'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
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.' "
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
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
"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
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. "
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.
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.
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
Happy eater: Rosa with her son, Joseph
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
"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).
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.
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."
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.
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?