Claire Bruce, 53, lives in Dungeness, Kent, a remote shingle headland of specific scientific interest known for its wild coast and bountiful flora and fauna. When lockdown narrowed Claire’s interaction with people, it sparked an idea to use her passion for cooking to transform her year. She applied to compete on TV’s Masterchef and reached the semi-finals. She dropped by to tell us what it was like.
During lockdown, my job as health and safety policy advisor was to support the UK business community. As you can imagine, it was tough and involved many different government departments. Although it was relentless, the work was kind of like salvation in that it was something to do.
I live on my own in the wilds of Dungeness, which I love, but during lockdown the estate was closed and none of us left the area. I was lucky that friends spent their entire year in Dungeness instead of part of the year as usual. The weather was also amazing so I could enjoy the coast.
I love having people round for supper but there was nobody at all to cook for during lockdown and no friends sitting at the table. All I had was a regular little fox that dropped by my step for tasty morsels. I felt that I couldn’t let the relentlessness of lockdown be the theme of my year!
Instagram kept showing me pop-up ads to sign up for Masterchef and I felt excited about being able to talk and cook for real people. It was something I craved and it gave me that push to apply”
Getting ready to go on TV
Some say I was brave to go on TV but I didn’t find it scary or uncomfortable – a difficult marriage and divorce was worse! In my dreams I had already visualised being in the studio, standing behind the counter, cooking in the kitchen and looking at John Torode and Gregg Wallace. When I arrived in the kitchen for the first time, I stood there and thought, “It’s just like I dreamt.” It was so weird.
I hadn’t fully appreciated that you have 1 hour 15 minutes on the show and you can take out 10 minutes immediately because they are talking to you. So you have 1 hour and five minutes of cooking in a kitchen you don’t know, to produce something. That’s why there are certain dishes that are re-made on Masterchef because they can be done successfully in that time. You can’t make dough and you can’t roast something delicious. I used a pressure cooker to do my ox cheeks, to speed up a process that normally takes hours.
“Being on Masterchef made my year and it came at a point when I needed people around me as I was on my own. The fact I was cooking and not just in front of a laptop made it much more bearable”
Cooking with what’s to hand
I hadn’t really thought about my natural tendency to cook with what I have in the cupboard or what’s around me until they kept going on about it on Masterchef. They picked up that I used seasonal and sustainable produce straight away in episode one.
When it comes to buying food, I am frugal and notorious for hating shopping! That’s why on my Instagram you can see a lot of cakes and bread, as I always have butter, flour and eggs. I’m lucky I have fennel, samphire, sea buckthorn, and much more on my doorstep. If I make focaccia and have fennel, courgettes and radishes in the fridge or garlic and rosemary outside, they get slapped on the top.
Masterchef fans on social media said if anyone could find bloody bananas in Dungeness, I would!”
My desire to use what’s already in the cupboard goes back to my parents and the idea of growing and picking your own. My early memories include sheltering under my parents’ coats covering blackcurrant bushes with my sister while my family picked fruit at a farm. I can remember the gentle sound of the rain and the powerful heady scent of the blackcurrant leaves.
I also really try to support my local business and go out of my way to shop at the nearby fish hut and farm shops. That’s so important to me, as I feel good knowing where my money has gone. When it comes to foraging, I only pick what I am going to use that day. After all, there’s just me living at home and I am not a fan of wasted food! So if I pick up a piece of skate from the local fish counter then I will find a bit of samphire to go with it.
Three-colour dish design
My planning and cooking takes into account the colours on the plate. I like to keep to three colours to make the dish look delicious and balanced without jarring. For example, the first dish I created on Masterchef was a crab tart, which sat on a pink plate by local ceramicist Vicky Hageman. You had the yellow egginess of the tart, the yellow rapeseed mayonnaise and the pink of the radishes with a pop of bright green samphire. The pink plate is so important to bring it together.
Brain fog during filming
Brain fog is a big thing at work for me. I work as an international health and safety policy advisor and the language that governments use is quite ‘niche’ and I have to really persevere to understand and translate it. Add that in with brain fog and some days I wonder what the point is!
I feared it would happen on TV, that I would fail to find words when the presenters were talking to me while I was cooking. It did happen and they left in one clip where I struggled and described my cooking as “random” when in my head I was searching for the word “spontaneous”. Random is not really isn’t a suitable substitute when it comes to a cooking style!
“Not remembering words is such a barrier to getting on. I can tell you that I am in my memory filing cabinets frantically rifling through trying to find words in my brain all the time”
Life after Masterchef
On the show, I said I lived in Kent rather than reveal the tiny little area of Dungeness and soon became known as #KentCoastClaire on social media – the hashtag has well and truly stuck. I use Instagram and Twitter as a diary of what I’ve cooked and enjoyed. Two months before Masterchef aired, I decided to start a new account and called it @claires_kitchentable. The name means you can come to supper with me at my table or my private dining experience can come to you.
After Masterchef, I found that I really care about people who have booked me for my private dining and I set the bar so ridiculously high.
I am quite gung ho about private dining because I have to be, but I can tell you the day before I am feeling the pressure when I am squeezing out those potato croquettes!”
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