Video: Masterchef winner: The sacrifices I had to make

Cook Steve Groves was once so low that he nearly threw in the towel and got a different job.

Steven Russell

Cook Steve Groves was once so low that he nearly threw in the towel and got a different job. Happily, he stuck at it - ands was later crowned BBC professional MasterChef. Even so, he's sacrificed a lot - money, status, even love - to pursue his dreams. Steven Russell spoke to the latest famous son of Essex

YES, reflects the man who's taken his first step on the ladder to celebrity chefdom, it could all have turned out so differently. Today, he's basking in the glow that comes from winning a national TV cookery contest - dazzling Michel Roux junior with his genius. In the past, though, he'd experienced the depths of despair - worried his chance of culinary greatness had vanished like a shooting star. “I did have a sort of sticky patch in my career when I was in Bournemouth,” explains Steve Groves. “I thought 'I've wasted a lot of time,' and I thought maybe it was too late to get myself up to the level I wanted to be at. I was getting really downhearted with it and watched people like Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver on the telly and it would really depress me, thinking 'I can't get to that level.'

“So I then thought 'Maybe I'll just change career. It's the kind of career where if I can't be at the top, then I don't really want to be involved in it. I just don't find it satisfying when I'm not working at such a high level, and there are so many average chefs around.' I just didn't want to be that person.”

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Steve rekindled a teenage ambition to be a fireman and applied to Essex County Fire & Rescue Service, progressing a long way through the selection process but not quite making it. He also thought about joining the police. But the emergency services' loss is cooking's gain.

“I worked with someone in Bournemouth who I found had a real passion for food and that just reignited something in me. I decided I'd get on and try and get myself up to London; and just thought 'S** it!' you know. 'If I get myself up there, I can work hard and maybe I can get somewhere.'

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“It could have all gone horribly wrong. Moving up to London was such a big commitment. It pretty much cost me my relationship with my girlfriend as well. She was living in Bristol, and when I was in Bournemouth I had a lot more time on my hands and it was easier to go and see her. But moving up here made it a lot more difficult and I didn't have as much time on my hands; it put a lot more strain on the relationship, and so that ended.

“I can understand her point. It was a lot more difficult, and also she didn't really want to be with someone who'd be working like that her whole life.”

There were more prosaic sacrifices, too.

“I went from being a head chef to a chef de partie, working for someone that I knew had a good pedigree.” That's Tristan Welch, head chef at London restaurant Launceston Place, where Steve's been employed since the summer of 2008. “He worked for Gordon Ramsay and won the Ramsay scholarship. I knew he was good and knew he was going to be pushing for Michelin star.

“It was pretty much half the salary. I think it was about a 15-grand pay cut, something like that. It was a big decision. At the end of the day I could have stayed down there, on that salary, for the rest of my life, but never really progressed. I felt I had to take a step back to take a few steps forward.”

It turns out to have been one giant leap, by the looks of it, with that triumph in the popular BBC 2 series Masterchef: The Professionals about a fortnight ago. Well, that's when we viewers learned who had won . . . but Steve has spent months trying not to let the cat out of the bag. For filming finished in May.

“It was quite difficult,” concedes the 28-year-old. “I let it slip to a couple of people, close friends, just talking casually about other things, but in a lot of ways I wanted to keep it quiet. I wanted people to think I didn't win, because then it would be a nice surprise when it came out, and it's nice to see people's reactions.”

One person who did learn the good news in the summer was mum Sandra, back home in Brightlingsea, near Colchester. “They made me phone her after I'd won, so she found out straightaway. She loves it; she's over the moon.”

Colleagues at Launceston Place obviously knew he was involved in the contest and progressing well, what with days off sought here and there, and with Steve practising some of his dishes at work.

Presumably, at the end of the competition, they pumped him for information?

“Yeah, exactly. When I won it, I just phoned up and said I'd lost! I thought 'I've got to keep it quiet, but they're going to want to know what happened, so . . .' Just a little white lie!” It took the pressure off until the final was screened.

When his secret was finally out, the celebrations could begin.

“We went out for drinks. Everyone was really happy and obviously, being a kitchen (crew), it was full of banter. Keeps me level-headed!

“They kept taking the mickey and telling me that if anyone came and spoke to me about it, I had to buy a round. If anyone asked to have their picture taken, I had to buy a bottle of champagne! I think within about 10 minutes two people had come and asked for their picture to be taken with me.”

