A kind of kitchen confidential: Nadia, Samantha and Holly dish the dirt on 'Celebrity MasterChef'
As 'Celebrity MasterChef' returns to TV3 with new judges and a dynamic line-up, three of this year's contestants - Nadia Forde, Samantha Mumba and Holly Carpenter - talk to our reporter about chopping chives, taking criticism and channelling their inner domestic goddess. And explain how there is far more to making it in the kitchen than just being able to stand the heat.
Celebrity MasterChef is back, - great news for the many of us who love nothing more than the sight of harassed celebrities clutching bunches of green stuff and desperately shouting: "Which one is chives?" Or shedding bitter tears as they watch their hollandaise sauce curdle beyond redemption.
Judges this year are Robin Gill of The Dairy restaurant in Clapham, and Daniel Clifford of the two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House in Cambridge. The celebs include Colm O'Gorman, Evelyn Cusack, Niamh Kavanagh, Sonia O'Sullivan, Oisin McConville, Simon Delaney, Mundy, Nadia Forde, Holly Carpenter and Samanatha Mumba.
The last three are all veterans of reality TV at this stage, having racked up, between them, stints on I'm A Celebrity. . . Get Me Out of Here! Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model and Dancing on Ice, respectively. But this, I would argue, is different.
The MasterChef stakes are far higher in a funny kind of way. After all, audiences watch with rather more attention, because so much of what happens on the show is within our ken. We, mostly, know a little about cooking, some even know a lot, and so we watch, we judge, we consider and compare in a way we can't really when basic survival is at stake, a catwalk jaunt is to be attempted, or a series of complicated skating moves are to be learned. That is a more idle form of curiosity, MasterChef is a beady appraisal.
Because, with cooking, there is nowhere to hide. You can't style out a dismal starter, or succeed in making a wonderful dessert simply through the kind of grit and determination that will allow you to eat kangaroo balls. You can't distract from an unappealing dish with a whole load of twirls and flounces.
All you can do is prepare and execute ingredients as meticulously as possible, then stand back and allow your carefully constructed dish to be discussed, dissected, criticised and sometimes praised. The proof of this pudding is very much in the eating.
"Initially I said no," Nadia Forde says, of the suggestion that she enter Celebrity MasterChef. "Cooking is really not my thing, and I was really reluctant to get involved. My cooking is very basic - protein, some veg on the side, I eat the same stuff all the time. I'm boring in that way. My boyfriend and I eat to fuel ourselves rather than thinking about creativity or the history of food, so I was like, 'Oh no . . . I can't.' I've watched the show, and it's great, but I thought you need some basic skills to be involved."
But she changed her mind? "I think the producers were looking for people at all different skill levels, and, with me, it was the bottom level! They came back and said, 'We know you're not a confident cook, but we still want you to do it', so I said, 'OK, as long as they know what they're getting!'"
And is she pleased she did it? "You can only come out of something like that having learned something, gained something," Nadia says. "The jungle on I'm a Celebrity. . . was an amazing experience and MasterChef is on a level with that. You walk away having gained something." And, in fact, without giving anything away, Nadia did better than she expected. "I thought I'd be the first out, but I wasn't. I wasn't as bad as I thought, which was nice."
So what were the hardest parts, for her? "Bar eating out in restaurants, I don't know a lot about food. I never really thought about it, beyond whether I like something or not. So it was a massive learning curve. I know far more now about cooking than I ever did, and the process of me going through that is all caught on camera."
"I had just come back from Japan before we started filming, and over there, they don't even have Western-style ovens," she says. "They have fish ovens, and grills that you use to cook on your kitchen table. So even though I knew I was doing the show, I couldn't practise, which meant that walking into the MasterChef kitchen for the first time, I was definitely daunted. I was terrified - and people watching the show will see that whole journey."
"My nerves, more than anything, were hard," Nadia says. "The challenges are pretty difficult even for a seasoned chef, to be told: 'Taste this and recreate it'. Every week, it got more and more terrifying. Walking in to the studio, you never knew what you were going to get hit with. They would throw things at us we could never have expected. I remember one person watching a YouTube video of how to fillet a fish in the green room, just in case it came up. You're making everything from scratch - cutting meat and fish from the bone - and I found that hard. It's not like you're buying something from the supermarket neatly filleted - it's basically, 'There's your salmon, with the head and the eyes intact, now get on with it!' It's a whole education on food, what we eat, how we eat, where food comes from; a whole, huge learning curve."
