Each year talented working chefs are put through their paces in front of a television audience of millions as they attempt to impress Michel Roux Jr and Gregg Wallace enough to win the coveted MasterChef: The Professionals title. Last year‘s finalist Marianne Lumb talks to FIONA FORMAN about her experience on the show and how it felt to be the only female chef in the last three.
One of television’s toughest cooking contests, BBC Two’s MasterChef: The Professionals helps young chefs realise their dream by reaching the top of the culinary ladder. Talented competitors battle it out in front of millions of viewers through a series of challenges, including cooking at three- Michelin-star restaurants for some of the world’s leading chefs and harshest food critics. As a judge, along with Gregg Wallace, Michel’s natural presenting style has been a huge hit with the viewers, while his opinions help make or break the contenders’ chances of walking away with the coveted MasterChef: The Professionals title.
Michel’s work with the contestants doesn’t end with the filming, however. Off air, many continue to be mentored by him. One such student is Marianne Lumb, a finalist in the 2009 series who has her own private catering company, with clients including A-List celebrities. She was the first female finalist on the programme and since appearing on the show has worked at Le Gavroche, celebrated the success of a best- selling book and been inundated with offers from some of the biggest names in food.
WHERE DID YOUR LOVE OF FOOD STEM FROM?
From my family. My father was a butcher and my mother hosted really lovely dinner parties while I was growing up, and I have always been very greedy! You know how some babies won’t eat? I wasn’t like that – it’s genetic, I think.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO SET UP YOUR OWN PRIVATE CATERING COMPANY?
It was a natural progression really. I started cooking for my own dinner parties on my days off, which gave me the confidence to do it professionally. I love the freedom it gives – I’m not confined to one style of cooking – and the fact that I’m doing all of the menu rather than just the meat or the vegetables. It does have its downsides though – the food is never as perfect as it would be if it were cooked in a restaurant, because there’s only an assistant and me.
YOU HAVE COOKED FOR A-LIST CELEBRITIES, DID YOU FIND THAT A CHALLENGE?
I found it very exciting and quite fascinating. Ten years ago the company really took off and everyone was calling me. The people who have access to the best restaurants are usually incredibly well-educated about food, so cooking for people like that is fantastic because you learn a lot from them too. I think all chefs cook to the best of their abilities no matter who’s eating the food.
ARE THERE ANY CHEFS THAT YOU PARTICULARLY LOOK UP TO?
Definitely. Nigella Lawson because she was writing her Vogue column when I was just starting out and I have always loved her stuff. More recently women like Hélène Darroze, Claire Smyth and Angela Hartnett – I love Murano, it’s one of my favourite restaurants. I think they’re amazingly dedicated to get to where they are today. In terms of male chefs, Gordon Ramsay – he has had a bit of a rough time recently but what he has done is brilliant – Marco Pierre White and, of course, the Roux brothers, they’re all fantastic cooks. I think we are very lucky in England to have such an amazing array of talented chefs.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS HAD A GOOD PALETTE?
I have always been very aware of seasoning. I remember seasoning mashed potato at a very young age and being quite fascinated by it, so I think so. I’ve got a good sense of smell as well and I think that it’s all linked. I believe maybe you have to be born with it. Saying that I don’t think I’m terribly gifted as a chef, but because I have worked hard I have developed.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE DISH TO COOK?
I think the most popular dish so far is my rhubarb tarte tatin – a lot of my clients request it. In fact I cooked it just the other day because it’s the perfect time in the season.
HAD YOU WORKED IN A RESTAURANT KITCHEN BEFORE THE SHOW?
Yes, but many years ago. The last time I was in the kitchen for any real length was in 1999. I think the more time I could have spent in one before MasterChef: The Professionals the better. I have experience of many different roles within the food industry, so I’ve spent some time in various restaurant kitchens abroad as well.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO ENTER MASTERCHEF: THE PROFESSIONALS? HAD YOU EVER WATCHED THE SHOW BEFORE?
I hadn’t actually seen the programme because there was only one series before mine, but to be honest I had been looking for something like that for quite a while – to get on television is a great thing to do for your career. I think one of the main reasons was because I was writing the Kitchen Knife Skills book at the time, and I knew that even if it was a fantastically written book it never really would have got anywhere without commercial backing. Also I wanted to know how good my food was, so my agent said: “Come on, you should really do this.”
DID YOU EVER THINK YOU WOULD GET AS FAR AS YOU DID IN THE COMPETITION?
It was really weird – I got into the competition and was just incredibly focused. I had never felt as confident before. It was a strange feeling. People have said to me: “You are not usually that confident”, but I think I am just a bit shy about my cooking. During the show I got this amazing drive from nowhere. All three of us had to earn our place in the final, it was really tough.
