What it’s really like to win a TV cookery competition

by Pippa Middlehurst, winner of Best Home Cook 2018

In 2018 I took part in the first series of Best Home Cook. It was a surreal experience – and when I was crowned winner it was just as strange. Now I’ve swapped my career for running my own cookery business. The show completely changed my life!

When I saw the hook of the series I thought that, while MasterChef would be too daunting, this would be something I’d enjoy. I’ve always loved cooking – my first food memory is of my maternal grandmother and I putting bread into beef dripping, then toasting it and leaving it outside for the birds.

When I was about six, my maternal grandfather took my brothers and me to a dim-sum restaurant in Liverpool. It was the first time I’d tried Chinese food, and that’s the moment my love of Asian food stems from.

I realised I needed to stop wearing pyjamas to the shops

The series was filmed a long time in advance, so when I was crowned winner I couldn’t say anything to anyone because it was top secret. I went straight back to normal life. There had been all this commotion, high-energy and nerves – then suddenly everything went quiet. It was quite surreal, but actually nice to step back.

I was so exhausted that immediately after filming ended I didn’t want to cook. I pretty much ate beans on toast for six weeks! Soon, though, my passion for cooking returned.

When the programme aired I started to get recognised. I remember being in the queue at Tesco and someone behind me saying, ‘Aren’t you that girl?’. I think I was wearing pyjama bottoms and a baggy jumper and had my hair scraped up and no make-up on. I’d just popped in to buy some steak. I realised I definitely needed to stop wearing pyjamas to the shops!

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Other than the friendships I made on the show, one of my happiest moments was the first challenge

In the first challenge, all the judges chose my dish – a bao bun – as their favourite. If I was chosen as the best cook or having made the best dish of the week, it was really uplifting. When we had to go into the kitchen with mystery ingredients and make something up on the spot, I was nervous, but on occasions when I finished those challenges and made something amazing I thought, ‘I can do it’.

That’s not to say there weren’t low points. There were a good few challenges where I messed up. When I did something rubbish and knew I was being watched and judged it was horrible.

But overall it was an amazing experience and when they told me I’d won I was in disbelief. I hadn’t looked that far ahead; I was just trying to get to the next week. At first I felt mega-relief it was all over, then I was in absolute shock: ‘What? Me?’.

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Despite my love of cooking, I always thought of it as a hobby rather than a job

When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say a doctor, a vet – anything in science. And that’s what I ended up doing. When I applied for the show, I was working as an oncology research biobank technician. I worked with melanoma patients and spent half my time in the research lab with tumour samples.

I took leave so I could go on the show, and my employer was amazingly supportive. On my last day at work before filming I was terrified – I would soon be moving to a big house with all the other people competing on the series.

While it was scary going into the programme’s kitchen for the first time, we all got on really well. I don’t know if the audience or producers expected more jeopardy, but when someone was struggling, we’d run across and help rather than being competitive.

I started doing supper clubs

I returned to my job after filming. Then, as it was something I’d always wanted to do, I started doing supper clubs. I did more and more cookery stuff. I was burning the candle at both ends, and in November 2018 I quit my day job so I could focus on cookery endeavours full-time. I can always go back to science.

There are science elements to my new career. I always need to know exactly why something’s happening. If I make a noodle, I need to know what’s happening on a molecular level between the gluten and bonding.

My life has changed a lot since going on the show. I didn’t have a goal of starting my own cookery business, and it feels strange to say that’s what I’m doing. Managing my own time and money has been a learning curve, but I’m really enjoying it and I get to decide what I want to do. If I want to run a workshop on how to make noodles, I can! It’s all very rewarding. And I’m doing it in my home town of Manchester – I love this city!

The contestants on series two of Best Home Cook

I’m still in contact with the other contestants

We’ve got a WhatsApp group and if someone’s having a party or celebration we’ll all be invited. Tobi came to my 30th birthday party last year.

My advice to the contestants in the show this year is to be yourself and don’t overthink it. Perhaps because it was the first series, we didn’t know what the judges were expecting, so l tried to make things more fancy than I’d do at home – like putting micro-herbs on things; I don’t think that’s what the judges were looking for.

BBC One's Best Home Cook returns on January 2, 8pm