And now? "My attitude has changed so much. Now, when I go to a restaurant, I realise there is so much more behind each dish," she explains. "I now know what a reduction is. My confidence in the kitchen is much greater. I'm doing dishes I would never have tackled before and taking ownership of them. I don't feel that food is just fuel, my attitude to it is different. I'm not filleting fish at home, but I know how to. I know a good cut, if the fish is in good condition, how long it's been there, what colour the gills should be."
Everyone, Nadia says, progressed during the span of the show. "Even the ones who came in with good cooking skills got better. And the thing for viewers to remember is, if I can make it, anyone can make it! If I can conquer it, anyone else in the world can conquer it! It might look complicated, but it is possible."
Samantha Mumba went into Celebrity MasterChef with the kind of culinary experience so many of us have. "I wouldn't say I'm an incredible chef," she says, "but I cook a lot at home, for my family, and have done for years." However, she may have more interest than most. "At one stage, I thought of going to culinary school in the States. Between one thing and another, I didn't get to do that, then Celebrity MasterChef came about and I thought: 'Great! A chance to learn from incredible chefs.' I thought it would be a really, really good experience, and it has been."
So what kind of food does she cook? "Because I've been living in the States for the guts of 10 years now, I would be influenced by the trends there, in terms of flavourings and seasonings," Samantha says. "I wouldn't have a set type of dish that I cook; it's basically wholesome dinners. And I wouldn't be very fancy, or even very good on presentation."
And how was the experience? "I was right about learning loads!" she laughs. "I don't think there was one day I didn't come home having learned something. And it was far more of a challenge than I expected. When I cook at home, I don't like people in the kitchen with me, or looking over my shoulder. It's a case of: 'Everybody out!' So that was a big thing - having people watching me and asking me questions. That really threw me off at first. But even more than that was the time pressure. When you're cooking dinner at home, there's no pressure. It's ready when it's ready. Here, you had an hour or so, and then you had to stop, finished or not. I found that really, really difficult."
What else was challenging? "There were times when there would be a mystery box to cook with," Samantha says, "which means you open the box, and you have to cook with whatever's in there. And these wouldn't be your usual ingredients - some of the stuff in there I'd never even heard of before. That is hard. If you've never heard of something, you don't know how to cook it or even what it should taste like.
"And the process of being judged is really scary, to be honest," Samantha adds. "I felt like I was back in school. You really want to do well, because you don't want to disappoint the judges. You're not even competing against everyone else at that stage, you're competing against yourself, because you can only do what you can do. But even so, being critiqued and judged in front of everyone else is nerve-racking."
What kind of vibe was there with the other contestants? "It was competitive - it is a competition - but also, it wasn't," she says. "I totally felt I was competing against myself, and I just wanted to do the best I could and learn the most that I could. And there was great support from the other contestants. Once the cooking starts, you go into your own zone, but if you saw someone struggling or looking for something, you'd help them out. I hadn't met the other competitors before, but I've made really great friends out of it. Everybody was really nice."
So was there anything that surprised her? "As you go along, you get really into it." she says. "You don't want to go home. I was amazed at how much I learned, and shocked at how much I wanted to stay. There were moments when things didn't go to plan, dishes didn't turn out the way I expected. And, yes, you think, 'Get over it', but in that moment, that's what your priority is, and it is so disappointing. Because you want to do your best."
Would she say she has a different approach to food and cooking now? "Oh, 100pc. I will never cook the same again," she laughs. "I am a better cook, and I have a new appreciation of food. Even going to restaurants now, I see food differently, because I understand the process, the time and effort that goes into preparing dishes. And my taste buds have changed a bit.
Apart from a new appreciation for food, what else is new in her life? "I'm planning on being home in Ireland a bit more. I'm really settled in LA and I love it, but it's great being home. Ideally, I'd have the best of both worlds," she says. "Both for work - there are a few things in the pipeline in Ireland - and for the support I would have, because all my family are here."
Samantha is now the mother of a young child, Sage, nearly two. Of motherhood, Samantha says, "It's brilliant. Sage is 100pc my priority; this is the most rewarding thing I've ever done. I get such a kick out of her, every day. When she was born, I thought, 'What's the big deal? People are so dramatic, this is easy . . . ' And she was a very easy baby. Then one morning I woke up and I had a toddler, and that all changed! Once they're mobile, you just can't blink."
Holly Carpenter is disarmingly honest about her foray into food and cooking. "I jumped on to the bandwagon a bit," she says, "and got into making protein pancakes and all that. But with my Snapchat, I'm always really honest, if I'm making something and it burns and I have to throw it out, I say it. I can be a bit of a klutz in the kitchen, and I admit that. I wouldn't be a food blogger at all, but it's something I had a bit of fun with, and I loved the presentation side of things, taking a nice picture of a dish I've created. And if the food looks good but doesn't taste good, as happens, I can just throw it in the bin."
