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Master of her domain

Well known TV chef Anna Haugh told David Hennessy about joining Masterchef: The Professionals as a judge, how all her mistakes have led her here and her strong belief in creating a positive working atmosphere for chefs to flourish. 

MasterChef: The Professionals is back on BBC with a new judge.

Acclaimed Dublin chef and restaurateur Anna Haugh is the new judge of the UK’s most revered cooking competition.

In this, the show’s 15th series, Anna joins Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing and celebrated MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace to judge the contest that sees 32 ambitious chefs battle to become the 2022 Champion.

Anna told The Irish World: “To say that my heart has got butterflies fluttering around inside is an understatement.

“I’m so proud.”

With so many cooking shows on our screens now, you can say MasterChef was there before any of them and it is a product that has been exported all over the world.

“There isn’t a better cooking show out there than MasterChef.

“If anybody had asked me this time last year, ‘Anna, if there was one cooking show you’d love to be part of…’ I would have 100% been, ‘MasterChef: The Professionals’.

“It’s the best one because it’s the one that represents all of the time and the skill and the passion and the effort that you have to put in to be a real professional chef.

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“It’s not just about bells and whistles, it’s not just about making something look good. It’s about the skills that go behind something looking good.

“Sometimes a dish looks simple in a picture but it takes so much knowledge to execute it and I think that’s why MasterChef is so great, because you have professional chefs standing there noticing those details, and that’s what makes it so special.

Anna with fellow judges Marcus Wareing and Gregg Wallace.

“When I was a young chef and I was training, I remember not being able to roll my knife. I remember not being able to make a chicken mousse or making mistakes and thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m never gonna get there’.

“When you’re younger, you’re too slow and you make mistake after mistake. You think, ‘This is bad, I had a bad day, I made all these mistakes’.

“And little would I know years and years later, all of those mistakes are what makes you robust.

“They are what kind of make you understand your craft. So I feel so proud that I’m standing on all of my mistakes and finally being able to say I understand how to make delicious food and what makes it go right or wrong.”

Anna is a recognisable face from cooking shows like Saturday Kitchen. She is also a resident chef on BBC One’s Morning Live.

We have all seen Anna prepare delicious food on screen and you may even have had the pleasure of eating at her restaurant Myrtle in London.

But has she had her own kitchen nightmares? Has it ever gone wrong for Anna?

She laughs before she answers.

“I’ve made every single mistake that a chef can make.

“I mean, I’ve had absolute floods in the middle of service.

“I’ve had equipment totally breakdown.

“I’ve had food not turn up and then we’re waiting on that delivery before we can actually start service.

“I’ve had so many different moving parts go wrong before we even get to touch the food.

“I’ve had chefs hurt themselves in the middle of service, so then you’re down a member of staff.

“I’ve forgotten about something in the oven and it’s burnt or I haven’t turned the heating on, the oven’s not on and then timings go wrong.

“I’ve passionately devoted myself to every single service and still, at the end of some services, thought, ‘That wasn’t enough’.

“And I think that’s what devotion to any craft is about.

“It’s not just being a chef, that’s lots of industries. You have to devote yourself and you have to throw yourself into it so that even when the mistakes happen, you just keep going.

“You just pick yourself back up and you figure out, ‘Right, how can I make the best of this situation?’ And that’s literally what MasterChef is all about, not giving up.”

Anna says in the first episode of the new series that, as a judge, she will be ‘firm but fair’.

But we think she is more than fair, seeing merit where there is merit and not being over harsh on mistakes.

“Part of training a chef is that you need to put pressure on them, there has to be an element of pressure, but it has to be the right amount of pressure.

“So not unnecessarily screaming at them or focusing on something that isn’t going to improve them as a chef.

“And that takes years of leading people, it takes a long time to be confident to be able to very quickly figure out what needs to be focused on, on what shouldn’t.

“I always think over negative conversations kind of reinstate negative feelings in a chef about themselves and that’s not good for anybody. You want them to be able to understand what is wrong, but they also need to know what they’ve done right, because that’s way more powerful.

“But I really believe that without mistakes, you don’t learn.

“And that’s what makes the competition so hard, because you have to make as little mistakes as possible.

“But the ones who do make mistakes during the competition, they’re still learning, it is still part of their development.”

Of course, there is a difference between being a great chef and doing it in front of the cameras and the judges can see when nerves are coming into play.

However, Anna says this fades as they find their rhythm and their cooking skills come to the fore.

“I think in the beginning of the show, that’s when they’re most aware of the cameras.

“Soon enough, chef brain kicks in and you can see it in them where they don’t see the cameras anymore.

“They’re totally focused on their food and becoming who they should become.

“And I really mean that. In the beginning, yes, it’s probably absolutely terrifying when they first walk out for their skills tests because they’re walking in and all they can see are me, Marcus, Gregg and loads of cameras.

“But eventually, they forget about that.

“It’s the ones that can really, as quickly as possible, kick into chef mode, they’re the ones that become the most resilient.

“The camera suddenly becomes irrelevant when they’re in the competition.

“It’s just about their skills and the food in front of them.”

Anna also says that she will judge the chefs like the chefs in her own kitchen.

And with the standard so high, and no bad chefs on MasterChef:  The Professionals, we wonder if Anna would not be unhappy if they were all chefs in her kitchen.

“It’s a really fair point.

“It would go against my moral code- I can’t start stealing chefs from other kitchens but yeah, the chefs that I met over this series, I would definitely say I would hire most of them in a heartbeat. Because you don’t put yourself forward for MasterChef unless you are brave, and you’re passionate and you’ve got skills.

“They’re already almost fully formed chefs, they’re just learning what food they want to represent.

“A big difference is: You can cook food by somebody else, can you create your own food with the skills that somebody taught you?

