Meet the Masterchef finalists

As the final three get ready to cook their way to the finish line, Dale, Natalie and Larkin talk their toughest moments, culinary ambitions and recipes for success

Dale, 28, is a recruitment consultant from Cardiff

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Toughest moment: beef bourguignon for 100

The mass-catering round didn’t play to my strengths at all: a cut of meat that needed slow-cooking, two and a half hours and 100 people to feed. If I were doing beef bourguignon at home, I’d cook it for five hours. But the worst moment came the next day when my team-mates, Larkin and Saira, were fast-tracked and I had to go into the knockout. One minute we were standing there arm-in-arm; the next I was on my own. I thought my time was up.

Recipe for success

I’m from a tight-knit family and food has always been part of our coming together. As a kid, I was spoilt because my mum rarely cooked the same thing twice. Every month or so, my three sisters and I take it in turns to host. We started off throwing together one course, but once one person did a three-course meal, the next person would beat it by adding an amuse-bouche, the next would add a cheese board… over the years it’s turned into six-course menus with matching wine! There’s always been a competitive edge to my cooking.

Showstopper: chicken burger with coleslaw, fries and barbecue sauce, served with chicken lollipops and crispy chicken skin

The look on John and Gregg’s faces when I said I was making chicken burgers! I was doing it for shock value: I wanted to cook something more fun, more like the food I make at home. Normally I’m quite a measured bloke but the pressure was building, building, building… The nerves make your hands shake; something that would be really simple any other time turns into a Rubik’s cube. So when you get good feedback, the relief pulls on your heartstrings a little.

Ambition

I’d like to get into food production or the restaurant trade. I’ve a lot of respect and admiration for chefs but it’s never been a desire of mine; I couldn’t do what those guys do and work 15 hours a day in a kitchen


Larkin, 28, was born in Cardiff and works as a solicitor in Bristol

Toughest moment: Irish fish chowder with soda bread

I thought I’d blown my chances after the palate test because I was the only one who didn’t replicate the dish at all. Everyone else made a chowder. I did some sort of… I don’t know what I did. I was racking my brains trying to remember the last time I made bread. I’ve never even eaten soda bread so I didn’t realise that’s what it was; I just knew there was something dense and weird about it. When it came to the chowder I was going on instinct. Perhaps my subconscious didn’t like the fact that the prawns looked a bit boiled; I prefer mine caramelised. In any case
I did my own thing without thinking.

Recipe for success

I hardly ever cook. I find it difficult to fit in around work. I’ve surprised a lot of my friends and family because they’ve never seen me behind a stove. My parents have a Chinese takeaway but tried to keep me away from the kitchen so I’d focus on my studies. I was always interested, though: I remember watching my mum chopping away, soaking it all up. I daydream all the time about food and dishes I’d like to do, but my ideas rarely make it onto a plate. I have a good palate, what I didn’t have is experience or techniques. Before I applied for MasterChef, I’d never made a dessert in my life. So I’ve had to teach myself a lot along the way.

Showstopper: smoked paella with breast of guinea fowl, lobster and black pudding

No one in their right mind would try and make this in an hour and a half. I came up with the idea on the train home from the previous round and that night I made my first ever paella. The trickiest bit was balancing the smoke: too strong and it tastes like burnt wood. Even the day before the competition, it wasn’t quite right and I was sick of paella because I’d eaten so much – no wonder I’ve turned into a right little porker! I was so chuffed when it worked.

Ambition

If the opportunity arose, I’d really like to showcase Chinese food on TV. When people think of Chinese food, they often think: fried, colouring, MSG. But there’s so much more to it than dirty takeaways. In my opinion it rivals French cuisine for amazing tastes, textures and skill.


Natalie, 29, lives in London, and combines a job in finance with DJ work

Toughest moment: stir-fry beef with peanuts and choi sum

I was out of my depth. I’ve cooked Thai food in the past but following a recipe, and nothing more complicated than a Pad Thai. They didn’t show it but I actually cooked two dishes and threw one in the bin! I started off stir-frying peanuts and chillies. Halfway through I thought, “This is wrong” and began again, making a paste instead. That wasn’t the only stressful round. Often I was only sleeping two or three hours a night because of the nerves.

Recipe for success

I’m self-taught. I moved out when I was 18 so it was purely a practical thing. Then I became addicted to cookery programmes: some weekends I’d watch them from the minute I woke until I went to bed. I’d think, “Oh, I could do that.” Last year I got made redundant and really wanted to do a food diploma, but I had to put it off because I couldn’t find a part-time job to support myself. And then I got accepted onto MasterChef. It’s the fifth year I’ve applied; to finally be here is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Showstopper: pigeon breast served on a celeriac purée with orange-braised lentils, chicory and roasted hazelnuts

I’d eaten pigeon once when I was out and I wanted to cook something new. So I spent three days creating a recipe with the help of my flavour thesaurus. I practised it five times. I even got up at five o’clock that morning to cook it before I went in. My mum wouldn’t test it – she thinks pigeons are vermin – so the only person I’d tested it on was myself. That’s why I cried when I got those lovely comments from John and Gregg. I couldn’t help myself.

Ambition

I’d like to work in a restaurant because there’s still so much to learn. I loved the professional kitchen round. When we walked in, it was like being in a sauna and we were running around like headless chickens. But once we got into the service and I started getting it right, there was a real buzz. I didn’t want it to end. I thought, “This is what I want to do.”


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MasterChef continues tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1