We caught up with MasterChef contestant and chef Greg Emmerson to discuss how making a squid risotto without rice changed his life, how he knew that food was going to be his passion from an early age, and why KFC will always win.
Hello Greg and welcome to Chatting Food. So let's go back to the very beginning. What inspired you to go on this culinary journey?
I've always been obsessed with food for as long as I can remember, my mother was such a fantastic cook, her mother was French so you could say it's in my DNA. What I didn't realise at an early age, was the broad range of food I was being exposed too. My mother could cook, bake, the lot and it seemed with relative ease - if only I knew!
From an early age, I always enjoyed food shopping. I just loved discovering new ingredients and how they were prepared and cooked. Looking back, I assume that was my early food apprenticeship, although at the time it just seemed the "norm".
My food obsession started in earnest in the 80s, I always used to read Fay Maschler's restaurant food column in the London Evening Standard. She would be referring to these characters (Nico, Marco) and their food just looked incredible and something I'd never seen, let alone tasted. At the time the restaurant scene was well out of my financial reach, and the thought of becoming a chef wasn't something I'd really looked into. I thought it was a closed shop and you had to train in France to really learn the trade, so I took an alternative direction but started cooking in my spare time, nothing fancy just good hearty classics
At that time, there was no internet, and cookbooks were quite expensive.
You are well known for taking part in BBC's MasterChef. How was that experience for you?
I'd been applying to get on the show for 9 years, so when I successfully got onto the show, I knew I was ready. I wasn't arrogant in my confidence, but I knew if I kept my composure, I could do myself justice.
The first round was probably the hardest of all, as you walk in the studio; it all seems so familiar. At first, you forget about the pressure, it's like a vast, invisible weight, and then you see the sea of camera crews and production equipment. It is daunting, but I stayed focused and delivered a dish that Gregg and John liked and I was through to the next round.
The rounds came thick and fast, and your confidence grows with each round. I found the competition very addictive, that buzz that I've heard Chefs talk of when in service, it's very similar. And it is true, you're only as good as your last dish.
We are under no illusion it must have had its highs and lows. What were they?
The highs of the competition for me were my Squid Risotto, Theo Randall set us a challenge to cook an Italian classic, I thought, I'll do a classic but turn it's on its head - a risotto without rice. I sliced Squid so small it was like rice grains and cooked it last minute through a Jerusalem artichoke puree. Looking back now it was a considerable risk, but I'd made it several times and knew it would work as long as I'd nail the timings. Theo, John and Gregg loved it.
The inspiration for this dish came from El Bulli and Ferran Adria, I'm a massive fan of his, and love the way he approaches dishes and food, so that shaped my approach to this challenge.
The most significant low was cooking for the critics (Fay Maschler being one of them). This was my chance to cook for someone that shaped my love of food. I had a terrible day in the kitchen and didn't execute my dish at all, and I was eliminated from the completion and just missed out on making it to the final five. I'm happy with of how well I did, I just wish my mother could have seen it, I think she would have been proud.
Do you still stay in contact with your fellow contestants?
I'm still in contact with a lot of my fellow contestants, we're all food-obsessed, and a lot of them are now forging a career in food which is fantastic. MasterChef opens doors, and for that, I am so grateful. I'd urge anyone who loves to cook to apply, it might change your life
How has your cooking style changed since leaving the show?
My cooking style has significantly developed since I left the show. I'm more confident now, I've developed a style that suits my food interests but hopefully what people like to eat too. The paying public are more adventurous now with ingredients and are willing to be pushed outside their comfort zones.
You have had to take some time out to go back to a full-time job in IT. Was this a difficult decision to make, and how are you balancing working and your private dining business?
It was tough to go back into IT, as for a while I felt I had failed. My confidence took a massive knock, but I received so much support from my wife, friends, and the F&B industry it lifted me. When I look back at it, I hadn't failed, it was a difference of opinion, and I learnt a lot from the experience. I always take the positives from a negative.
What are your plans for the future?
I'm looking to do a few popup events, my own and with chefs who I really admire. The long term goal is having my own restaurant, my food, my style - so keep your eyes peeled.
A Quick Chat
Your favourite restaurant? La Trompette in Chiswick, I've never had an average dish there, it's so consistently brilliant and local
Food Heroes? Ferran Adria & Michel Roux Jnr
Favourite Ingredient? Paprika
What will be the next food trend? African Cuisine
Worst food trend? Kombucha
Guilty Food Pleasure? KFC
About Greg Emmerson
BBC MasterChef Semi-Finalist Gregg Emmerson was born into a French /Ukrainian family and from an early age, food played a huge part in his life. But it wasn’t really until his early 30s that he became really obsessed with cooking after seeing Ferran Adria working on Spanish television and was completely hooked.
Since his time on the show, Greg has developed a style heavily influenced by French and Spanish classics with a twist of Asian flavours and techniques.