I survived ‘Celebrity MasterChef’ but got my fingers burnt

I surprised myself by standing the heat in the kitchen, but the flames finally got me

Conor Pope of The Irish Times has become the fourth contestant chef to hang up his apron. He talks about his experience on the hugely popular show.


It’s four in the morning and I’m sitting on my kitchen floor in bits. Just like my shortbread. Until this evening I’d never baked so much as a single biscuit but now I am on my sixth batch of shortbread and it’s still not coming together. Too much butter? Too little? Too much heat? Too little? I’ve no idea and have stopped caring. I know now that winning Celebrity MasterChef is beyond me and I want it to be over.

Just 12 hours later, it is.

I agreed to take part last April on a whim despite being neither a celebrity nor a chef and without having watched a full episode of the programme. When I said Yes, the relief in the voice of the woman who had popped the question was as gratifying as it was clear. It was only later I realised her gratitude didn’t stem from her securing a much sought-after star but because so many proper celebs had rejected her advances and she was running out of time to fill her kitchen with faces.

Ray Darcy, who likes to cook, said No as did George Hook, who doesn’t. At least two other Irish Times writers also turned their noses up at the chance to go toe to toe with Dylan McGrath and Nick Munier. By the time they got to me, I suspect they were kind of desperate.

When I breezily tell friends and colleagues what I’ve done – breaking at least six confidentiality clauses in my contract – there is universal agreement that I will be not be okay. I will, instead, be filleted by Dylan McGrath, the fiercest chef in Ireland. It is only at this point I start to worry.

I don’t give a rashers about Dylan – how scary could he be? – but I don’t want to disgrace myself in front of 400,000 viewers. When recording starts I am up to high dough. Sorry.

Day one in the Celebrity MasterChef kitchen and I meet my fellow chefs. It doesn’t go well. Gary Cooke greets me with an affable “You’re a sports journalist, right?” Eh, no. A silent hour passed before he tries again. “Oh, that’s you right, you write about politics?” No.

From the off I worry about Tracy Piggott. She seems to know what she’s about. She uses French terms when talking about food and got five stars in The Restaurant. Maia Dunphy talks down her chances but I reckon she’s spinning me a yarn, like the girl outside the exam hall who insists she’s done no study before coming out with straight As.

Aengus Mac Grianna is harder to read than a news bulletin about moon landings while Yvonne Keating frets about the syringe she needs for a feast of molecular gastronomy she has planned. David Gillick looks focused and fearful and Kamal Ibrahim is supremely confident.

Putting ourselves on a plate is the first task. Maia Dunphy goes for “cheap and fun” Asian street food, Yvonne for a boozed-up bloody lamb. The rest of us cook fish. I tart mine up with basil chiffonades, not because they look or taste nice or say anything about me but because I learned what chiffonades were overnight and can pronounce the word. It sounds posh.

But before chiffonades, we have to meet the men who will judge us. They have a mean reputation, Dylan and Nick, but they are pussycats, really. Dylan with his shaved head and stubble looks awfully menacing. He has a great line in withering stares and can be a grumpy auld bollix when the mood takes him, but he is mostly lovely and always helpful – except when you’ve messed up your work station. He also knows food and really cares about it.

Nick looks friendlier, with his hipster-geek glasses and his big, broad smile. It’s all about the food for him too. He has very high standards. They make for a great double act.

War has been described as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. That’s what MasterChef is like.

On day two, we arrive on set before 9am and are sent to the green room where the producers tell us we have to perform just one task but we must do it in isolation. Once we leave the green room we will not be allowed return. They even sequester our phones. So we all sit around wondering what lies ahead when the radio belonging to the young researcher guarding us crackles into life.

“The hens are in position, the hens are in position,” it says clear as anything. She flees the room, desperately clawing at the radio, trying to silence it

Sorry, what? Did that disembodied voice say “hens”? The producers have messed up and given us a lead! Amazing. But what hens? Jesus, we are going to have to kill, gut and cook them? On television? The researcher comes back and begs us not to reveal how she has given the game away. We promise to keep her secret secret – because we are sound and we want the edge.

Gary is taken away to the hen house and, after 30 minutes, so is Maia. I am last to go. Time spent fretting about killing hens passes slowly and, after five hours, I’m climbing the walls. Eventually I am led through the dark, musty factory which houses the MasterChef kitchen and made wait behind double doors.

They open. I look for the chickens. There are none, just Dylan and Nick glowering at me and a producer laughing hysterically because I, like everyone else, had fallen for his hilarious joke. “We just like messing with your heads,” he says.

Thanks, Anthony.

I make a crêpe suzette – badly – but not as badly as Gary so he was sent home.

Round two sees us travel to Gavin Duffy’s house in Co Meath. Calling it a house sells it short. It is a country pile and we all pile into his kitchen to make lunch for him and his friends – or a bunch of random Americans pulled off the street.

David and Yvonne get crabs (titter) and Tracey and Kamal – whom you might recognise as “that guy off the telly” or Mr World – were given dessert. Me, Maia and Aengus are on mains – pork belly, colcannon, beetroot, fondant potatoes.

