I was a criminal barrister, and didn’t know how to break into food. I had always wanted to be a jobbing chef, and MasterChef looked like a really good shortcut to the kitchen! I had never won anything before in my life, and I’ve never wanted anything so much. The kitchen suits me so much better than law – I’m much happier now. Lawyers are fastidious and detailed, but I’m really quite flippant and have the attention span of a gnat! The kitchen absorbs me, I’m hyper and adrenalised there. After I won MasterChef, Le Gavroche was my immediate port of call – and Michel Roux Jr is still a very supportive ally.
After that I worked at Bentley’s in Mayfair, which had always been my favourite restaurant, The Priory in Bath and Rick Stein’s restaurant in Cornwall. The glamour does fall away a bit once you start working. You go from making a few plates of food for John Torode and Gregg Wallace to working 16 hours a day, and sleeping on park benches on a break like a hobo! It was sobering. Cheffing is so physical – you’re on your feet all the time and you don’t really have time to eat. Your social life disappears, with early starts and late finishes, but I love the kitchen camaraderie, it’s like being in the military. A good team gelling is real brothersin-arms stuff: the kitchen becomes your life and there’s nothing like it. Also, the ridiculously rude humour has always attracted me!
I still love to be hands-on, even now I’m head chef. When I cook, I’m in a state of bliss. But I’ve become so fascinated by the business side of this world, which I never imagined I’d say. I used to think, “I’m an artist, I just want to cook!” with an arrogant swagger, but now I realise the whole point is to make money, which is quite difficult in restaurants, and I love getting the figures from the accountant at the end of the week! There’s nothing like the thrill of service: getting the most from a ramshackle team of chefs and feeding huge numbers of people and wondering, “How did we manage that?” I can see myself moving into hotel management. I completely adore my job, but being a chef isn’t terribly well paid – it would be nice to make some money!
The former project manager, 35, was born to Mauritian parents and opened her restaurant, Lakaz Maman, in Southampton in 2016
Doing MasterChef was part of my quarter-life crisis. I was heading towards 30 and knew that cooking was something I’d always wanted to do. Mauritians always think about their next meal and my family life centred around food. Every time my friends came over they said, “You love this, why don’t you do it for real?”
When I was 14 I had tried to do a catering apprenticeship but my mum said not to because it wasn’t a good enough profession at the time. I applied to MasterChef on a whim and it was a complete shock when I got the call – I thought it was a friend taking the mick.
After I won I wanted to open a restaurant, but I’m not from a very wealthy background and didn’t have any investment money to do that. Instead I worked in lots of kitchens in London, wrote two cookbooks and saved up every penny.
I was then able to move back to Southampton to open my restaurant Lakaz Maman (Mum’s House in Mauritian Creole) in 2016. The first month was mad because I hadn’t figured out how to get suppliers; I was still learning. It felt like having hypothermia – I couldn’t breathe properly! For the first three months my mum was my sous chef.
Opening a restaurant is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, harder than the MasterChef finals. I have a nine-month-old daughter so having her and a brand-new restaurant means I’m a sleep-deprived zombie – but I’m so glad I did it because it’s changed my life. I’d like to open more Lakaz Maman branches in the future.
The former data manager, 41, has written a cookbook and, six months ago, opened a restaurant called Wood Manchester
I’d watched MasterChef since I was a kid – I’m one of those people who had always sat on the sofa shouting at the TV thinking, “I can do that!”
I was working in data science at a university, and one day I got an email that rubbed me up the wrong way. I saw an advert on Facebook that said “Apply now”, so I did!
After I won, I never did another day in the office. It’s a phenomenally difficult competition – much harder than you see on TV!
Hearing my name announced as the winner was surreal – life changed straight away, and I grabbed every opportunity with both hands. I never wanted to just do food festivals and demonstrations, or even to write a book (which I did and I loved): I wanted to be a chef. I went to work at Marcus Wareing restaurants, Theo Randall restaurants, Simon Rimmer’s restaurant – and after that, I got offered the executive chef position at Oldham Athletic football club.
For me, that was perfect and it helped me to become the head chef that I am now at my own restaurant, which we opened six months ago. It’s a dream come true. MasterChef was the platform I needed: if I had gone into cooking at 18 straight after college, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.
I love every day in my job – there’s nothing better than putting your heart and soul into a plate of food, giving it to a customer, watching them enjoy it and see the empty plate go back to the pot wash!
Saliha Mahmood Ahmed
The gastroenterologist from Ickenham, Middlesex, is 30 and lives in Watford with her husband, who’s also a doctor, and their two-year-old son
I didn’t decide to do MasterChef, my husband Usman put my application in without telling me. I was on maternity leave and finding it quite difficult, having gone from working all the time as a medic to being at home with a little baby. It wasn’t until MasterChef that I realised I could have a cookery career as well as be a doctor, which I never want to give up.
To manage both I’ve cut down my hours in the hospital so I have Mondays and Tuesdays off to fulfil my foodie dream. I spend those days plus weekends developing recipes for my cookery book and Friday nights after work I travel to food festivals up and down the country doing pop-up restaurants at those. It just boils down to working and working and working and when you’re tired, just continuing to work!
I come from a really foodie family – my mum and my grandma, who has now passed away, were the gold standard in cooking and I’m very much still an apprentice. My cooking works because I do it with such affection. There are colleagues I owe meals to – I said I’d cook for them in return for them doing my hospital shift so I could film MasterChef. My patients frequently recognise me and it’s odd, because they want to ask me lots of food questions and I want to ask them questions about their health. Winning MasterChef was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I sometimes still have to pinch myself.
Saliha’s cookbook Khazana is out in September
The MasterChef 2018 final is on Friday 13th April at 8.30pm on BBC1