How to win MasterChef: past finalists share their secrets

“Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this”. MasterChef’s famous catchphrase encapsulates perfectly why we’re all glued to our screens every time a new series of the cooking contest is on air. Now in its tenth series, the competition on this year’s MasterChef is fiercer than ever, and the challenges even more terrifying. So, what does it take to hold your nerve and make it all the way through to the finals? Is it possible to plan a winning strategy? We put the question to three successful previous MasterChef contestants to find out. Take note: if you’ve ever fancied yourself as a future contender, you’d be wise to follow their advice.

Our panel of experts

Dean Edwards - finalist on MasterChef 2006, now resident chef on ITV’s Lorraine and author of Mincespiration!

Tim Anderson – American-born, Japanese-influenced winner of MasterChef 2011. Soon to be author of the Nanban cookbook (out September).

Shelina Permalloo – winner of MasterChef 2010, and now author of Sunshine on a Plate, a collection of recipes celebrating her Mauritian heritage.

The Ultimate MasterChef Survivor’s Guide – 9 Top Tips from the experts

1: You can never have enough recipes up your sleeve

Dean: “If you think you have enough recipes in your repertoire then think again. I ended up cooking a dish in the final that I had never cooked before. It cost me big time.”

Helpful note from The Happy Foodie: you could try starting with this Chocolate Fondant recipe from the MasterChef Cookery Course book.

2: Brush up on fundamentals

Tim: “Many MasterChef challenges require you to come up with recipes on the spot, and this is where a lot of contestants suffer. I prepared by memorising basic recipes and methods (I even made flashcards), which show the judges technical skill and also give you blank platforms to build dishes on. For example, I committed to memory recipes for pasta dough, custard, shortcrust pastry, demi-glace and hollandaise sauces, and since I cooked a lot of Japanese food, I also made sure I knew how to make noodle dough, dashi, and gyoza wrappers. If you can pull things like these out of your bag of tricks, it will expand your repertoire and allow you to excel at invention tests and offsite catering challenges.”

3: Never let a past contestant’s mistake go un-noticed

Dean: “It’s an amazing experience to take part in MasterChef. Take in as much as you can and learn from previous contestants’ mistakes. Every year I hear Gregg say "a risotto is a dish on its own, it doesn't need accompaniment" yet people still serve up beautiful risotto topped with a chicken breast. If you cannot take on board tips from the likes of Michel Roux Jr and Martin Blunos, then I'm afraid the first round is far as you are gonna get!”

4: May the mentors be with you…

Shelina: “Read as much as you can and learn from every mentor on the show - it will set you up in good stead for future skills tests and challenges.”

5: Know which side your bread is buttered on

Dean: “Suck up to John and Gregg. A super sweet pudding never goes amiss. Ha ha.”

6: Be organised – make lists

Tim: “I learned this very late in the competition, when I was working with chef John Campbell to make a meal for Michelin-starred chefs. I was in the shit, as they say, and John could see panic getting the best of me – I was starting to cut corners and get careless. So he pulled me aside and had me spend 5 minutes writing a list of what I had left to do. I was reluctant to take a break from prep, even for that amount of time, but what a difference it made. It allowed me to see exactly what I had to do and what to prioritise, and it calmed me down immensely.”

7: Look ‘em in the eye, and cook from the heart

Tim: “John Torode always told us that when we brought our food before the judges, we should serve it with a smile. If you’re confident and happy with the food you’ve produced, it will reflect onto the diners. And of course it’s easier to have that confidence if you’re actually cooking something you’re excited about.”

8: Actually, don’t! Never look ‘em in the eye!

Shelina: “Don't look John and Gregg in the eye. If you’re nervous, this will just increase your anxiety. It is always best to look at the floor when they are judging and tasting your food! 

 9: Cook what you love

Shelina: “It's easy to look at others in the competition and see what they are doing, but remember your food style and stick to what you love to cook.”

Dean Edwards’ Mincespiration! and Shelina Permalloo’s Sunshine on a Plate are both out now. Tim Anderson’s Nanban will be published in the autumn.

Want more help to make you a MasterChef contender? Check out the Chocolate Fondant recipe from the MasterChef Cookery Course book (if you learn to make everything in the book, it's time to apply for the series!).

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