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The repast master


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 07/07/2001

'WHAT about the verdict on the Dando trial?" asks Rosa Baden-Powell as I arrive at her north London house. She plonks herself down at her newspaper-strewn kitchen table to resume feeding Joseph, her 10-month-old baby. Joseph fixes me with Rosa's steady, cheery blue gaze, wondering who's come in. I'm here to interview his dynamic mother - vegetarian, barrister and, earlier this week, the winner of the new-look Masterchef 2001.

 
Winner: Rosa Baden-Powell

She only entered television's biggest cooking competition in response to a dare at a Christmas drinks party. "We got into a bit of a row about cooking programmes and Masterchef. I was sounding off, saying I could never make "that type" of food, that Masterchef's style was this and my style was that. Later, one of my friends faxed me the application form and I thought: 'Oh, all right then.' "

Rosa, 32, is completely unselfconscious and talks fluently and frankly about her first television experience, her job, her baby, her composer/music producer husband, Ed (the great-great-nephew of the boy scout leader), and Wazoo, seven, and Mali, five, the two children they have fostered. She is clearly very brainy and what the French would call "bien dans sa peau".

For Rosa, cooking is about nurturing and nourishing, not performance. She started cooking as a child near Haywards Heath in East Sussex. "I learnt when I was eight. I am the youngest of four and my mother was never keen on cooking, although she was a terrible food snob - she would never buy packet biscuits. So I learnt to do everything: stews and roasts - I wasn't vegetarian then - marmalade, souffles and sauces, and, by the time I was 14, I ran the kitchen.

"I still love planning menus and getting the balance right - not in a health-conscious way, but getting the right textures, flavours and sequences is very important. I thought about doing it professionally, but decided that would be too much like hard work." Instead, she went to Oxford and read law at Magdalen College, which led to a career as a barrister specialising in crime. Now her foodie inspiration comes from Moro's Sam Clark and the Italian cookery writer Marcella Hazan more than her Aunt Margaret, who was an early influence.

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How did she find the time and energy to do Masterchef? Joseph must have been pretty young in March when all the filming was taking place. "Yes," she says. "March was a very difficult month. I had just gone back to work, so it took some adjusting. But the heat was huge fun because I met all the other London people. There were about 14 of us and we got to hang out for a morning and talk about cooking. It was a day off.

"The hard work started when I got through. When I went to the regional final, I had such fun that I really wanted to come back. After I got through to the semi-final, I thought: `Right, the pressure's off.' " She pauses. "Actually, that's a complete lie. I decided that since I'd come this far I wanted to be in the final." Clearly, this woman does what she sets her mind to do.

"I didn't find it particularly stressful," she says. "I cook for relaxation and I think being so casual about it was the reason that I didn't get anxious, and found it fun."

But she concedes: "The one really scary bit is when the judges come and talk to you while you're cooking and you have to justify everything you are doing. They're not there to criticise, but it's nerve-wracking being put on the spot like that. But Giorgio Locatelli, who was a judge for the regional final, is a sweetie, as are Matthew Fort and Raymond Blanc. And Gary Rhodes is in life as he is on TV: utterly charming. Besides, they're just there to talk food, which puts you at your ease. "

This is a new era for Masterchef. It's still a competition for amateur cooks, but there's more of an edge now that Gary Rhodes is at the helm. Under the 10-year reign of Mr Irritable Vowel Syndrome, Loyd Grosman, the show sometimes felt like a cross between a chat show and the Generation Game and was, frankly, a bit naff.

Now it's leaner and meaner. The entrants have 90 minutes to produce two courses (two-and-a-half hours for three courses in the final) and are set specific tasks, such as pasta or pastry. The Spiky One's guest is another food professional and the conversation is not game-show banter, but a bit of an inquisition, often eliciting serious - some say harsh - advice from one chef to another.

Gary Rhodes is enthusiastic about the show. Although he has been presenting the American version for two years, this was his first year doing Masterchef in the UK. "I found the quality of cooking very exciting," he says. "There's no doubt that standards are going up all the time. And creativity. People are trying new things and understanding that the most important thing about cooking is having good ingredients.

"I like the new format for the show. Setting the contestants tasks is a material way of comparing their skills. And since they have really very little time to put the food together, they were looking for definite flavours, not how they can over-garnish a dish.

"Deciding who won was really hard. It took us more than an hour, a record for Masterchef. Rosa pulled it off because of the simplicity in her food and the excellence of her execution. She really understands simple seasonings and how that extra twist of pepper or touch of salt can draw out flavours. That's what her cooking is about - simplicity and definite flavours."

 
Happy eater: Rosa with her son, Joseph

Another departure for the show was that this year, for the first time, the winner is a vegetarian whose presentation is miles away from the vertical tendencies that have prevailed for the past few years. Could this be by way of acknowledgement that eating habits are changing? Meat is featuring less regularly at mealtimes and modern cooks have the confidence to concentrate more on flavour and less on tortuous presentation.

"Rosa had to work that little bit harder on her dishes because there was no meat, no fish," says Rhodes. He admits to a fairly typical carnivore reaction on discovering what she was cooking for the final (soup was the setpiece starter, the rest was left to the contestant's discretion).

"When I found out it was risotto, I thought: 'Is that it?', but that risotto was one of the best I have eaten. Better than in many, many restaurants. When Raymond looked at it, he kept saying, 'It's not cooked', but when he tasted it, he said: 'Perfection.' He was knocked out by it. It was outstanding, just incredible." High praise, indeed.

And what does winning Masterchef mean to Rosa? "I feel a lot more confident. It gives you great confidence to find out that you can cook, that you do have judgment and a certain flair."

Her prizes include a week on a Tasting Places cookery school with Alistair Little in Sicily, taking the family on a gourmet holiday to the destination of her choice (San Francisco) and spending a week working with Michel Roux. "I'll try to learn as much as I can. You know, chop the carrots the way he wants them," she laughs.

And after all that, if she ever decides to leave the bar for the kitchen, there could always be a place for her chez Gary Rhodes. Need a new risotto chef, Gaz?

  • To enter 'Masterchef', see www.bbc.co.uk/food
  • Tamasin Day-Lewis returns next week.
  • Post this story to: del.icio.us | Digg | Newsvine | NowPublic | Reddit

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