News • By REGAN ANDERTON • 22 September 2016
I've worked in advertising for almost 20 years, and in February I was made redundant.
At first I panicked - where else would I find an agency that would offer me 3 days a week as a digital strategy director so that I could spend time with my 2-year-old son, and pursuing my passion for food through blogging and writing as I'd been fortunate enough to do for the past 9 years?
My husband and I talked extensively about my long-term dream of opening a cookery school and teaching adults and children to cook 'real food', but the finances I needed to secure a premises kept stopping me from turning it into a reality. I came up with what I thought was a genius idea - to use our shed! I was a self-taught cook, with a few day classes attended here and there, but no real cooking credentials to my name - so I pushed on with the dream but had a niggling doubt that anyone would want to learn from someone who was 'just a home cook'.
Then, in early March I was offered a job at a fantastic agency in London called PSONA, working with people in the industry that I'd always thought highly of, and on some great accounts - so the cookery school dream got put, once again, on the back burner.
But dreams have a funny habit of coming back
At the end of April, I received a call from a good foodie friend, Angela Herbert (owner of Herbert's restaurant in Keston and previous cookery school owner). She said that ITV had contacted her to see if she knew of any budding home cooks who might like to apply to be a contestant on a new cookery show, commissioned by the BBC, called 'Yes Chef!'. The format of the show sounded amazing - an opportunity to cook for Michelin star chefs and possibly even a 3 Michelin star chef 'The Bear' Pierre Koffman. I had a window of two weeks between jobs and so thought I'd give it a go - it would help me make my mind up once and for all as to whether or not I was cut out to make a career for myself with food.
I filled in the application form and after a few days received a call from the show's casting manager - he interviewed me over the phone, grilling me about my cooking experience and knowledge of food. After the interview, he asked that I make a short film and send it in as my audition piece . . . I've shared it on The Cooking Shed's Facebook page for your entertainment! (It was shot on my iPhone between running in to re-play episodes of Octonauts and keeping my son quiet with strawberries.)
A week later I received a call to say they'd reviewed my application and audition video and would like to offer me a place as a contestant on the show. I'd have to head to Manchester for filming the following week . . . thankfully the stars had aligned and it was the week before I was due to start my new job so could go. I spent the week swatting up on Michelin star chefs, cooked my 'signature dish' of fish stew until we were sick of the sight of it, and practically broke due to the price of Madagascan king prawns and monk fish. I kissed and squidged my son and husband goodbye, then headed off on the train with a bunch of cooking magazines and a thousand butterflies in my tummy.
Written in the Michelin stars
The next morning, a car came to collect me from the hotel and took me to the Cheshire cookery school - set on an old industrial estate, it was everything I'd ever wanted to own . . .cooking stations and amazing-looking produce everywhere. I was greeted by the crew and taken to the 'green room', an area to the back where most of our interviews took place throughout the show and where we stopped for lunch. The other 3 contestants were there and waiting - Simon, John and Jess. All seemed lovely and good fun. We immediately started speculating as to who our Michelin star chef might be, asking what each other's signature dish of the day was, and all then doubting our own choices as everyone's sounded far better.
I was whisked off to another area to have my intro shots done . . . cheesy hair flicks, egg whisking, smiles and all! Then we gathered in the main kitchen, ready for the filming to start. Sheree Murphy introduced herself - warm, friendly, amazingly white and perfect teeth, and hugs for everyone. The cameras rolled, and she introduced our chef . . . Theo Randall. I was SO happy - I'd seen him on Saturday Kitchen, read reviews about his restaurant at The Intercontinental, and loved his style of cooking. For some reason, as soon as I met him the nerves drained from me, and I realised that I simply had to spend the day cooking - a luxury and pleasure that I just wanted to enjoy, regardless of the outcome.
We were sent to our work stations to start cooking our dish - Theo and Sheree worked the room, asking us questions, checking out our produce, and getting to know us. The cameras circled like vultures waiting for us to mess up on something so that they could capture the drama and reactions . . . thankfully nothing seemed to go too wrong for anyone and we all ended the first round feeling that we'd done the best we could.
We were sent back to the green room to await our turn to present our dish for tasting and critique. I was amazed at my feedback from Theo: "on the whole, it's . . . delicious". He seemed to genuinely like my fish stew and my relaxed approach in the kitchen. That was it - the confidence I needed, and a buzz like I'd never had before. Sadly someone had to go after the first round, and it was Jess.
We moved on to round two - making a rosti
I'd never made one before, and so enjoyed the lesson from Theo and was amazed at how simple they were to make - something I've now done loads of times (the secret is in choosing the right potato - not too much moisture, and nice and starchy). Theo's comment after tasting mine was "there's good, and there's very good . . . that's the best. You're through" EEEEeeeeekkkkkk!! I came first in round two, meaning I went straight through to the next round . . . sadly we lost Simon.
John and I couldn't believe our luck, we were absolutely buzzing with the chance to sit and have Theo cook for us - but first we had to make a dish using the exact same ingredients that he was going to use. I lifted the cover to reveal what I thought was guinea fowl but actually turned out to be squab pigeon - we also had pied de mouton mushroom, swiss chard, pancetta, Marsala, stock and a whole host of other delicious ingredients . . . thankfully Theo and Sheree liked that I'd cooked my pigeon on the bone, and Theo even said that my dish had a bit of "finesse" due to my croutons all being cooked the same colour (big grin, more confidence boosting). We spent the next 20 minutes in pain and pleasure, while we got to enjoy Theo cooking his dish with the squab pigeon (which was out of this world delicious), and anxious to hear who'd won and made it through to the Friday final.
