Gregg Wallace is forever cracking jokes while John Torode has an encyclopedic food knowledge that we only see snippets of on camera.
That’s according to Jack Wilkinson, 31, and Vanessa D’Souza, 37, the two Londoners who’ve made it all the way to the MasterChef semi-finals.
Vanessa, a ‘born and bred Croydon girl’ who works in anti-piracy, has wowed with dishes inspired by her Portuguese-Indian heritage.
Meanwhile Jack, a sports journalist originally from Stratford who now lives in Islington, gained the nickname ‘flavour monster’ in the quarter-finals.
It may have something to do with his height, which fans on social media seem hell bent on debating (more on that later).
We caught up with the pair as the competition heads towards its crescendo.
So, how did it feel stepping into the MasterChef kitchen for the first time?
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Jack: Surreal! It’s a very pressurised [situation] and you’ve got that looming fear of rejection and being sent home, because pretty much everyone in the competition is a great cook.
Vanessa: I think my experience is probably very different to most of the neurotypicals’ experiences, because I’m autistic. For me, the easiest part was getting in and cooking the dish. The hardest part was literally everything else around it – the lights, people, sounds, noises, smells.
We’ve loved seeing you talk about autism on the show. Why did it feel important to do?
Vanessa: Because quite honestly, me getting a diagnosis last year aged 36 was a real game-changer. I didn’t know I was autistic until somebody else told me, because there’s so many stereotypes out there: ‘you must be a boy’, ‘you must be nonverbal’. [Until then] I didn’t realise my whole life, I’d been masking all the traits I felt didn’t fit into society. It was, I guess, the key to unlocking and owning my authentic self.
One question everyone wants to know on social media, Jack: how tall are you?
Jack: 6ft 7! In the kitchen, it’s not that difficult, because you just focus so much on the food, you don’t have time to think about anything else. I do get a bit of a bad back leaning over the counters. The kitchen at the Royal Opera House was tight – but I think any professional kitchen is going to look small with me in it.
What’s one thing that happens behind the scenes that’s surprised you?
Vanessa: I thought contestants would get heads up on things, but it is all actually a surprise. A car will pick you up in the morning and you have absolutely no idea where that’s going. It’s every man for himself! You turn up at an unknown restaurant and they go, ‘here’s your starter’.
Jack: I didn’t really appreciate the skill of the judges. It sounds so silly, because people think they just eat, but they try everything individually, then they try everything together, there’s a method to it.
Speaking of John and Greg, how much help do they give you off camera?
Jack: Nothing hands on, it’s more like moral support. Greg runs around and is always telling jokes. John’s food knowledge is incredible. [Even with] the variety of chefs we had in the kitchen, he’d know every single little detail and quiz them about food I’ve never heard of.
What’s been the scariest moment so far?
Jack: The invention test to get the apron [in the first round]. I was flapping and by the time I got up to the bench, all the ingredients had gone!
Vanessa: For me, it was the kitchen experience at Decimo [King’s Cross]. It’s an unknown location with somebody else’s dish and a lot of pressure for paying customers.
Something we’ve always wondered: how do you balance MasterChef with a day jobs?
Jack: I almost turned down the offer, because I thought it was going to be too difficult with work. Then my boss said: ‘You know what, go for it.’ You take annual leave, but you can’t prepare for how long you’ll be off, because you don’t know how long you’ll stay. People thought I was ill!
You’re both Londoners who know a thing or two about food. Where’s the best place to eat in the capital?
Jack: It depends what you’re looking for. Da Terra in Bethnal Green, a two Michelin star place, absolutely blew my mind. For a bit of nostalgia, the best pie and mash in London has got to be from Leyton Eel & Pie House. Also, Upper Street in Islington is full of affordable but good quality restaurants, like Le Mercury.
Vanessa: For Indian I’d pick Gymkhana (Mayfair) every day. For small plates. I really love Fallow (Haymarket) for the sitting at the kitchen counter. And I think keeping it local, my favorite neighbourhood restaurant/bar is The Store in Croydon.
What, in your opinion, is the worst food ever invented?
Jack: A bog standard British salad tomato that’s never seen the sun. If you wanted to torture me, you could give me that.
Vanessa: I’m not partial to an egg and crest sandwich.
Quick fire: Pick your poison
Chinese or Indian takeaway?
Tea or coffee?
Ketchup or Mayo?
John or Greg?
Jack: Ooh that’s hard. John. His comments throughout the competition behind the scenes really helped me and made me think about food differently and I was there to cook. I got on really well with Greg though!
Vanessa: John. I personally value a chef’s critique more. But I think they serve great purposes on TV, because Greg is very good at describing how something tastes for a viewer, but I need the feedback [from John] in order to move forward and grow and learn.
You can’t tell us how far you get in the competition, but what are your ambitions at this point?
Vanessa: I would love to make a career out of this. My dream would be to have a cookbook that is catered to neurodiverse individuals. So many cookbooks are so convoluted – it really needs to be very Gordon Ramsay: ‘Flour, butter, eggs, mix.’ I would love a QR code at the bottom of each page, which you can scan and watch a 32 second video of the method.
Jack: I want to use my experience and contacts in football to do a football-food podcast or YouTube series. There’s a lot of ideas. Maybe supper clubs… I don’t think I want to get into the restaurant game, because with every weekend and late nights, it’s more antisocial than working in football!
MasterChef Semi Finals continue Thursday 25 May at 8pm and conclude Friday 26th May at 8.30pm – on BBC One and iPlayer.
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