Anna Haugh has climbed the TV chef ladder to become the latest judge on MasterChef: The Professionals, as well as opening new restaurant Anna Haugh at Conrad Dublin. She offers her competition tips
"Cooking doesn't get tougher than this," Gregg Wallace has been bellowing on MasterChef for almost 20 years. The series catchphrase, however, would be even more apt for its spin-off, MasterChef: The Professionals, which each year sees 32 fresh-faced hopefuls put their reputation as working chefs on the line along with their cooking skills. But if it's tough for the new batch of contestants revealed to the nation earlier this month, when the show's 15th season began on BBC One, it's arguably even tougher for Anna Haugh, who has taken over presenting duties from Monica Galetti.
"The MasterChef team asked me for a list of dishes I could make for the skills test," Haugh says. "It's pretty intense having Gregg Wallace and Marcus Wareing eating your food. I was thinking, ‘please like it, please like it' because that's what chefs are like. Whoever we cook for, we want to make them happy."
Haugh was announced as the new presenter in April. The Dublin-born chef, known for her singsong accent and cheery appearances on Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch, Morning Live and Ready Steady Cook, was perhaps an unlikely replacement for a judge nicknamed ‘scary Monica'. But viewers are about to see a tougher side to Haugh.
"I found it difficult," Haugh says when asked about how she approached the judging process, "but I tried to be fair. The chefs who put themselves forward are really brave. They're doing something that's hard work and nerve-racking. There were times when my heart hurt when they made a mistake, but I'm not helping them if I don't point out when something isn't good. Any mistakes can only make the contestants stronger. The whole point of the show is how you become robust by taking a chance."
It is the programme's similarity to working in a professional kitchen which, Haugh says, makes it such compelling viewing. "It's as close to real life as a competition can be. Filming the show feels like running a service. If I were in my kitchen trialling a chef to be hired, they'd also get a time limit. It's nerve-racking but service is nerve-racking and creating dishes and putting them out to paying customers is nerve-racking. We give the contestants the opportunity and it's up to them to fulfil their potential."
Taste of home
Haugh finished filming MasterChef in July, "so the fact that it's coming out now feels a little surreal". Her time recently has been focused on opening Anna Haugh at Conrad Dublin, a 92-cover dining room in a five-star property just off St Stephen's Green.
Haugh describes the cooking as "fine-dining Irish food and service done in a really informal way" and the new restaurant re-imagines traditional Irish recipes to make them more elegant and refined. A main course called ‘Queen Maeve's beef', for instance, involves slow-cooked collar of Dexter beef wrapped around medium rare fillet accompanied by a potato farl stuffed with caramelised celeriac and thyme and finished at the table with tarragon gravy.
Anna Haugh at Conrad Dublin marks a homecoming for the chef, both personally and professionally. Haugh grew up in Tallaght, just south of the Irish capital, and inherited a love of cooking from her mother. Her first professional kitchen job after leaving school was at L'Ecrivain, the Michelin-starred Dublin restaurant run by Derry Clarke, which the Irish celebrity chef closed in 2021. Clarke instilled in Haugh a love for modern French cooking, which she pursued by moving to Paris to work at the Hotel Lotti and then London with Shane Osborn at Pied à Terre and Phil Howard at the Square, before launching London House for Gordon Ramsay and working as executive chef of Bob Bob Ricard.
Haugh might be based in the UK but there's a lot of love for her back home. "I feel like Ireland is very proud of me," Haugh says. "It's really heartwarming when I meet people who I don't know and they speak to me as if I'm some sort of relative. When I get interviewed in Ireland it's very supportive."
Tasting menu tribute
Haugh's cooking is shaping up to be one of Ireland's most prestigious food exports. She opened her first solo restaurant, Myrtle, in London in 2019 after a demoralising eight-year search for a property. The influence of the Emerald Isle illuminates the Chelsea site like a stick of Kryptonite.
Its name is inspired by Myrtle Allen, the founder of Ballymalloe House hotel and restaurant in County Cork, who taught the Irish to appreciate their own ingredients and cooking. Myrtle's butter dishes are made from green marble, the Champagne glasses from Galway crystal and water is served in pewter goblets that would not disgrace a table in Game of Thrones.
Then there is the cooking, which includes a seven-course ‘Taste of Ireland' tasting menu, with the option to add a black pudding snack. One dish, yellow meal cake with endive and Silver Hill duck from County Monaghan, is a tribute to the corn donated by the Native American Choctaw tribe during the Irish potato famine. "When I opened Myrtle, I described it as ‘modern European with an Irish influence' because I thought if I called it an Irish restaurant, nobody would come," Haugh says. "But it turned out that people actually wanted the cooking to be more Irish. There's no way that when I left Dublin I thought I'd be cooking the food that I am today. It's been really wonderful to work hard, hone my skills and open a restaurant that makes my heart beat faster."
Haugh claims, however, that she didn't accept the MasterChef job just to increase bookings at Myrtle. "I didn't do MasterChef solely for my business. I'm really proud of the show and I believe in the foundations that it's based on. Great ideas are brilliant, but they're so much better if they're standing on real skills. It takes chefs decades to become good at our jobs and our industry needs to be recognised as a proper profession. And that has got to be protected because it's amazing what you can do with a knife, a flame and a chopping board."
