Who’d be a MasterChef?

Winning the cookery contest can be life-changing – but it’s not all celebrity and Michelin stars, finds Rosie Millard

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Sharpen the knives, steam-press the linen. Whisk the sauce. MasterChef is back, and the array of amateur chefs trying to prove their worth before judges Gregg and John is more formidable than ever. How do these people do it? And what is their future? Indeed, after watching the agony and ecstasy in the series, you wonder who would want to ever actually work in a kitchen.

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Everyone who is in the show does, says John Torode. “You don’t endeavour to be on MasterChef unless you want to change your life,” says the Australian restaurateur and chef. “It’s time for you to be different, or to scratch the surface of being different.”

So what happens after getting to the finals of MasterChef, or even being chosen to be on the show at all? 

“My job isn’t to determine someone’s life for them. I can’t do that. All Gregg and I can do is say we think you are good enough to win the competition. What they do from then on is totally up to them. And, you know, it’s not always about leaving and opening a restaurant.”

He’s right. A brief survey of finalists shows that yes, they have all changed their lives, but that no, not everyone immediately opens a Michelin-starred restaurant. Reigning champion Ping Coombes has become an advocate of Malaysian cooking across the globe; consulting, devising menus, starring in pop-up restaurants and running a cooking course.

“You don’t have to be in the kitchen for 20 hours a day,” says Coombes, who has a two-year-old daughter, Alexa. “Yes, there is a lot of maternal guilt going on and I feel I don’t spend enough time with my family. Sometimes, I’ll admit, my mind is elsewhere; but you know, the positive far outweighs the negative.”

Is that just the residual buzz of her win, however? Perhaps not. Talking to 2010 finalist Dr Tim Kinnaird, the glory of success seems still to be coursing through his veins. Kinnaird, who gave up a career as a paediatrician to make macarons and patisserie, has not looked back. The most memorable moment for him was the day after it was all over, sitting alone in his kitchen, thinking, what next? He’d thrown everything behind MasterChef. He’d got to the final. He’d given up medicine. Now what?

“I got my head down, and quite quickly was reading books about patisserie,” he says. He made some stuff, and sold it to a local café. He then started his own stall at farmers’ markets, standing in the cold, flogging his macarons. Wasn’t he afraid of failure? “Well, they are notoriously difficult to make, but then there is the challenge of getting them right and perfect, isn’t there?” If you say so.

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Clearly, success post-MasterChef requires bags of nerve. And confidence. Failure just wasn’t in the picture. “I came to realise that you could take your passion and turn it into a job,” says Kinnaird, who has now written two books, employs eight people, has a high-street shop (Macarons & More, in Norwich), a patisserie and a cookery school. “It’s a lot easier than managing doctors, I have to admit.”