MasterChef winners: creating a recipe for success

Shelina Permalloo, whose cuisine Gregg Wallace described as 'sunshine on a plate', discusses her passion for cooking

This time last year Shelina Permalloo was inhabiting what she now calls "this crazy period where you think it's all a dream". She had triumphed in the eighth series of MasterChef, cooking exuberant, Mauritian-themed food that judge Gregg Wallace had memorably described as "sunshine on a plate", but because the final wouldn't screen until three months later, she wasn't allowed to tell a soul.

And so, not quite allowing herself to believe it had really happened, the former project manager shut herself away in her kitchen and cooked. By the time she was revealed as the champion she had written 60 recipes towards what would be her first cookery book, which is published in June. "I knew when the show went live I could then get an agent who could help me with my career. I had already written down everything that I wanted to achieve. I want to do stages [unpaid internships in restaurants], I want to do private dining, I definitely know I want to open a restaurant … I really, really thought about what I was going to achieve from that win."

On Thursday Permalloo's reign as MasterChef champion will come to an end, when the winner of the latest series is revealed, and another ambitious amateur will be launched into the crowded culinary world to battle their way to success as best they can. Will it be Welsh solicitor Larkin, Essex mum of two Saira, East End DJ Natalie, or Dale, the company director from Swansea? Cooking, to quote Wallace's much parodied catchphrase, may not come tougher than MasterChef, but as former champions can testify, whoever wins will face a challenge of a different order, requiring nothing less than Permalloo's level of determination.

The programme's producers may count the current series as its ninth, but next week's winner will in fact be the 20th person to hold the title of MasterChef champion, thanks to an earlier incarnation of the show, hosted by Loyd Grossman, which ran between 1990 and 2001. MasterChef has spawned celebrity, professional and junior spin-offs, and the format has been remade in more than 35 countries, including India, Slovakia and Peru.

But while many of the international versions offer a cash prize for the winner – the 2012 US champion pocketed $250,000 (£158,000) – British amateur cooks sweat over their citrus foams and open raviolis for a curly "m" trophy, pictured, and the glory alone.

For Tim Anderson, a former salesman who was running a pub before he claimed the title in 2011, the fact that there is no X Factor-style promise of instant riches is one of the programme's strengths. "If you start introducing money you start to attract the wrong sort of people," he said. "Everybody who is in MasterChef is just there because they love to cook. And they are not sure what they want to do with that love, but they want to do something more than just make the evening meal."

Even after winning, he wasn't certain he could make a career in cooking, he said. "Maybe I had confidence issues, but after winning I thought, I don't know if this is going to lead to anything. But the cool thing about MasterChef is that you are constantly thrown into situations that are sink or swim. You always think, I can't do this, and then you get to the end and you think, I actually did that." He is hoping to open a Japanese restaurant, Nanban, in east London this summer.

"They are all doing great things," Karen Ross, the series's creative director, said of the past winners, "but sometimes it takes them a while to get there. I remember saying to Dhruv [Baker, the 2010 winner] when he won, in five months you will be sitting in your pants watching daytime telly and feeling depressed, because it's not going to happen overnight. But it's going to happen." Baker, who still plans to open a restaurant, says on his website he is "currently embarking on the exciting journey of making my passion my career".

The role model for all previous winners is Thomasina Miers, the 2005 champion, whose Mexican restaurant Wahaca has now grown into a small chain. Mat Follas, the series five winner, opened the Wild Garlic in Beaminster, Dorset, the year he won, while viewers of this series saw former finalist Alex Rushmer returning as a mentor at his Cambridgeshire gastropub the Hole in the Wall. Permalloo has plans for a Mauritian-themed restaurant to open in London next year.

"I'm a Kiwi, and sometimes I think it would have been nice to win in New Zealand, where you get a car and a book deal," says Follas. "But I'm not sure if I had that I wouldn't have lived off it for a couple of years, and never got round to running the restaurant." Instead, having the advantage of business experience, "I just got on with it."

Despite the hard-earned reputation of his restaurant, however, it's a difficult business, MasterChef winner or not. "We've had a very tough year and I'm currently in the process of moving the restaurant, because if we stayed where we were we would be bust."

"What Masterchef does is to give you an opportunity to find out whether you want to be a chef, and then it opens doors for you," says Ross. "We genuinely want these people to do well; what we provide is to give them an opportunity to try out the extremes of what they can be. It's someone saying to you: 'You can cook anything you want — just go for it.'"


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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