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MasterChef: The Professionals winner Gary Maclean on winning 2016

By Hannah Thompson , 23-Dec-2016
Last updated on 23-Dec-2016 at 12:31 GMT2016-12-23T12:31:42Z

MasterChef: The Professionals winner Gary Maclean on winning 2016

The MasterChef: The Professionals 2016 winner, Gary Maclean, was crowned victorious last night. We spoke to the Glasgow-based chef-lecturer (and husband, and father-of-six) the morning after to talk winning, culinary colleges, and learning what the TV judges liked...

How did it feel when you first found out you'd won?
It was almost anticlimactic. It was kind of strange, my wife came down to London and we went out for a bite to eat - and one of the biggest things in my life had happened, but we couldn't tell anyone anything about it. I honestly didn't really feel like I'd won until last night, truth be told. It wasn't real before!

What kind of reactions have you had?
I think I've been on TV for about four weeks. It's quite strange, people have been stopping me for selfies and that kind of stuff. It has been kind of weird! The only people that have treated me normally have been my students, because they know the real Gary! But when you're outside, and people recognise you, it's strange but great.

Was it difficult to keep it a secret from everyone?
Not really. It was difficult once I'd appeared on the show, because everyone then asked, did you win? So there have been various lies, that were all pretty rubbish, to try and divert the question.

You've said you think it's one of the biggest competitions that a chef can do. But to play devil’s advocate, it’s still just 'a TV show', compared to say, professional contests such as National Chef of the Year. What does it mean to win this?
You're 100 per cent right. But the difference with this is that you're putting yourself out there for six weeks. You're getting judged on everything that you do; not just the plate of food, but also how you do it, your personality, your interaction, your interviews. So it is completely different from Chef of the Year. Here, you're putting everything on the line. You don't realise how much you're putting on the line until you actually step into that studio for the first time. You see half of the chefs go home on Day One.

Did you go in expecting that you could get this far?
I just went in for the experience, because I loved the show. I do a lot of competitions and I've been really successful. In my younger days I competed against Marcus in Young National Chef of the Year, and I've done a lot of competition coaching. So I thought, why not give it a go at the biggest competition? It was a big risk for me, so it was almost like – can I show my students that I can put my money where my mouth is?

And also just to say that you’ve done it! I just took it a challenge at a time. I just looked at the next challenge and thought, if I get through that, I'll get to cook for the critics, if I get through that, I'll get to do XYZ. That's how I did it, I didn't have a grand plan to get to the finals.

Was it important to cook for judges and top chefs Marcus Wareing and Monica Galetti on the show? Did you have that on your mind when you were doing it?
Obviously I'm a big fan of all of the judges, and they're all completely different. Getting to know their likes and dislikes, you can get great comments from two, and then one of them doesn't like it. But they're always genuinely right in what they're saying. It's amazing what they pick up. Sometimes I'd walk out with bad comments but smiling, because I thought, I cannot believe that Marcus loved it but Monica didn't. But they were both right.

What was the hardest thing about doing the show?
Being away from home was tough. And everything comes at you really fast, so you're up very late at night thinking of ideas and submitting recipes. That was tough. All in all, I was away from home for about six weeks.

Did you consider that when you were entering the contest?
I did discuss it with my wife. I said, look, potentially this is what might happen, but the chances of me getting to any of the latter stages will be quite slim, so don't worry, I won't be away too long!

How did you plan the dishes you were going to do?
Honestly there was no opportunity to practice. I practiced my signature dish and the critics' round, because that's the only information we got prior to going on. But otherwise on automatic pilot getting used to the cameras and the judges. You were always doing it for the first time, more or less.

How did that affect the dishes you did?
There was lots of stuff that I thought, before going in, I would never attempt, because it's too risky. But when you see the calibre of what you're up against, you've really got to be doing your absolute best, because the rest of the competitors were brilliant.

Does that atmosphere make you step your game up, and has it changed your cooking?
Yeah, I think it's certainly made me more brave and confident. That's the main change.

Other that winning, what was your best moment?
Getting to the final 12. Walking into that kitchen, looking round, knowing that the winner was in that room. Thinking, if I go home today, it's OK, because I've cooked beside the winner. And that was a real moment for me. I felt like I'd really achieved something. Being in that room and being an equal with all those people. I thought, if I go now, I can go with my head held high. I felt that all the risk had paid off.

If you had to describe your style of cooking, what would you say?
If I had my own style of restaurant, it would be something that the customers would want. I've got enough experience to just adapt and learn lots of different style of food. For this show, I think that helped, as I could show a wide range of different skills. I ended up doing all these pastry dishes. And I went back to college, and some of my fellow lecturers were like, 'Pastry, Gary? Why're you doing pastry?' I don't teach it. But, through my career, I've done pastry, so it's just bringing those skills.

What kind of doors will winning open for you that you might not have had otherwise?
It's hard to tell. It's massive to win. But the response has been incredible. In the last eight hours I've had 6,000 new followers on Twitter. I can't even touch my phone. It's off the hook. Yesterday I got probably 2 or 3,000 notifications on Twitter and the same on Facebook. It's bonkers.

