Two Irish women reach the final 14 in BBC MasterChef

Knockout rounds begin tonight. Cooks from Sligo and Dublin are among the favourites to win


Two Irish women have reached the knockout stage of the BBC MasterChef television series. Alison O’Reilly (30), from Dublin, and Shauna Kelly (46), from Sligo have made it to the final 14, from more than 25,000 applicants, and are among the favourites to claim the title.

Both will be in action tonight when the remaining contestants will be split into two teams to cook a dish inspired by family favourites, or food from childhood, for judges, chef and restaurateur John Torode and former greengrocer Gregg Wallace.

Kelly is in the blue team that will be first to cook, at 7.30pm, with O’Reilly in the red team that will be in action in the second of tonight’s episodes, at 8.30pm on BBC One.

‘Decidedly Irish’

“My dish is decidedly Irish,” says Kelly, who is originally from Sligo town, has been in London for 14 years, and lives in Hampstead with her partner, the fashion and portrait photographer Darryl Vides-Kennedy and son Jack (5).

She gets her interest in cooking from her mother Marie, “who never had a ready meal in the house and cooked everything from scratch”. Kelly says she was motivated to apply for the show so that her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, could see her on television while she could still recognise her.

She made her first appearance in the show just last week, in episode 11, when she stunned Torode and Wallace with her professional execution and presentation of an orange chocolate marquise with honeycomb, almond chocolate soil and orange and rosemary coulis, in the Market Challenge.

“We were not expecting that,” she says of the show’s new preliminary task, in which contestants were presented with a vast range of ingredients to choose from and cook one dish. “We were told to prepare a signature dish, and we thought that’s what we’d be cooking, the dish we had practised and practised,” she says, revealing that this was also the first time they came face to face with the judges.

Previous winners

Cooking for previous winners Shelina Permaloo, Juanita Hennessey and Daksha Mistry, she continued to impress, serving chestnut and apple soup with Calvados cream, and prune, pistachio and goat’s cheese cake, followed by risotto Nero with scallops, salmon roe and gremolata – and a squid tuile – “which I’d never made before”.

Before becoming a mother, Kelly was an advertising director with with Saatchi and Saatchi for 12 years, and originally trained as a physiotherapist. A month ago she launched a food business, Homemade Hampstead, doing batch cooking in people’s homes, filling fridges and freezers with her customers’ choice of meals.

Alison O’Reilly, who is from Dublin, works as a marketing consultant and has been based in London since 2013. Her dad used to own The Graduate pub and restaurant in Killiney and her Australian mother’s family have restaurants in Adelaide.

She says she comes from “a big foodie family” , and although she cooks all the time and enjoys the social aspect of having people over for dinner, entering the competition was “off the cuff; it wasn’t something I’d thought a lot about”.

From her first appearance in episode two of the current series, O’Reilly stood out. “As far as a market challenge goes, that’s really impressive,” John Torode said of the poussin that was the first dish she cooked on the show.

Squid with fennel and chilli on sourdough, followed by chicken stuffed with liver and porcini mushrooms, served with girolles on a bed of polenta, impressed the three previous contestants she cooked for in the next round, and Bengali-style rack of lamb with beetroot pakoras, date and tamarind chutney and saag sauce then sealed the Mount Anville school and DIT graduate’s passage to this week’s knockout rounds.

Selection process

The series was filmed late last year after a selection process that saw the initial entry whittle down to 400 at the audition stage, 64 of whom made it into the televised heats.

The contestants are bound by confidentiality agreements, but is there a hint that we might be seeing a good bit more of Kelly in her website’s biography? “I’ve cooked for some of the UK’s top food critics and one or two Michelin-starred chefs”, it states.

The 12 that make it through tonight’s challenge will again be split into two teams of six. One team will compete again on Wednesday night at 8pm, and the other on Thursday night at 8pm, in the hope of a place in Friday’s last challenge of the week, which is the gateway to the semi finals.

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