We reluctantly put down our forks and made our way over to the cameras to hear Theo's decision. When he announced my name, I couldn't believe it - I only wish that John could have made it through too as he'd been such a great contestant.
So, back to my hotel I went to call my son and husband to tell them that I wouldn't be home that night! I'd come and achieved what I'd set out to do, and I went back knowing that The Cooking Shed would happen. The next day was going to be absolutely amazing and whatever the outcome I was just going to go and learn all that I could from some amazing talent.
Friday I woke feeling like it was a holiday, Christmas and my birthday all at the same time
The car came to collect me and I walked through to the green room to collect my apron and meet the other contestants and chefs. Matt Gillan - super cool, calm and talented. Francis Atkin - sophisticated, lovely and confident. Aiden Byrne - good humour, competitive and hard working. Theo - my cooking partner!
We were taken through the format for the day and told that it would work on a points system. On to round one . . . a one-hour masterclass with our Michelin star chef while they showed us how to make their dish of the day, which we then had to replicate under the beady eyes of some GoPro cameras. Theo took me over to reveal what we'd be making . . . Italian fish stew!! (HURRAH!!! how bloody lucky was that?!) - his contained lobster and many other herbs that gave a really deep, rich flavour to the sauce. I watched and took notes, then had 45 minutes to replicate his dish while all of the other contestants had to do the same with their chefs.
My supplied pre-cooked lobster had been overcooked in the shell, so it had completely stuck . . .
I tried not to panic, and moved on to something else, then came back to it - one claw out OK and the tail intact, I ditched the dodgy claw and pressed on. Each chef had two minutes where they could come in and help if they felt it was needed. Theo asked when I'd like him to come in if needed . . . I told him that if he felt I was messing up, then to come in when he felt was right - otherwise, to save it until the end to help me plate up . . . which he did.
I felt it had gone quite well and my end dish looked and tasted as Theo's had - it was now just up to four Michelin star chefs to decide. They each tasted my dish, mmm'ing and yummm'ing . . . this was going better than I could ever have expected! Then - Aiden asked if I wanted a job! Before I could answer, Theo stepped in and told him to back off, he wanted to offer me one! I couldn't believe my ears . . . back stage, Theo said that it was a genuine offer, if it was something that I wanted to do, then he thought I'd have a chance.
I told him about my dream and plans for The Cooking Shed, and so instead he offered me the chance to spend some time in his kitchens at The Intercontinental to do a stage and learn/experience all that I wanted. We exchanged email addresses, and I took him up on it and absolutely loved every minute.
After round one, the atmosphere completely changed
Pierre Koffman was in the building - the tables had turned and the chefs who were once the judges had become the contestants too. We gathered in front of the cameras waiting for Pierre to be introduced by Sheree and to find out which two ingredients he had for us all to cook. Pierre came in - a huge towering man with a sophisticated air and real presence. He presented us with a sweet pineapple, and fresh langoustines . . . we had three minutes to decide what we were going to cook - Theo and I decided on a langoustine risotto, followed by a pineapple tart tatin with a Cointrau cream . . . #nopressure - Pierre is only the King of the Tatin!!
Then, I had 10 minutes to sit out the back and watch as Theo started the dishes - watching him on the GoPros he moved and chopped like Roadrunner! Pierre came and seated himself next to me while we watched . . . we shared a couple of jokes (look at me!) and then Sheree shouted, and it was all change . . . I ran in to the room, took over from Theo as he shouted instructions for one minute and then left me to continue his work.
Pierre walked the room, checking on us and asking what we thought of our dishes and our chefs - he appeared just as I was removing the tatin from the oven, and recommended that I put it back in for a little longer (thank you Pierre!). For the final two minutes, the chefs returned and helped plate up the dish - I'd done OK, but we were worried that the risotto might have been a little over, especially with waiting time before Pierre would get to taste . . . time to wait for his opinion!
Each pair took it in turns to present their dish to Pierre while the rest of us waited in the green room and shared our feelings to camera. Everyone came in looking a little shell shocked - but none so much as Aiden Byrne and his partner. Their gnocchi hadn't gone to plan, and they both looked absolutely mortified. It's never nice seeing someone in a situation like that, and it was the first time in the show when I truly felt nervous. Theo and I were up next - as Pierre brought the fork up to his mouth with our risotto, I don't think I breathed . . . then he said "your risotto is cooked perfectly" PHEW . . . "and your tatin is very nice". "Yes, is good - I don't know what else you want me to say" . . . "Nothing, nothing Pierre, we don't want you to say anything else!". . . wohooo . . . we'd done it, Pierre liked our food. We returned to the other contestants and awaited our scores.
As we gathered together, all whispering "good luck" to each other, Sheree went through the results.
"In 1st place . . . in 2nd place . . . and the winners, with just one point are . . . Theo and Regan!!" I can't tell you how amazing I felt. The producer told me that my Yes Chef! chef whites would be posted to me as my prize, but that didn't matter all - the prize was the amazing experience and confidence that I'd been given, and what I knew it would give me the drive to do . . . to open The Cooking Shed . . . which I've now done, and which I'm absolutely loving every minute of. It's been torture not being able to tell my students that I won Yes Chef! But now I can shout it from the shed, and share with you all the things that I learnt while there.
So, come to The Cooking Shed - book yourself on to a lesson, and quote 'friendoftheshed' at the checkout to receive £5 off your class in celebration of me winning Yes Chef! You can learn to make my fish stew in our Fish & shellfish masterclass, and soon we'll be running a special Yes Chef! dinner party class where you'll get to make rostis, pigeon and pineapple tart tatin with me! Book now to avoid disappointment.