“That’s what MasterChef is all about.”

Speaking of your kitchen, what are you like to work for? Probably ‘firm but fair’ again..

“I want to get the best out of my staff, I want to understand who they are, what’s their thinking behind how they organise themselves.

“The difference between MasterChef and my kitchen is that I’m hoping and encouraging these chefs, or we are hoping and encouraging these chefs to show us their food in their way.

“And it’s nerve racking, because it’s something that chefs think, ‘Oh, if I could do this, it would be fine’.

“But to create one dish, it’s quite easy. Two dishes, not too bad.

“But three, four or five, that’s when it starts to become really, really challenging.

“And that’s what the length of the competition is all about. It’s just about making them feel safe, but also putting enough pressure so that they get that adrenaline pumping so that they are actually performing at their peak.

“You look at any athlete in a race or heading into a football match, they have to get pumped up to actually perform.

“And then you kind of kick into almost like a subconscious mode.

“If you are trained and you’ve got skills, you nearly fly on another level.

Born in Dublin, Haugh grew up in Tallaght before moving to London where she worked with chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Philip Howard and Shane Osborn.

What was it like to work with Gordon Ramsay? “By the time I worked for Gordon, I was a qualified chef and Gordon reacted well to me being a very honest chef and a chef who’d worked really hard to be able to do her job.

“Sometimes when we would talk about food, Gordon might mention something to me and I’d say, ‘Ooh, I’m not sure about that, about the numbers or about the…’

“And I think he always reacted very positively to the idea that I wasn’t afraid to go, ‘Not sure about that, that might be a bit of a stretch’, Or maybe, ‘I need to just work on it a little bit and come back to you’.

“So I was a confident shaped chef by the time I worked for him but I still think if I had been younger working for him, he would have been the same. He is an encouraging leader. He does look for potential in people, because he’s a businessman.

“When you hire people, you want them to do well and as a result your restaurant does well, and I think all of the chefs I worked for, they all wanted their restaurant to be fantastic and have happy customers and that really is reliant on the staff you have in the kitchen and how they’re trained.”

 Was it hard in those early years when she was trying to find her way? “To be a chef in any country, in any high end restaurant is hard.

“It’s hard work being a little fish out of water so not having the network of your parents and your family nearby is very tricky, but that’s every kitchen.

“I get young chefs or maybe even older chefs who have moved to London from the north of England and they’re similar to me in a way that it’s a different culture, it’s a different life in London and they’re putting themselves under pressure to learn difficult skills.

“And that’s hard for anybody and throw in a bit of self doubt or a bit of nervousness, and it really is a hard job.

“But you can be in a good kitchen where they can see your potential and encourage that potential. That’s the best situation to be in because you’re safe, you’re secure, you’ve got leaders who’ve got the answers, and you just have to go with that rhythm and hone your skills.”

In May 2019, Anna founded the restaurant Myrtle in London.

And just like week she opened her fine dining restaurant Anna Haugh at Conrad Dublin.

“I have to say, I feel really supported by all of the kitchens I worked in.

“And yeah, there was some good and there were some bad in those kitchens.

“But fundamentally, I didn’t work for people by accident. I chose the leaders that I wanted to work with and I believed in what they represented.

“And that’s what I ask of my staff. When they come and work for me, they need to believe in me. And then they will fulfil their potential as I have done.”

Anna says there was some bad in the kitchens she worked in and indeed she has spoken about some of the negative aspects she encountered early on in her career like blatant bullying and racism in kitchens.

The bully chef roaring at people has become a stereotype but is this becoming a thing of the past? “It’s a good question, David.

“I can only really talk about what’s in my kitchen, or what I see.

“I know that I work really hard to create a good environment for people to be stretched and to work hard, but also to kind of feel safe and respected.

“And I think a lot of kitchens are similar to mine.

“But I think it would be naive of us to think it’s eradicated.

“But I do think that if I empower your chefs, when they go to work somewhere else, they will lead kitchens similar to the kitchens I run.

“And that’s what it’s about, you are preparing the next generation. You have to feel a responsibility to be part of the positive wave.

“But it is really hard and people do lose their temper. I see good people say bad things. Sometimes you have to pull them aside and say, ‘Listen, I know you’re stressed. I know you’re under pressure but you’re not going to get the most of the team by being like that’.

“And you have to choose your moments when you pull people up, because it’s just constantly moving.

“It’s a busy day all through the day. It’s not just service.

“But yeah, I do think the industry is dramatically getting better.

“And I also think our industry gets a terrible hard time because for ages it wasn’t really talked about.

“And then it was all we talked about, how horrible it is.

“But it has made huge improvements and we just need to keep going.”

Opening her own restaurant in Dublin last week was a special homecoming for Anna.

Although they now ‘swell’ with pride for her, Anna has revealed in the past that her parents were not always sure about her career choice.

“I always say that I didn’t choose being a chef, I believe that it was like a vocation and it chose me.

“I kind of feel very lucky that I accidentally went into a professional kitchen one day.

“But yeah, my parents were worried about me.

“We have pensions now for chefs, we didn’t have pensions back in the day and we didn’t have regulated work hours, we didn’t have proper minimum wage enforced when I became a chef, there was a lot of unknown circumstances.

“And my parents were worried about me.

“Also, it wasn’t well known that women worked in kitchens so there was an assumption that women weren’t as robust as men to do it, which over the years, everything I’ve experienced is that’s inaccurate.

“Men and women both can do this job identically.

“My parents were just worried about me and but it did take a long time to convince them and now they swell with pride. And coming home is a real big deal for them.”

MasterChef: The Professionals, starts Wednesday 2nd November at 9pm on BBC One and iPlayer (continues Thursday 3rd at 9pm and Friday 4th at 8pm)

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