''Fresh out the kitchen'' - Alexis Conran talks Celebrity MasterChef, communication and Greek cooking
Keynote speaker Alexis Conran is well known for his TV work helping the nation to protect themselves against scams on shows such as Secrets of the Scammers, Man v Expert, and The Real Hustle. In the summer of 2016, Alexis donned chef whites to take part in Celebrity MasterChef, eventually being crowned the winner having impressed the judges and their expert guests with his Greek cuisine.
We caught up with Alexis to ask how he found the experience and to find out the lessons we can all learn from the running of a professional kitchen.
So Alexis, what motivated you to take part in Celebrity MasterChef?
Well, I had always been a keen home cook but had wondered about the professional kitchen. I wanted to understand more about it, and there is no better way to learn about professional cooking than being instructed by amazing chefs , so I guess that was the driving desire.
You were curious about the professional kitchen, and then got to cook in some pretty spectacular ones; did anything surprise you?
Being in a professional kitchen and working service to paying customers is a whole different ballgame. It's just an amazingly well-oiled machine. There is such structure and a real need for teamwork so communication is vital. It's critical that everyone understands their role in the kitchen, but also that they are made to feel important and understand their place in the bigger picture. For example, the pot washer needs to know that he is key. He's probably stuffed in a corner washing dishes for two hours of service, and he's essential - if you run out of pans you can't cook. He is just as important to the kitchen as the head chef. If you want a great example of how to run a business, take a look at a professional kitchen.
The key to success in the kitchen is for everyone to understand the importance of their role
We saw you experiment in a Michelin-starred restaurant and fare exceptionally well. What was the most daunting task, and what did you learn from it?
You have to throw yourself in and not let the fact that it's a Michelin-starred restaurant affect you. I mean, I've had great meals that haven't come out of a Michelin-starred kitchen, but it's an accolade that stands for food that is exceptionally good - and consistently so. However, when you're cooking food, I don't think you'd ever want it to be sub-standard - you always want to cook to the highest standard.
I think it's all about following instructions and carrying these out as specified. The complexity of the dishes and techniques are the challenge - it's something you have never done before - but in my profession, I have learned to pick something up quickly and become good at it. You have to be open, receptive and really listen in order to understand where you need to get to.
What do you think was the biggest risk you took during the series, and was it worth the outcome?
By far the biggest risk was cooking Greek food throughout the competition. I think there was one instance where I didn't cook Greek food, and John and Gregg both pulled a funny face!
At the very beginning, I thought to myself, I have a choice to make; I want to cook Greek, but Greek food doesn't lend itself to 'cheffy' presentation - it doesn't plate very well. Or, I can learn those fancy French dishes and go with that. The reason I chose Greek was because I've been in a lot of pressurised situations doing high-challenge shows, such as The Real hustle or Man Vs Expert, and one thing I have learned is that, when you're under a lot of pressure, you tend to fall back on the things that you know and the skills that come naturally; you narrow down and focus on just getting through and completing the task. I knew the pressure was going to be very high in the MasterChef kitchen and that, at some point, I was going to have to fall back on what I was comfortable with: Greek food. I probably could have learned three or four French dishes, but I wouldn't have been able to really do them well when the going got tough - if something went wrong I wouldn't have the experience to fall back on
I think it was definitely worth the outcome, and I hope that I've proved that Greek food can be beautifully presented, MasterChef-worthy cuisine.
Can you make Greek food look like haute cuisine? Alexis thinks so
As we have seen on shows like The Real Hustle, and Hustle in America, you are an expert in reading people - did you know what the judges were thinking?
No, not really. They've been doing this for a long time. For a very short while, I thought I had clocked the fact that they wouldn't look at whoever was going to be eliminated, but I was totally wrong. John and Gregg have been fronting MasterChef for over ten years, so they are highly professional at what they do. You can tell if they like what you've cooked, or if they are encouraged by what you have done, but when it comes to eliminating contestants, I think they've got it pretty much sewn up. How they would be around a poker table may be different - I reckon I could clear them out, that's my element - but the kitchen is theirs.
So, will you be challenging John and Gregg to a game of poker?
(Laughs) I don't think they'd take on the challenge, to be honest - they know too much!
Any chance of a game of Poker between Gregg Wallace, John Torode and Alexis Conran? We hope so!
Having come through the experience as the winner, will you be doing anything differently in future?
Well, I think the one thing that I was really reminded of. and that will stick with me. is the importance of failure - but in the right conditions.
It is important to fail, and fail a lot, but even more important to choose when to fail - when practicing. I did a huge amount of practice. When I wasn't in the MasterChef kitchen, I was in my own kitchen practicing over and over again. I think the maximum I cooked was the same dish four times in one day. I would plate them, then re-plate again and again, because I wanted to see where I would go wrong. If I had 40 minutes to cook a dish, I would try and do it in 30 and see what steps I'd forget and which elements would go awry in my own kitchen, rather than the MasterChef kitchen.
It meant that I was leaving nothing to chance and there were no surprises because things do go wrong. In the Real Hustle, nothing we did ever went totally to plan but, because we had so much rehearsal and experience in what we were doing, we could handle it. When you see chefs in the kitchen, if the pan is too hot, space runs out or, even worse, time, they aren't really phased - they have been in a situation like that before, and they know how to get out of it, because they have failed many times before. So that's my main 'take-away' - fail...and fail a lot!
So what's next for Alexis Conran?
Quite a bit actually. Acting-wise there's the second series of The Durrells. I'm also looking at another type of show, which I can't say too much about just yet. Of course, I'd also like to do some more with my cooking, and I may be doing something soon - but all will be revealed in good time.
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