Meeting MasterChef: The Professionals winner Craig Johnston
PUBLISHED: 12:16 13 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:59 13 March 2018
From being the youngest winner of MasterChef: The Professionals to a menu for the French President, it's all in a day's work for easy-going Craig Johnston
“If you think that challenge was difficult; we’re only just getting started. Three courses, one-and-a-half hours. Let’s cook!” MasterChef: The Professionals 2017 winner Craig Johnston heard those immortal words uttered by Greg Wallace, Marcus Wareing and Monica Galleti many times over the seven-week contest in the run up to Christmas. The Maidenhead-born sous chef from The Royal Oak in Paley Street out-cooked the competition and claimed the coveted MasterChef Professional trophy to become the youngest chef ever to win it. A trip to Twickenham to create three courses for the rugby team, cooking at Michelin star restaurant Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, being mentored by renowned chefs such as Gary Jones and James Close – it must have surely been an experience to remember for the 22-year-old.
Spur of the moment
Looking at the dishes Craig was producing by the end of the show it came as little surprise that he won over the hungry hearts of all three judges and indeed the public, but did he ever see himself wearing the crown?
“I never thought my cooking would get the kind of reaction it did. Even on final day I was so overwhelmed with the comments I got.” Craig admits he had been thinking of applying for the series for a while: “I always watched previous years of MasterChef and thought ‘I could have a shot at that’. Then I just went for it one day after seeing the application form online.”
The cooking was the easy part; the nervousness and time pressure was the real test. Then there was facing the judges: “At first they’re taking notes about you, they don’t talk to you that much because, well, they’re the judges at the end of the day, they keep themselves to themselves. But as the number of chefs decreases they open up a bit more and talk to you.
“On the first day you think you will meet them before your first round but it’s not the case – you meet them as you walk through the door for your first test – the skills test!”
The number of chefs dwindled from 48 as the weeks passed by, until there were only three young chefs remaining: Craig, Louisa Ellis and Steven Lickley. All three had honed their own styles by now but where there might have been rivalry, the competition only served up camaraderie. It comes as no surprise, then, that Craig couldn’t choose between fellow finalists when asked who he would pick as an alternative winner: “I think they are both just incredible, to be in the final with them was a real honour anyway. I didn’t think it was going to be me.”
Craig chopped, charred and charmed his way to picking up the trophy while rarely making any culinary mistakes. He was doing all the right things, and the judges were saying all the right things, too. But was it really that easy? “It’s much more stressful than it looks,” reveals Craig. “There’s a lot more to it than just walking into the room and cooking. You have to do prep, plus you have to submit your recipes by a deadline for each of the rounds. Of course, there are some dishes you have to make up, like those in the invention tests, but some you can prepare for.”
Craig admits, however, that between his job at The Royal Oak and filming, he wasn’t quite as prepared as he could have been: “I was so stretched between both work and filming that some of my dishes were created on paper at the last minute. A lot of them I didn’t actually practice. It was risky, but as it turned out it was those I didn’t practice which received the best feedback!”
Those who watched the series must have noticed the lack of ‘older’ chefs this year. That’s not to say there weren’t any, but the final three were all well under the age of 30. “The assumption is that more experience makes for a better chef,” Craig says. “There’s no doubt it is about experience, but it’s also about natural talent, as well.”
This naturally talented sous chef loved cooking from an early age. He would always join his mother baking in the kitchen and at secondary school he knew he wanted to work with food thanks to the encouragement of his teachers. “I ended up doing a summer job at Boulters restaurant in Maidenhead, but stayed for three years, working up from the bottom until I became a sous chef at 19. It taught me so much, I felt like I was improving every day.” following that, he went to the Michelin starred Pollen Street Social in London where he took on the role as pastry chef for a short time.
Back in the kitchen at The Royal Oak, Craig has been dealing with his newfound fame, with customers asking to meet him and bookings up. “It’s been pretty crazy really, I’ve had to pop out into the restaurant a few times to say ‘hello’ and people travel a fair distance to come for lunch. It’s really nice. I was spotted in a local coffee shop, and a supermarket; it’s quite weird, but just one of those things, I guess.”
Since then, of course, the Royal Oak team has coped with a very special set of ‘pub lunch’ guests – Prime Minister Theresa May brought french President to the 17th century inn in January (main course duck breast, roasted onion tartlet and beetroot puree) before heading off to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst for talks.
Being so laid back must have helped when Craig was feeling the heat in the MasterChef kitchen, or preparing delicious dishes for international dignitaries at The Royal Oak, but I couldn’t help being surprised that he’s just as laid back about riding the superstar chef wave that comes from winning such a prestigious accolade. Craig simply shrugs his shoulders and says: “I entered the competition to prove what I could do cooking wise, I never did it for the fame. The TV side is part of the competition I guess but I was doing it for the challenge itself – for the cooking.”
Perhaps he is more persuaded by the idea of opening his own restaurant, climbing the ranks at The Royal Oak, writing a recipe book? Still, it seems, he has his feet placed firmly on the ground when it comes to the future: “I haven’t really thought about what’s next. I need some down time to think about it. I won’t rush into a decision; I want to take it slow. If you look at all the other winners, then you can see they’ve won later on in the careers. This year has been different. I feel like I still need to learn a lot more before I take on my own restaurant.”
My favourite MasterChef dish
“I was incredibly happy with my dessert in the final. The comments I got were amazing. Marcus said he was ‘speechless’. I served Sauterne and Yoghurt Mousse, Basil Marshmallow, Bergamot Curd and Olive Oil Crumble, topped with frozen Lemon Cells and Verbena Frozen Rocks.”
Book a table
To enjoy lunch or dinner prepared by Craig go online to book at www.theroyaloakpaleystreet.com or call 01628 620541.