Splitting the judges and melting ice cream: the four finalists reveal the secrets of the MasterChef kitchen

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“Why does the ice cream always melt in the MasterChef kitchen?” and all the other burning gastronomic questions we couldn’t not ask this season’s four MasterChef finalists

Words: Colin Crummy

We sit through MasterChef with a serious case of hunger pangs every single season, with the latest one – the 12th with John Torode and Gregg Wallace at the helm – being no exception. It’s been one hell of a culinary ride (albeit a long one – how many episodes?!), one that’s seen coriander triumph in cheesecake form; ham, egg and chips elevated like never before; and John and Gregg disagreeing with vigour over a pear and frangipane tart. And with what feels like 5,000 dishes later, we’re now left with four standout home cooks vying for the title: brand project manager Jack Layer, 27; online production manager Juanita Hennessey, 38; commercial property surveyor Billy Wright, 32; and stay-at-home mum Jane Devonshire, 50. We have no favourites (well, actually, we do – GO JACK! Isn’t he just so happy to be there?), so we got them all together to answer a kitchen-focused Q&A before going oven to oven one last time…

What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with?
Salted butter. You learn on MasterChef that three things make everything taste better – butter, salt and cream. If you get the right balance of those, you’re normally onto a winner.
Jane: Lamb. I can get the most beautiful lamb five miles from where I live in Hampshire.
Juanita: I throw garlic and chilli into most of my food. I’d definitely struggle without them.
Billy: Truffle, because it’s just so decadent and special.

What’s been the highlight of the series for you so far?
Making my coriander cheesecake dessert for critic William Sitwell [episode 9]. He gave me such great feedback.
Billy: My ‘Family Favourites’ dish [episode 14], because it was my first in the competition without any faults. I made a braised beef cheek with fillet steak, an oyster beignet, and an oyster and parsley emulsion.
Jane: Without a doubt, it was my pheasant dish [episode 17]. It’s something l do at home, though this was a much more elevated version with chestnut purée, bacon and chestnut crumb, pickled apple and a really rich cider sauce.
Juanita: I put a lot of heart into my ‘Family Favourites’ dish, too. The night before we filmed that episode, I was crying on the kitchen floor, covered in tomato mousse, clutching a bottle of wine. My husband had to peel me off the floor and tell me there was nothing more I could do.

And the worst moment?
When we went into a professional kitchen [episode 15]. I completely panicked. My fingers stopped working and my head went numb.
Billy: Probably when my ice cream didn’t set. That was particularly frustrating.
Jack: Cooking on the naval boat in Plymouth [episode 19] was particularly tough because of the sheer exhaustion of cooking for 110 people.
Jane: When I cooked my trio of trout dishes [episode 13]. I’ve been left traumatised by that trout! I fly fish with my husband so I cook it all the time but it just went horribly wrong.

What skills do you need to be a really good cook?
Organisation. I write my methods out with timings, with the understanding that something could go wrong.
Juanita: Above all though, you have to actually enjoy cooking. The judges were always drumming that into us.

Tactically, do you cook what you like or do you consider the judges’ preferences?
I cook what I think works and that would be the same for my gran as it would be for John and Gregg.
Billy: I’ve split the judges on a few occasions, so I definitely haven’t been trying to cater just to them. Gregg was convinced my pear and frangipane tart was underdone but John really liked it.
Jane: I don’t think you can think about it like that. As soon as you try to do something clever, they catch you out. If you don’t love it yourself, that comes across.
Juanita: Also, you don’t really know the judges’ tastes until you cook. It’s only when they rock up to your table and tell you that they don’t like oranges that you start to panic because your whole dish is based on oranges.

How is the food not cold by the time John and Gregg taste it?!
It’s not piping hot. But John and Gregg are always wandering around when they’re not on camera, trying little bits. They get a pretty good idea about the dish in advance, probably more so than when they taste it all together.

And why is the ice cream always melted?
Frozen food comes out just before John and Gregg tuck in.
Billy: That’s why it’s always in separate dishes. Once the ice cream’s plated, there’s a short delay while the crew take plate shots and as it sits under the hot TV lights, it can melt.

If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Jack: Pizza because you could put all sorts of different toppings on it.
Jane: A stinky running-off-the-side-of-the-plate blue cheese.
Billy: Vietnamese food. I love bánh mì sandwiches – I don’t think I could live without bread.
Juanita: It’d probably have to be cheese. That’s why I’ve got quite a tummy [laughs].

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Jack: Barbecued mackerel on the beach in Cornwall with some friends just after we’d graduated from university.
Billy: The ten course tasting menu at The Ledbury. The standout dishes were a mackerel tartare and a rhubarb soufflé.
Jane: Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social. I had an amazing squid dish served in the most beautiful broth. It was divine.
Juanita: The 14 course tasting menu at ABaC restaurant in Barcelona. It was very clever.

How much do you worry about the presentation of the food?
Juanita: They do say that you eat with your eyes, so it definitely needs to look visually beautiful – that’s the first impression people will get of your food.
Jane: I regularly cook for 12-20 people at home and that doesn’t faze me; you don’t have to worry about plating. But learning to present food artistically was a completely new skill set for me.
Billy: To be honest, I don’t think about it much [laughs].

Is there an overrated food?
Juanita: All these funny fads like the Paleo diet and spiralised veg. People get so caught up in trends and it tends to take away the pleasure of eating.

What kitchen gadget do you most use and recommend?
Juanita: A tiny Magimix blender I call ‘the whizzer’, which is great for pesto and breadcrumbs.
Billy: I love using a foam gun – it’s great for getting a different texture onto a plate. Hot foams have a luxurious texture because there’s no gelatine in there, it’s all cream. If you get the fat content right, a sauce will foam.
Jack: A really good quality knife. Find out what feels good for you, spend that extra money and you’ll have that knife for 30 odd years.

What is your food dream?
Juanita: I’d love to own a little gastropub with a freehold on the side to rear pigs and have goats to make cheese.
Jack: Oh, I don’t know. To have my own restaurant?
Billy: I thought I’d start my own restaurant but now I’m leaning towards menu development – I’ll let someone else do the hard work. This probably makes me sound like a right lazy sod [laughs].
Jane: That’s something I need to explore – perhaps running a small local bistro or cookery school.

Was there anything that someone else made on the show that you envied?
Jack: Billy’s sherry vinegar ice cream – it was truly inspired.
Billy: Juanita’s crab dish. I did really well with my beef and she was up next. John and Gregg were just blown away. She trumped me.

Is there a food smell you just can’t bear?
Jack: Coriander is something that I struggle with.
Jane: Tripe.
Billy: Pheasant – my granny used to cook pheasant and the whole house would smell of rotting bird.
Juanita: Liquorice – I had a pretty bad experience with sambuca.

MasterChef continues on Wednesday 4 May at 9pm and Thursday 5 May at 8pm, with the final on Friday 6 May at 8.30pm on BBC One

Photography: Getty Images,