Did he shell out for the sparkling wine?

“No. I kind of backed out on that one. I hadn't agreed to it!” he half laughs, half coughs, thanks to a bit of a dodgy throat. (“It often comes when I have the chance of a rest.”)

Oddly enough, he hadn't walked around with a big smile on his face after he won.

“It was quite a strange feeling, really. We'd been involved in this competition that was quite intense and quite consuming in respect to the amount of time it took and the amount of thought that went into it. And then it kind of all stopped. So it felt quite depressing, almost. We had all this going on, and then suddenly it's all finished. It's over. It feels like a bit of a void there. I wasn't really elated; and no-one knew about it, and it was a really strange feeling.”

Steve carried on working normally after the end of filming, but then took a couple of weeks off when the series was screened, “to rest and take it all in”. Once the final show was aired, it all went a bit manic for a few days.

“Obviously the first day, going off and doing This Morning and BBC Breakfast and all the interviews, was quite crazy, but it's calmed down a lot since then. It's just sinking in, really, and I'm amazed how many people watched it. The feedback has been really amazing - people coming up and saying 'Well done.'”

He was due back at work the day after talking to eaman. “I'm quite looking forward to it, actually; the normality will be quite nice, I think. It's still going to be a little bit surreal, because apparently the restaurant's had a lot of bookings for people who want to come when I'm there.”

Not surprising, really. Judge Michel Roux junior said Steve showed “not only great knowledge of classical cooking but also proved he could master modern techniques”. Food writer Gregg Wallace reckoned: “I have absolutely no doubt that Steve is going to go on and have a very glittering career and will be a serious player in the culinary world.”

The portents are good: last year's winner, Derek Johnstone, is now working for Roux at Le Gavroche in London.

Can Steve predict what his MasterChef victory is going to mean to him professionally and personally?

“It's difficult to say. It's a bit of exposure. It's giving me opportunities, like going to work for Michel Roux junior. That's an option I'm definitely going to look to explore next year. At the moment I want to stay where I am and continue learning from the chef I'm working for, because he's very good and I'm learning a lot. But in the future I want to go and work for one- or two-Michelin-starred chefs. It gives me an opportunity to do that probably a little bit quicker than I would anyway.”

The national publicity will also stand him in good stead if he ever needs to attract investment for a restaurant venture.

Steve would love to have his own place at some stage. But not yet. “I know it's a big risk and it's something I wouldn't go into lightly. I want to feel that I've got all the necessary experience to do it well.” A dream for the long term, then. “Exactly. There are things I want to learn before I do that. There's no rush!”

If he were master of his own kitchen, British fare would figure highly. He's a big fan.

“There's a lot of good, regional, British food, and I think if we can take that and bring it up to date . . . I'd like to say we can bring a modern twist to it, but that could be misinterpreted as messing around with it too much. I just think older British dishes need a bit of modernising. They can be very heavy and not really suitable for the modern palate. I think people's tastes now are for something a little bit lighter. It's similar to French food that's been brought up to date.”

So he'd take some of the fat, the calories and the stodginess out of a steak and kidney pie, say? “Exactly. Just make it a little bit more palatable.”

Steve adds: “There's so much good produce from the part of the world you're in, and which I grew up in, and I'm quite lucky I've lived in places like that. And in Dorset - the produce down there is amazing as well. And, obviously, being an island, we've got amazing stuff from the sea all around us. I think our produce is second to none, really.”

Of the career he nearly abandoned, he reflects now: “I think you have to love it to do it, because you put in so many hours. It's not always nice conditions; it's unsociable; it's such a hard job . . . But it's the satisfaction you get from working as a team - everyone pitching in.

“You form quite a close bond with the people you work with - camaraderie, I suppose. Everyone's got the same goals: to cook the best food possible, so the people in the dining room are enjoying what they've come in for and paid for. It's when you get it right that it's really satisfying.”

Life's not overly glamorous at the sharp end, however, even for a MasterChef champion! Steve's just off out, but it will be the bus that whisks him on his way, not a luxurious stretch limo at his beck and call.

“Not quite,” he chuckles. “It seems to be a little bit of notoriety but not a lot of money coming in for it!” he says of his title.

“The way I look at it is I haven't achieved anything yet. It's giving me a good grounding to go on and do better things, but I need to make the most of it.”