HOW DID YOUR COOKING TECHNIQUE DIFFER FROM THE OTHER TWO FINALISTS?
The fact that they were from restaurant kitchens did concern me a little bit. The food I cook is not really restaurant style, it is more what people want to eat at home so tends to be much more relaxed. Steve has a fantastic repertoire of modern techniques and Daniel is very solid and traditional. I knew the judges would love my food because they eat in restaurants that arguably are quite fussy and try a bit too hard, so I geared the menu towards refreshing their palette and making them something utterly delicious.
YOU WERE THE ONLY FEMALE FINALIST AND ONE OF FEW WOMEN IN THE COMPETITION – DO YOU THINK GOURMET COOKING IS A MAN’S WORLD?
A lot of the kitchens I cooked in on the show were very male dominated and even the ones I have worked in were much the same, but I didn’t ever feel singled out for being a woman. Now women run some of the best kitchens in London, for example Le Gavroche and Royal Hospital Road, so I think it’s really changing and evolving all the time.
DID YOU FIND THE PRESSURE OF THE SHOW DIFFICULT TO DEAL WITH?
It was incredibly difficult. I have been under pressure in the past but the cooking was the easy part – it was everything else that came with it. I can remember sitting in the waiting room before I went in just trying to control my nerves. Going on MasterChef: The Professionals has been so good for me, I’m very confident now.
WHAT WERE THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF YOUR TIME ON THE PROGRAMME?
A really low point for me was running out of time when I was cooking, not getting the chance to complete my dishes was torture. Working with the food critics and cooking in Sketch were both really fantastic so they were the high points by far. I went to Sketch a few weeks ago and apparently their sales have gone through the roof because we were there on the show.
HOW DID YOU FIND THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING WITH MICHEL AND GREGG?
They are fantastic. I wasn’t too sure what I would think of Gregg at first, but he is really jolly and great fun, but very professional. Michel was amazing to work with; he was so inspiring and he’s such a high pedigree of chef.
WHICH WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT OF ALL THE TASKS IN THE FINAL?
Cooking at Chelsea Football Club for the sporting VIPs I think, that was a nightmare. It was a real brick wall of pressure, the electricity went off, I couldn’t tie my asparagus – it was horrendous.
WERE YOU DISAPPOINTED WHEN STEVE WON?
I was a little bit, but having got to the final and getting all the praise I did, I knew it didn’t really matter. I’m delighted for Steve, he’s a great guy and very talented. I think everyone else I know was more disappointed for me than I was. I felt very proud of what I had done.
HOW WAS THE PERIOD BETWEEN THE END OF FILMING AND THE SHOW BEING AIRED?
That was a really odd time because you can’t tell anyone what happened for five months until the show airs. I went back to my day job and focused on finishing my book and getting ready for its launch. Nothing really prepares you for five million people watching you on television. I watched myself back from behind a pillow thinking ‘I can’t believe I did that’, it was just so hard. But I have come away from the competition knowing I couldn’t possibly have put anything more into it.
SINCE THE SHOW, YOU SPENT TIME WORKING AT LE GAVROCHE, WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
I went there in the last week of March and I really enjoyed it. The restaurant is amazing: it is a well-oiled machine. There is a fantastic team and Michel is great, and it’s extremely busy. The food is just beautiful; a chef there was making crackling and I have never tasted anything like it. I should go back to Le Gavroche for longer and would love to, but I’m just incredibly busy at the moment.
HOW DID THE IDEA FOR YOUR BOOK COME ABOUT?
I was approached by a publisher to write it – I had been wanting to do a book for ages but hadn’t quite got a good idea nailed down, I think because my career is so diverse. I was very happy to cover such a mutual topic and really enjoyed the process. In the beginning I didn’t realise I would be able to write 30,000 words on knife skills, but I’m really delighted with it.
HAS BEING ON MASTERCHEF: THE PROFESSIONALS OPENED DOORS?
Very much so, I’ve had a lot of offers and have got a lot of contracts going back and forth. My book sold out in November, probably because five million people had watched the show and it came out not long before Christmas.
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?
The next book is on the cards, but I’m not sure when it’s going to happen. I have just signed a huge contract with a kitchen manufacturer and will be working with them consulting on products. I’m still doing lots of dinner parties, more than I did in the past really and that’s thanks to the show. I’m also working with a very cool food and drink company on developing new ranges, so I’m really busy.
DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD EVER LIKE TO OPEN YOUR OWN RESTAURANT?
Maybe, there are loads of opportunities out there and it’s a really exciting time for me.