in the studio and you walk in and Gregg and Monica are standing there watching what you’re doing – Monica has got an intimidating stare on her – you’re shaking like a leaf and you haven’t got any time to correct any errors. So you just do what you can do and get it on a plate.
HOW DID YOU FIND THE PRESSURE OF BEING ON CAMERA?
At the beginning, even just trying to talk to the camera was scary, it was unnatural. You have to walk into a building three times to get the right shot. Obviously when you’re trying to cook, it’s a bit of a distraction, but you eventually get used to it and forget they are there.
HOW WAS WORKING WITH MICHEL AND GREGG?
Gregg put everyone at ease, he was very fun to have around and we had banter with him in the studio. Michel was very constructive with his criticism, and when you get praise from someone of that calibre you feel really chuffed, but then on the flipside to that when he criticises you, it’s quite stinging. But he’s very constructive with what he says.
WERE YOU SURPRISED TO WIN THE COMPETITION?
I thought I’d have a shot but you don’t know the kind of people you’re going to be up against. As each stage went on I got a bit more confident, once you go in there and knock a few people out you build in confidence. Everyone always has insecurities about their own ability, I thought I could well be beaten, so it was a surprise to win.
HOW DID YOU FIND THE PERIOD BETWEEN THE END OF FILMING AND THE SHOW BEING AIRED, DID YOU GO BACK TO YOUR DAY JOB?
I went back to work at Launceston Place and carried on as normal. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone I’d won but I told my family. I had to tell everyone at work I’d lost, as people at work knew I was doing it. After it was aired on television, I carried on working at Launceston Place up until a few weeks ago.
HAVE YOU WORKED ANYWHERE ELSE SINCE YOU WON?
I’ve just spent a week at Noma in Copenhagen, and a few days at The Ledbury in London as well, it’s a really nice kitchen and somewhere I’d like to work. I’m just exploring my options at the moment.
HAS MICHEL ROUX JR BEEN SUPPORTIVE OF YOUR CAREER?
I’ve spoken to him a few times since the show and he’s always said he will help me out in any way he can. I’m going to Le Gavroche to spend a week or so there in the next few weeks so that’s something I’m really looking forward to. He is a really nice guy so it’s great to have someone like that on my side.
YOU SAID BEFORE THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO OPEN YOUR OWN RESTAURANT. DO YOU HAVE ANY PLANS TO DO THIS IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
I’m hoping to next year. But it’s a case of finding investment and I want to make sure I’ve learnt as much as possible before I do it, I don’t just want to jump into it because I won MasterChef. It’ll be British food but with modern techniques. Working at Launceston Place, I’ve had a big education in cooking British food to a really high level and that’s massively influenced the way I cook.