Dylan helps. By help I mean he changes the whole menu plan at the last second and causes untold grief with his shouting and impatience. My favourite moment comes when he calls for a chinois. Me, Maia and Aengus shout “yes chef” and run to get the chinois. But none of us knows what a chinois is. Aengus picks up a brass implement and waves it hopefully at Dylan. But that’s not a chinois.

Cute as a hoor, I run into another part of the kitchen where desserts and starters are bring made and I shout urgently. “A chinois. Dylan needs the chinois. Will someone get me the chinois?” It doesn’t work. Everyone stares blankly at me. They don’t know what a chinois is either. Then Dylan roars. “A sieve. I need a f**king sieve”.

So that’s what a chinois is.

David and Yvonne’s crabs are deemed to be most impressive so they get the next day off and miss the mystery box. I can’t tell you how jealous this makes the rest of us. The self-explanatory mystery box is MasterChef’s blue-ribbon event.

Straight out of the blocks, I am getting it wrong. I think I have to use every ingredient but as I stand there slack-jawed wondering how I am going to make brioche pork, sea bass, cherries, chocolate, cabbage, pine nuts, truffles and bourbon work together in just an hour Dylan explains the rules to me. I can pick and choose.

I decided to marinate the pork. Then I decide not to. The clock ticks. So I fry the pancetta, pine nuts and shredded cabbage, dust the sea bass in flour and ta-da! Done. It is not complex but it tastes okay. I am safe.

I work alongside Kamal. He is not safe but doesn’t know it. He is one of the most confident people I have ever met and even his inability to tell lettuce and cabbage apart or understand why plastic might melt in an oven doesn’t shake his faith in his own ability. It is rather sweet. The judges are not impressed. They send him home. He takes his dismissal hard and it is hard not to feel sorry for him.

Soon I am feeling sorry for myself. Episode three marks the start of Dessert Storm. I told the producers repeatedly that I was shocking at baking. I don’t have a sweet tooth and have never made a dessert in my life. The only time I made pancakes, I made my four-year- old daughter cry.

For the fourth task, we are introduced to Clare Clarke. She is a legend. I have never heard of her; I have heard of the French Laundry restaurant in California though. It has three Mich- elin stars and is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world. She was the head pastry chef there and has an MBE for cakemaking. She is a big cheese. She is brilliant.

She gives us a 2½-hour master class and makes a summer trifle. The word doesn’t do it justice. It is a work of art on a plate and it tastes amazing. Then we have to copy her. There are more than 50 steps from the almond sponge to the bavarois (no, I had no idea what that was either) to the wild flowers that have to be placed on top of the perfectly piped dollops of Chantilly cream. I take all the steps with great care and, amazingly, my dessert is all-but-perfect.

Nick gives me 10 out of 10 – a line that is shamefully edited out of the programme as broadcast. Dylan isn’t there to see my triumph. He is “away on business”.

Next up is more dessert but this time it is my own creation. I have conjured up some class of mousse on a base of hazelnut biscuit with a layer of popping candy and I will serve it with a beautiful raspberry coulis, vanilla cream, brandy snap sails and some wild flowers.

Except I won’t. After my trifle success I am cocky – too cocky. With just 10 minutes to go, I take the mousse out of the mould but it won’t come. It falls apart. Then I fall apart. I cobble together a dessert with the help of Nick. He advises me to put more chocolate on top to hide my sins. The other judges taste it and decide there is too much chocolate on top. Dylan glowers and I think it is game over. But Tracey, who made blue cheese ice-cream, goes instead. She was robbed.

A week on and it is my turn for the bullet. When it comes, the only thing that surprises me is the reason. We are hosting a lunch for our celebrity friends and running a replica restaurant. I have been given another dessert to make – almost as if the producers are deliberately trying to stress me out – and I know my time is up but I am fine with that. I don’t want to suffer another mousse attack so am still kind of stressed and all through the day I am more Mr Bean than Mrs Beeton.

I make an unholy mess of my work station but am not overly concerned. The day passes and I quite enjoy the experience. Dylan doesn’t. He calls me a pig and seems cross because I have gone with square pieces of shortbread rather than the rectangles he wanted (yes, he cares that much). My chef’s jacket, which looks like it has been discarded by a serial killer, infuriates him.

I serve the dessert to my celebrity “friend” – the model Roz Purcell. A woman I have met for the first time today is, for the purpose of the telly, my celebrity friend – I don’t have any celebrity friends in real life, you see.

Once the orders are up, I breathe. I think I have done okay, not enough to avoid being sacked, but okay,

We line up. Dylan tells me, in a grave voice, that I have put too much lavender in my Prosecco gloop (not a cheffy term) and my pears now have a soapy taste. I take his criticism on the chin even though it is completely wrong.

There is hardly any lavender in my pears because I completely messed up the recipe. I poached the fruit for an hour and, with seconds to go before they were due to come out, I realised I’d forgotten the poxy lavender. So I dumped a mountain of it in. They Dylan came along saw the strong smelling purple flowers floating in my pears and assumed the worst. It is true what they say about people starting to eat with their eyes.

Lavendergate aside, it was the right decision to take back my apron. The four remaining chefs – Yvonne, Maia, David and Aengus – are all much better than me and I was glad my time had come. Weeks on, I still wake in the middle of the night screaming about collapsing mousse and burnt shortbread.

My MasterChef hell is over. For the people left behind, it is only just starting.

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