So what made her say yes to Celebrity MasterChef? "I love those kinds of challenges," she says cheerfully. "And reality TV is always really high pressure and puts me out of my comfort zone. It's totally different to when you're at home with the radio on, cooking away and if you mess up you can start again. I was the youngest contestant on the show - most of the others would be used to cooking big meals, for their families, whereas I'm more used to cooking for one. I found it hard to scale up. I knew it was going to be tough," she says, "but I had no idea it was going to be that tough. I went in quite naive, thinking: 'It'll be fine, I'm sure they give you a few extra minutes if you need it . . .' and how wrong I was!
"I had a few weeks of practice before I went on - my mum was away, which was a pity, because she's naturally a really good cook, but she wasn't here to help me. So I went to a restaurant in Clontarf, Fishbone, because I know the chef, and I spent a couple of days in the kitchen with him, learning how to fillet a fish, make a Hollandaise sauce, that kind of thing. He gave me some really good tips, but even so, I wasn't prepared for the standard. I always knew being a good cook was a skill, but to see people who are that qualified, I realise now, it's an art."
How soon did she begin to realise that? "Immediately," Holly laughs. "The standards of the judges - Daniel Clifford and Robin Gill - were so high. They both have amazing restaurants, years of experience, and they expected real Michelin-star-quality food from the get-go. We were presented with one of Daniel's signature dishes, and we were expected to reach that standard very quickly. I thought that kind of thing would happen in the final, but, in fact, it happens early on. I thought we'd be more mollycoddled, but not a bit of it. If you need to go to the loo, and you only have, say half an hour left, you can't leave the kitchen. I realised straightaway that this was more difficult than I had expected. But I would have been disappointed if it was easy."
The hardest part? "When it really comes down to the wire, when you have 10 minutes left, and time just flies out the window. There are so many different things going on at the one time, and if you take your eye off the ball, even for a second, a dish can be ruined completely. I'm not good with time in general - even if I'm getting ready for a night out, I have to set little alarms for every 20 minutes or I won't have any concept of time. And you get warnings - 'half an hour left, 20 minutes left' - and that was good, but still, between the time pressure, the heat of the studio, the eyes on you. Those times, my make-up was sweating off, my brows were sweating down my face. I thought they'd have people standing by for a bit of powder and lip gloss, but there's nothing like that!"
How did MasterChef compare with doing Next Top Model? "It was a bit similar in that on NTM, I was with Elle Macpherson, who has decades of being the best in her field. It's the same with Daniel and Robin - you're doing your very best, but you're also presenting it to the best of the best. And with food, there is nowhere to hide. You can't cover up the fact that something doesn't taste good. I get too caught up with how things look, because I'm used to being focused on taking a nice photo, and if it tastes crap, I can throw it in the bin afterwards."
The experience, as Holly identifies, is psychologically gruelling as much as physically. "It's an emotional thing as well," she says. "I hope the viewers will understand that. When you're watching these things, you think, 'Would you ever cop on . . .' but when you're in it, it can get really emotional. You're totally caught up in it. When you're under pressure, a lot of things come up. It's a rollercoaster of emotions. On Bake Off, you see people crying over a sponge cake and you think they're crazy, but when you do it, you understand."
Anything surprising she learned about herself as she went along? "I surprised myself in some ways," she says. "I found I could do more than I thought I could, although I also learned that I'm not great at working under pressure. But it showed me I've grown up a lot - I was able to take criticism on board and not get upset. I was 20 when I did Next Top Model, now I'm 25, so you do learn to care less about what people think. There were stages I was beating myself up, thinking I could have done better, but I learned that I can take on a challenge like that and go with it, and have the attitude that if it goes well, it goes well; if it doesn't, it doesn't."
Speaking of NTM, what did she make of the hand of friendship recently extended by Elle Macpherson, with whom Holly didn't always see eye to eye when she was on the show? "Holly has done well, apparently," Elle said. "Good for her. I'm happy to see that." "I thought it was a really nice thing to say," Holly responds. "It's nice that she remembers me, and can come over here and see I'm working really hard. We didn't get on that well, but I always respected her and took everything she said as Bible. It was good to hear her say that, there was a little bit of 20-year-old Holly inside that was going: 'Yes!' It feels like closure."
So what other projects are on the horizon? "I'm working on a [beauty show, What Would Holly Do? for the RTE Player], and I'm working on a product launch as well. It's in the early stages but moving fast," she says. "I've moved away from modelling lately. My passions were always design and writing, and I'm coming back to them."
Photography by Kip Carroll.
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Sunday Indo Life Magazine