More obviously, Haugh is a media-friendly female chef replacing another media-friendly female chef at a time when fewer than one in five chefs in the UK are women. But although Haugh says that MasterChef shouldn't have a political agenda – "it's all about the food and the cooking" – she does recognise that visibility is important.
"I'm following another strong female and I think it's really important to recognise that there was a time when people thought that women couldn't lead as chefs. And the truth is, if you don't see them, you don't believe they exist. The whole concept of MasterChef is that chefs come into the kitchen. They all have an equal opportunity to cook the food they passionately believe in. The programme gives women the chance to prove that they can cook as well as men."
Haugh admits that female chefs face a struggle when juggling their family commitments with their professional lives; Galetti has stepped down from MasterChef to balance the needs of her family and her restaurant, Mere. Haugh – who has a 14-month-old son and 17-year-old stepson with her partner Richard – bats away suggestions that she might find her increased workload difficult.
"It's like anything in life. You budget your money, you budget your time and you choose what you prioritise. So I just manage it. I enjoy being busy. I enjoy creating my plan for the next day and the next month and the next year. I'm lucky that I've got such a good little boy who I can sling on my back and take wherever I go. When it comes to work, it's all about what you feel comfortable with. You push yourself as far as you feel you can be pushed. I'm really focused on that with my team. I don't expect others to do what I can do."
Haugh is keen to stress that Galetti is taking a break from presenting MasterChef rather than leaving the programme entirely and that she should be applauded for admitting that she wants some time out, something that Haugh feels chefs need to say more.
"Chefs burn out because they don't take care of themselves. You can be really busy and have lots going on. But if you're not giving yourself some downtime every couple of days, you will run into trouble, no matter what your job is. I've always been reasonably good at making sure that I book a dinner somewhere or a weekend away so I have something to look forward to that involves rewarding myself. I think that has paid off for me mentally. We must encourage people in kitchens to be nice to themselves."
Haugh's daily routine for MasterChef involved having what she calls a "kitchen disco" with her son before heading off to the studio and making sure she was home to tuck him into bed.
For the opening of Anna Haugh at the Conrad Dublin, the family moved to Ireland along with their dog. "I'm pretty close to breaking point at the moment," Haugh laughs. "I don't think there's much more I can be doing. But you know what, I'll get stronger. And then there'll be another five restaurants in no time." Spoken like a true winner of MasterChef.
Anna's tips for chefs to be on television
- People say I never look nervous on TV but inside I'm screaming. Chefs are taught how to control temperature and speed but it's just as important to learn how to compose yourself and control your emotions.
- Pay attention to what your family meals at home are or were. Eat out as much as you can, from a sandwich to fine dining. It's expensive, but that breadth of knowledge is invaluable.
- It's obvious, but to be a chef on television, you've got to know your skills. For the MasterChef skills tests I chose dishes that I knew I could cook faster than the contestants probably could.
- TV isn't just about what you think someone should be like as a chef. It's really about who are you as a person.
- Know who you are and know what you love and people will buy into you. Have passions and interests that are more than food. Read a newspaper. Spend a whole day in a museum. Expand your mind. If you are up to date on what's happening in the world, you can then stand in front of people, talk passionately and be relatable.
What did you learn from MasterChef: The Professionals?
Adam Handling, chef and owner, Adam Handling Restaurant Group
"MasterChef allowed me to break away from the mould of doing what someone else wanted and to focus on my style of cooking. It taught me to be creative and take opportunities to showcase what I can really do. The show is about putting yourself out there. There is a lot of risk-taking involved as a restaurateur – some risks pay off and some don't but what matters is what you learn from them. That's the lesson of MasterChef."
Steven Edwards, chef-patron, Etch by Steven Edwards and Steven Edwards at Bingham Riverhouse
"The journey I went on from the first round to the final was incredible; I would compare it to three years of working in a professional kitchen.
"The biggest thing I learned is how to deal with pressure and face new challenges. The things that I found difficult before MasterChef were nothing in comparison to what I went through on the show. This gave me the confidence to push myself further in my career and helped me a lot when I opened my first restaurant."
Sven-Hanson Britt, chef-patron, Oxeye and Bar Rex, and co-founder, Cartografie Chocolate
"I have a really positive memory of my time on MasterChef. It took me from a stagnant place in my career to taking the plunge into the next step of how I wanted to develop as a chef, a cook and a restaurateur. People still walk into Oxeye today and see the MasterChef trophy in the reception and take selfies with it. I think the draw that the programme has and the widespread awareness of the competition is bigger than many people realise. I'm regularly stopped on the street and asked about it."
Jack Rawlings, senior sous chef, Coutts
"Looking back, I should have waited to apply for the show until I was much older and more experienced. I had only just turned 20 when I filmed MasterChef, so did not have anywhere near the same amount of knowledge and skill as the other contestants. But it was a great way of connecting with other people from the show, past and present. There's a MasterChef family which has helped me make many friends within the hospitality industry."
MasterChef: The Professionals continues on BBC One and is also available on iPlayer
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