By Louise Rhind-Tutt
Over the past seven weeks we’ve watched 56 eager contestants whittled down to just three remaining finalists, before one will be crowned MasterChef 2018 champion tonight (13 April).
The contestants have undertaken a series of gruelling challenges across 25 episodes, from invention tests and working in professional kitchens to cooking for the nation’s most intimidating critics.
The series has not been without its controversies.
Judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace were criticised for eliminating Malaysian-born Zaleha Kadir Olpin from the quarter-finals of the competition after being left disappointed by her chicken rendang – a dish they claimed should have “crispy skin”. Many Malaysian viewers disagreed.
During finals week, some viewers worried that a Peruvian dish of piranha skin and tartare, served on a dish of toothy gaping fish heads, would give them nightmares. “That is quite frightening, that bowl,” observed John.
Not everyone was put off, though. Holiday specialists Travelbag saw a 1,204 per cent increase in searches on its Peru web page following the episode from holidaymakers inspired by South America’s diverse culinary destination.
Viewers love watching the ups and downs from the comfort of their sofa, but what’s it really like for contestants on the show? We spoke to the final three – David Crichton, Nawamin Pinpathomrat and Kenny Tutt – to find out.
‘Nothing can prepare you’
Walking into the MasterChef studio for the first time is a daunting experience.
“Nothing can prepare you,” says David, a 40-year-old airline pilot from Stockport. “It makes the pressure of the invention test even harder.”
Kenny, a 35-year-old bank manager from Worthing, initially found meeting Gregg and John nerve-wracking. “But luckily they were just the same as on they are on TV, very down to earth and a pleasure to talk to,” he says.
Cooking in a restaurant kitchen and serving their creations to renowned chefs was also something that made the finalists anxious.
“Meeting and cooking for greats like Nathan Outlaw, Tommy Banks, Ashley Palmer-Watts, Theo Randell, Virgilio Martinez and the great Gaston was scary as I love what they do,” says Kenny.
The heat of a professional kitchen
The pressure of cooking in a professional kitchen was the most intimidating moment for 27-year-old Nawamin, a doctor from Thailand who is studying for his PhD in Oxford.
“But I enjoyed every single moment of it,” he says. “Even though I broke quite a few eggs!”
Comments from judges, chefs and critics help to motivate the contestants during the series, especially when they’re complimentary.
“When John handed my guinea fowl dish back to me and said, ‘people win MasterChef cooking plates like this,’ that was my proudest moment,” says David. “It meant a lot.”
For Kenny, it was the judges declaring his food “restaurant standard” that was most encouraging. “It made me realise I was meant to be in the competition,” he says.
The finalists were inspired by the professional chefs on the series, although cooking in a restaurant environment is understandably nerve-wracking for any amateur cook.
“The chefs are all demanding in a way, and rightly so,” says Kenny. “They need to be as that’s how you produce the best and they want perfection.
“Tommy Banks was really encouraging and was really calm throughout. It was naturally motivating as you really wanted to get it right for him. Virgilio Martinez was also really good to work with, amazingly talented and really encouraging.”
“I’ve learned a lot from all the chefs as they share the same passion I have for cooking,” says Nawamin.
Dealing with the restaurant critics
Cooking for family and friends at home is one thing, but having professional restaurant critics judge their dishes was a new challenge for the budding chefs.
“It’s tough,” admits Kenny. “They don’t pull any punches, and they’ve eaten at the best restaurants in the world. Rightly or wrongly, negative reviews can make for a more exciting read, so you have to make sure you get it right.
“At the end of the day they just want great and exciting food, so that’s what you try to do.”
“I tried not to think about who they were and just focused on cooking,” says Nawamin. “I cooked for them the same way I would cook for my family and just tried to deliver the best dish I could.”
It’s not necessarily the most positive feedback that has the biggest impact. When John and Gregg didn’t like Nawamin’s Pad Thai, it was a turning point that encouraged him to try harder to impress them.
“You can’t be a MasterChef finalist without constructive criticism,” he says.
‘Food is epic – it’s emotional’
Though the show is often an emotional rollercoaster, the final three all agree that they have come a long way, no matter who wins.
“To be a better chef, you have to keep learning,” believes Nawamin. “Like being a doctor or a scientist, really.”
“MasterChef has taught me how to refine a dish,” says David. “I also learned not to put too many things on a plate.”
For Kenny, the biggest revelation has been the way cooking can evoke poignant memories and emotive responses.
“Food is epic,” he says. “It’s emotional stuff. A mouthful can take you back to a childhood memory which can make you smile or wince. It’s just made it even more important to me than it already was.”
So how would they sum up their MasterChef journey in one word?
“Phenomenal,” says Kenny.
“Priceless,” adds David.
And for Nawamin? “Joy.”
MasterChef: The Final, tonight (13 April), 8.30pm on BBC One
This article originally appeared on our sister title, iNews