Life & Culture

Interview: Emma Spitzer

Confessions of the Ashkenazi chef


Few children enjoy home-baked cheesecake and baklava with their homework, but not many have a MasterChef finalist for their mother. When I arrive at Emma Spitzer's East Finchley home, it is 4pm and her daughters - aged nine, seven, four and two - are tucking in.

Spitzer was one of two runners up but feels she did herself proud. "Tony (Rodd - fellow runner up) and I both felt Simon (Wood – the winner) was the best, but my husband, Carl, kept telling me not to be so down on myself,'' confesses the 40-year-old, who fitted the competition around running two travel websites.

During the BBC programme, Spitzer seemed a cool customer but admits she lacked confidence when cooking. "I'm so self-critical. Before I entered the competition, I would often cook two soups for dinner parties, in case the guests didn't like one of them."

MasterChef judge John Torode told her she had to believe in herself. "He said, if you go out there feeling confident, your food will reflect that. I came away from the competition with a huge amount of belief."

She also took away a raft of new skills like filleting fish, boning quails and cooking quails' eggs, plus courage to try out new techniques.

"I had to show I'd learned new skills so I used a sous vide in the final even though I'd not practised with one. I also read up on molecular gastronomy and learned how to make beetroot pearls for the final - they're amazing tiny explosions of flavour.

I'm proud of how I dealt with the pressure. No matter how hard it got, I was able to contain the stress and keep my focus even though I did feel nervous for about six months.

"And the nerves intensified from heart-skipping moments when I remembered I was going to be in it, to waking up every single day with a pit of nerves in my stomach and not sleeping properly. I still woke with that feeling for about two weeks after we'd finished."

Each time she started cooking, she says a calm took over - "I had a job to do and I had to get on and do it even though I was petrified. I was even scared of meeting judges Greg Wallace and Torode. But they are nice guys, and a pleasure to feed - they enjoyed their food so much - and also full of great tips and really encouraging. They had put faith in me, so I felt a responsibility to do them proud and be the best I could."

Spitzer admits that if she had known how tough it was going to be she might have thought twice about entering. "It became my life. I spent every waking moment thinking about it. I did two or three run-throughs of what I was going to cook, depending on how far ahead I got the brief. The briefs came thicker and faster and the planning and practising became overwhelming."

She admits it was tough on her four children, but luckily, she had great support.

"My husband Carl - who, it turned out, has an amazing palate - one of my sisters and my sister-in-law were chief tasters, and honest enough to tell me when something didn't work. Even though they would sometimes be met with a stream of expletives," she admits.

She also divulges she cooked one dish Carl had given the thumbs down to and it got panned – "It was the kofta that William Sitwell didn't like." That was a low point, along with the ''scraps test'', in which she had to cook a dish from foods that you would normally bin, like fish heads, tired salad leaves, and offal.

"The judges said my chicken liver salad lacked ambition. Telling me I lacked ambition was like cutting my arm off," laughs Spitzer, who admits to being fiercely competitive.

The ''invention test'' was better. "We were given a selection of ingredients. I'd never cooked any of the proteins, which included partridge and rabbit. We had ten minutes to pick, but I took my time, as once it was on your tray you had to use it.

Monica Galletti said my partridge-stuffed tortellini with a tarragon and madeira sauce was a triumph. That'll go on my epitaph as she is so hard to please."

Her foodie passion goes way back: "My mother says I was licking plates clean at two years old." And she was cooking dinner parties for friends aged 15 - "Just tuna pasta bake and banoffee pie but my friends still remember it."

In terms of inspiration, she cites her mother, Hilary Barnett, and mother-in-law, Judith Spitzer. "My mum wasn't a passionate cook, but made great schnitzel, amazing chicken soup and a really delicious oxtail stew. Her chocolate mousse is legendary. She also has huge belief in me. Judith is Israeli and had an Algerian mother. She introduced me to many of the Sephardi flavours I cook, and dishes like the mejadra (a rice dish) and matbucha (roasted tomato and pepper salad) I made during the competition. "

Claudia Roden and Yotam Ottolenghi have also inspired her. Like Ottolenghi, her ingredient list can read like a novel. She believes the layering adds depth of flavour and that different spices work better with others. It didn't stop her getting teased about it: "Greg said he always knew which was my bench as it was so packed with ingredients."

When she isn't cooking up feasts on television, Spitzer has some Askhenazi favourites up her sleeve: "As a Jewish mother, it is important for me to give my children the Jewish classics - all my girls adore chicken soup, it must be in the genes."

Will this be the start of a career in food? "I'd like to cook my food for others, especially those who supported me on social media during the competition - either a pop up or some catering. Or to write a book - I loved creating recipes for the show. A few opportunities have already come my way."

She hopes to combine this with her business, organising cooking trips for adults and children. For now, she's just relieved to be able to share her achievements with friends and family who she could not tell before - "it would have ruined it if the result had got out, so I had to develop a poker face when people asked me if I'd won" she laughs.

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