How do you find that? Is it exciting or not really what you went in to do?
I'm just blown away from the comments I'm receiving from strangers. From far and wide. I think me winning it has ticked quite a few boxes for education. I've had a teacher say to me, you're an educational hero. I never thought of it like that, I always see myself as a chef. But I've had messages from lecturers all over the UK, being very supportive. It's a great network. There's some cracking educators out there.

What is your view on colleges these days? Some chefs say you don't need them?
We're always up against it. There are always chefs who think culinary education isn't important. But what they don't realise is, our graduates aren't looking to have their jobs, necessarily. Our graduates are looking to move to Dubai, or France, and going on cruise liners. And you don't get those jobs unless you're qualified. If you want a job, don't go to college. If you want a career, get to college.

Why do you think that is?
There are things that we teach them. I always highlight these lessons. MasterChef is a prime example of the guys that don't go to college. When they can't prepare an artichoke or a crab, or fillet a fish properly. If you go to college, you do these things. And if you get that certificate, it's your ticket to the world.

How will winning change your teaching?
Well, I think class attendance will be good! Other than that, I don't know if it will change it too much. But I think it's a great advert for the college and culinary education as a whole.

One of the issues people talk about when it comes to culinary colleges, is that there are so many women in the classes, but when you look at the high-profile kitchens, the women seem to fall away from the top jobs. What's your view on that?
I've thought long and hard on this, and I have seen a difference. I know a lot of female graduates who are still out there, climbing up the ranks. And I think in the next few years, that's going to change. I mean, look at Elly [Wentworth, junior sous chef at Lucknam Park - one of the three finalists] on the show. Incredible. I do think the show helps encourage young women.

But I think a lot of women come to college and then move on to other areas of catering, whether it's teaching themselves or something else. I think they diversify more. They're there, but they move in slightly different circles. But I think we're seeing a change, and there will be, in the next 3-4 years. I think it's coming. Monica Galetti is an amazing ambassador, and I think it is changing.

You've mentioned also that your win could be good for Scotland. What's your view on regional restaurants and the scene away from London?
I mean, look at Edinburgh. There's no other city in Britain with more Michelin stars other than London. And in Glasgow, there’s an explosion of fantastic chef-owned restaurants. Whether they're chasing Michelin stars, I don't know, but they're definitely full and providing customers what they want. I feel positive about it. I love London and the restaurant scene here, but there's loads of stuff going on in Scotland now.

Chefs like Ross Sneddon; he's spending a lot of time training young chefs too. There are loads - Andrew Fairlie, Tom Kitchin...they're making strides for the region.

You've had a long career - what's the best advice you've had?
For me, the advice I give young chefs is, don't chase the money. I say, work in the best restaurant you can. And it won't be the best money, but it's still a real investment in your future. Work with good people, surround yourself with good chefs and your team. And obviously, go to college, and get qualified.

Going back to the show, what do you think is your favourite dish you cooked on it?
I think in hindsight, it's split between the Mahogany clam dish I did in Oslo, and the razor clams I did [for a starter] in the final. With the razor clams, I just stuck to really clean cookery. It was probably one of the simplest dishes I did in the whole competition, and again it was just back to being balanced and precise. And Marcus absolutely loved it.

Were there any difficult dishes on MasterChef where you thought, maybe I didn't do the right thing there?
I don't think I had any disasters, but the Chefs' Table [cooking round] was tough. I knew if I could get the dish on the plate the way I wanted, it would look stunning. But I didn't know if it was going to be right. The feedback was correct, a two-Michelin starred chef can see past the hoops and squiggles to the flavour. But it did look stunning, and the public loved it!

What was it like cooking at three-Michelin-starred restaurant Maaemo in Oslo [in Finals week the contestants visited Oslo]?
It just clicked for me, instantly. As soon as I saw that first dish, it was, wow. Three things on a plate, and I tasted it, and it was mind-blowing. I just clicked. It was an absolutely amazing experience. I felt at home in a three-star restaurant.

What's next for you, your dream now?
I'm definitely going to stay teaching, but I'd love to see what other opportunities come out of this. You just never know. I absolutely loved doing TV. I don't think it's a million miles away from being a lecturer. If you walk in front of a class of students and you're not feeling well or you've had a fight with your wife, you've still got to perform the way you did the day before. You've got to be the same, and be able to step up and do your job.

On TV, you're performing in the same way. You can't have a bad day or be in a bad mood or not bothered.

What was it you especially enjoyed about TV?
I just loved the people. I couldn't believe how hard they worked. I thought chefs worked hard. It was the closest thing I've ever seen to a kitchen team. The camaraderie and the teamwork and the professionalism. It was almost exactly the same as a service. I made some really good friends behind the cameras.

If you had to summarise the whole experience in a sentence, what would you say?
I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to do it, and show my family what I do for a living. And I do feel really privileged to have that opportunity. It was important to me to have that.