STEVE Groves is Essex born and bred. His mum and two of his three sisters still live in the county, and he pops back when he can - which, because of the demands of the kitchen, isn't as often as he'd like.

A regular week usually involves four 17-hour days - often four-and-a-half 17-hour days - he reports.

“It's our life, you know? Obviously we all strive for one day not having to work so hard! We put in the hours now so that, hopefully, we won't have to when we get a bit older.”

Not surprisingly, a long slumber is high on the agenda when days off come around. “If I do get three days off in a week, I have one day for sleeping and a couple for doing some stuff.”

It's the life he's chosen - one that “clicked” as soon as he started cooking in earnest - yet it's not the career path he initially sought.

Steve was born in Clacton and raised in Brightlingsea, where he went to Colne Community School. “It was a nice place to grow up; very quiet,” he says of Brightlingsea. “There's a nice community feel to it. Everyone knows everyone else and looks out for each other.” (That's been proven during his MasterChef campaign, with numerous messages of support from north-east Essex coming in via Facebook.)

“Originally I planned to be a fireman but, leaving school at 16, I wasn't old enough - you had to be 18 to get into the fire brigade - so I thought that rather than wasting two years doing nothing I'd go to college and get a qualification: something to fall back on if I didn't get into the fire brigade.”

Steve enrolled at Colchester Institute on a three-year NVQ course in professional craft catering.

“I had always enjoyed watching cookery programmes and at home my mum, my dad, always seemed to enjoy cooking. It seemed a normal thing to do.

“I used to like making things and giving them to people and seeing their reactions. At that point, with no training, the food was pretty poor! But I always enjoyed trying to make something to please someone else. It went from there, really, and seemed the logical thing to do.

“And then it took over, really. School wasn't something I enjoyed; I never really excelled at school, so to then do something I was enjoying every day, and actually to do well at it and get recognition for it, was really good.”

He was among four students who spent about a week at Buckingham Palace. The pastry chef had studied at Colchester Institute and the palace needed extra pairs of hands for a Chinese state visit.

Steve was also named student of the year. “It all went pretty well at college!” he reports with deep understatement.

He earned a trip to America, too - to work at the salubrious country house hotel The Inn at Perry Cabin, in Maryland. Its head chef was another alumnus of Colchester Institute and The Inn took a couple of Essex students each year.

Steve was there six months, cutting short the 18-month attachment because dad David, who lived in Dorset, was ill with cancer. Steve settled in the Bournemouth area, where he also had a sister at university. Sadly, their father succumbed to the disease about eight years ago.

Steve spent about seven years on the south coast, working in several different hotels and wine bars, “some of no particular note”, before joining Branksome Beach restaurant, in a converted art deco building with gorgeous views across Poole Bay, as sous chef. He worked his way up to head chef before deciding to take the plunge and head for the capital . . . and the rest we know.

Nowadays he lives in a shared rented house, a 20-minute cycle from the Kensington restaurant Launceston Place, where he's junior sous chef.

Two wheels are his transport of choice. “It's difficult to get any exercise into your life when you're working the kind of hours I do, so riding to work gives me a little bit of activity,” he grins.

MasterChef: The Professionals - Steve's journey

The 2009 competition saw 36 chefs whittled down to three finalists

Up against Steve were agency cook Daniel Graham, 27, and 34-year-old Marianne Lamb, a private chef to politicians and celebrities

Her clients have included Elton John and David Cameron

The trio faced four days of challenges designed to both test and display their skills

They included:

Producing high tea, to Michelin star standards, for some top pastry chefs, including Michel Roux senior

Preparing a course each at Chelsea Football Club for more than a dozen sporting celebrities, such as England cricketer Kevin Pietersen and Olympic gold medal-winning rower James Cracknell

Creating a three-course menu for a dinner for 30 illustrious chefs and Michelin inspectors - more than 40 Michelin stars between them - such as Raymond Blanc and Albert and Alain Roux

Finally, cooking a three-course meal for judges Michel Roux junior and Gregg Wallace

Steve Groves's menu that wowed judges Gregg Wallace and Michel Roux junior

Starter: Roast quail with Scotch egg, asparagus and morels (mushrooms)

Main course: Loin of venison, potato rosti, roasted beetroot and watercress puree

Dessert: Raspberry and bitter chocolate mille feuille (a kind of slice) with lavender and honey ice-cream

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