Billie McKay Returns to MasterChef

Season 7 winner Billie McKay returns to the MasterChef kitchen to set the first Mystery Box of 2016. Ahead of her appearance she chatted from the UK about this year’s Top 24, working with Heston and her plans for the future

How was it stepping into the MasterChef kitchen for the first time since you won the title? 

Surreal. I was so nervous, it felt like I was going into a challenge! I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that I wouldn’t be cooking and that I was going to be alright. The pressure was immense.

How was is standing on the sidelines and watching the new crop of hopefuls?

It was actually a really nice feeling knowing that I had been in their shoes and I knew exactly how they were feeling. They looked so nervous and I could so easily relate to that. Offering them advice and going through that whole challenge with them was pretty special.

Can you reveal a little bit about the Mystery Box you’ve set? 

I got to choose eight ingredients inspired by my time on MasterChef and my journey to [Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin-starred restaurant in Berkshire] The Fat Duck. They are all ingredients that represented my journey, I guess. It was really cool to have the contestants cook with those ingredients.

Can you share some of the advice you gave to this year’s contestants? 

Overall, I sort of said that the only way to get through the whole experience, no matter how far you may get, whether you’re the first person eliminated or the last, you’ve just got to take full advantage of it. Surrender to the whole experience so that when you do leave, you know that you’ve given it your all and got everything out of the experience that you possibly can.

What do you think of this year’s Top 24? Any emerging kings or queens of desserts?

There were a few actually. A few desserts we tasted, the presentation and the creativity of flavours were so exciting. I didn’t cook anything like that until half way through the competition, but this was just their first challenge!

What are some big food trends that are likely to make a big impact on MasterChef this year?

I think that a lot of the contestants are really excited about keeping it really simple; taking one ingredient and turning it into something really special but keeping it really simple. I really can’t wait to keep watching because it was so exciting seeing the food coming out of their first day in the kitchen.

How have you developed as a cook? Can you reflect on where you are now versus when you won the MasterChef title?  

It’s a huge difference. I feel a lot more confident as a cook now. The whole MasterChef experience to me was like a fast-track educational course. I learnt so much and all of those skills really helped me going onto working at The Fat Duck. It’s a huge learning curve and I feel really lucky to have gone through it.

Tell us a bit more about your time in the UK at The Fat Duck

Well, I moved over with my partner Haydn in mid-September last year, and pretty well straight away went into working for Heston’s restaurant group. I started in a few of his other restaurants just to do a little bit of training, which was really nice actually because I was really terrified about going straight into The Fat Duck!

How‘s it been working at the legendary Fat Duck with Heston? 

It is amazing. It’s so strange actually, I never thought I’d be in this position a year after winning. The consistency and perfection of his food is something that’s so special and so challenging. Working there, you’re challenged every day, you’re learning something new every day so I’m definitely taking a lot of out it.

Are there any typically English flavours that you’re excited to bring back to Australia?

There’s so many. All of the flavours, every single dish is so different and so well thought out. They’re mostly inspired by Heston’s childhood and I relate to that. That’s certainly something that I’d be taking back with me when I open a restaurant in Australia one day.

You’ve had a column in Delicious magazine as well – how did you find the transition from cooking to writing?

It’s really cool actually! I didn’t know what to expect because I’ve never really done any writing so I thought I’d be really bad at it. I was pleasantly surprised because they’re really helpful with my column. Writing about food is actually pretty easy because I love it, and I could talk about it all day.

You’ve achieved a staggering amount in a pretty short space of time. Is it going to be all about the restaurant when you return home?

Absolutely. That’s always there in the back of my mind and I’m always thinking of the food that I want to cook and the restaurant I want to open. That’s certainly my next goal. I really can’t wait to get back to Australia and to actually start doing that. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.

What’s your dream menu for your restaurant?

Well, I guess just food that’s really ‘me’. I love working for Heston but that style of food is him, and I guess my style is more country-inspired but certainly modern.

Have you had any ‘pinch yourself’ moments since being at The Fat Duck?

Yeah it’s really strange actually! At The Fat Duck there’s a pastry kitchen upstairs where I often see the pastry chefs just smashing out fifty of these sugar balls in 20 minutes. It’s just makes me think, “How do you do that?” I couldn’t even manage one in a couple of hours so yeah, that’s pretty special to see that in action.

Who’s next on your list of food idols to work with wish list?

So many! I think starting with Heston is pretty good. I feel like I’ve skipped a few steps, I almost feel bad about it [laughs]. I’d love to get a bit of experience with other chefs who have also appeared on MasterChef such as Marco Pierre White.

Looking back at your time on the show, is there anything you’d do again differently? 

I would actually really love to do the final challenge [Heston’s Botrytis Cinerea] again. I’d really like to try to get that sugar ball done a little better. But overall, to be honest, I wouldn’t really change a thing about the whole experience because I learnt so much and got so much out of it and that’s what the challenges were all about.