Sonia O’Sullivan: My experience in the ‘MasterChef’ kitchen

It was like competing in a different sport, one I wasn’t nearly as familiar with as I thought

Sonia with her fellow ‘Celebrity MasterChef’ contestants, from left: Samantha Mumba, Mundy, Holly Carpenter and Simon Delaney. Photography Ruth Medjber

Sonia with her fellow ‘Celebrity MasterChef’ contestants, from left: Samantha Mumba, Mundy, Holly Carpenter and Simon Delaney. Photography Ruth Medjber

 

For as long as I can remember the best way of dealing with any setback in life is to go for a run, and my sudden elimination from the MasterChef kitchen was no exception. It obviously wasn’t as bad as finishing fourth in the Olympics, although it some ways it felt that way.

I’d certainly gone in there with my own expectations, and definitely had ambitions of lasting the distance. I quickly realised that it’s one thing cooking in your own kitchen at your own pace; it’s a completely different story when you’re being watched by a large television audience, out of the comfort zone of your own kitchen.

Starting out, I was actually very relaxed about it. Again not realising that MasterChef would end up feeling like I was competing in an entirely different sport, one that I wasn’t nearly as familiar with as I thought.

It reminded me of a few years ago when I was convinced to sign up for the Munster cycling team in the Rás na mBan, Ireland’s top stage race for elite women cyclists. It didn’t take long to find out that as much as I like to ride the bike, it’s a whole other level of intensity when you get out there and race amongst some of the best female riders around.

There wasn’t much convincing involved in the Celebrity MasterChef. Most athletes involved in elite sport soon realise that you get to a point in your training and racing where you start looking at more ways to improve.

For me, two of the most obvious areas have always been sleep and diet. The faster you can recover between sessions and the better the fuel you put in your body both directly impact on your ability to consistently train at a high level. They also help provide some positive feedback that you are getting fitter and ready to step up a level in competition, and reach out for more success.

As a result, most athletes pay considerable attention to their food and diet throughout their career. You read things, talk to other athletes, maybe even have a nutritionist as part of the team, although most of the time you generally try to find what works best for you.

So I’ve always been very particular about the type of foods that I would eat when training hard, especially before and after races. These days it’s more trying to come up with healthy, tasty food for my family, but I’d still take that quite seriously.

Creative in the kitchen

Over the years I have also become more interested in food sources, particularly local food, knowing where it comes from, and trying to be creative in the kitchen with that.

I love experimenting with all sorts of food and flavours. It’s just not so easy when you’re under the knowing eye of professional chefs. You suddenly start to question yourself and do things that you would never do at home. You forget things. And as soon as you step away from your plate, you immediately see all the things you could and should have done better.

I don’t think I’m giving any secret away when saying the MasterChef series is filmed in advance, and my last shoot happened to coincide with a homecoming event for Olympic sailor Annalise Murphy. We were out in Dun Laoghaire, filming in the old Stena Line building, and on the very afternoon that I was forced to hang up my apron, Murphy came sailing into the harbour with her Olympic silver medal won in Rio.

We had one of the best locations to watch as the flotilla of boats made its way toward the pier, where Annalise was welcomed home by her family, friends and so many supporters. It was such a proud moment for her, to put aside her disappointment of finishing fourth in London.

I actually hadn’t seen Annalise since we returned from the London Olympics in 2012, where I had spoken with her not long after she stepped off her boat in Weymouth. Fourth place is always a tough place to finish, in any event, but especially the Olympics.

I knew that from my own experience, finishing fourth over 3000m in Barcelona in 1992. At the same time, I also knew it can give you so much belief that you are not so far away, and that if the race was run again the result could very easily be so different.

It feels so far and so close, and often can be used as a positive experience. Because in order to continue to be successful, you have to weigh things up, take the positives when you look ahead. And Annalise was proof once again that fourth place can inspire greater things, with the right mindset.

Which is how I tried to fathom things when walking out of the MasterChef kitchen. All of a sudden, I was out on a limb, my week in the kitchen ended early. Naturally, when things don’t work out, your confidence takes a hit and you have to reassess where you are, compared to where you thought you were headed.

Celebrations

I was at a loss, hadn’t planned for this at all. No more practise in the kitchen. Instead, I’d have to pack up the bags and head home to Cork.

I also knew there was a gathering for Annalise at the National Yacht Club, and wondered should I call in and join the celebrations. Before that I knew I’d have to go for a run along the pier, and come to terms with my exit from the kitchen.

I always find some answers when I go for a run like that, as if reorganising the jumbled up thoughts in my head. This wasn’t like I had burnt the dinner on a Monday evening. This was on a far bigger scale, all caught on film, to be shown on TV at a later date. And because so many of my friends and family knew I was taking part they were all excited to see how well I would go.

Actually I’m amazed it was all kept so quiet, that no word got out, before the show was aired on TV3 earlier this week.

After the run, renewed and energised, I got back to the place I was staying, and remembered I had a piece of salmon in the fridge. Did I really want to get back in the kitchen so quickly?

After a quick shower, I decided it was best to heat up the pan and quickly cook up the salmon. A bit of seasoning and five minutes later, the perfect meal was served up, before I raced over to the National Yacht Club to congratulate Annalise, the drama and disappointment of the kitchen soon forgotten.

It was time to move on, take the positives from my MasterChef experience, and get back to what I do best in the kitchen: quick, delicious, nutritious meals, trying to come up with something different, and what works best for me.

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