My Smoky Duck Was Too Smoky for Masterchef
The judges told me to make a perfect roast dinner and for me, we would always have something Asian-based, so I did smoked duck.
Photo via Flickr user Hanzell Vineyards
My love of food comes from my family. My mum's Singaporean and my dad's English, but he's a Chinese man stuck in a white man's body. Everything we talk about is about food. Before you say, "Hello" and "How's your day?" you say, "Are you hungry?" or "Shall we go and get something to eat?"
I never considered food as a career because of the kind of school I was at. Cooking wasn't really suggested but I was creative, so I did architecture. I definitely use my architectural skills when cooking, though. When I design a dish, I construct it the same way I would a building. In cooking though, you can create a dish from scratch and it's right in front of you in 15 minutes.
It was when I'd finished my degree that I thought, Actually, I like doing food more. I liked how creative and structured it was. It just felt very natural.
It was actually a bit of a prank on my friends when I entered Masterchef. They dared me to because I kept talking about it and I dared them to enter Bargain Hunt. Ironically, I'm the one who got on Masterchef.
Masterchef was the first platform where I was able to express my style and really just get into cooking. Before that, I just cooked at home for friends and family. My mum taught me a lot of traditional Singaporean and Asian dishes that I've been brought up on.
I got booted off pretty early, which was embarrassing but it is what it is. As soon as I had a taste for it, I didn't want to do anything else other than cook. The judges told me to make a perfect roast dinner and for me, we would always have something Asian-based, so I did smoked duck. The show made it out that it had to be the best Sunday roast but if I knew they wanted a Sunday roast, I would have done one. They didn't like the duck because it was too smoky and overpowering.
After getting voted off Masterchef, I started in a pub called The Windsor and worked my way up and ended up at Neil Rankin's Smokehouse. There, I learnt how to smoke meat—without everyone saying it was overpowering and awful.
It was one of the best moves in my career because I got to learn a lot about meat, butchering, different cuts, and what you can do with them. In my previous jobs, I was always doing pastry or cold larder stuff, and I was getting frustrated because it felt like I was just side-lined. That's not what I wanted.
Before all of that, I'd moved back to my parents in Windsor and did what most 21-year-olds do when they graduate. I sent loads of letters out and tried to apply to every single job there was in a kitchen. Luckily there was one place. I said to them: "Just give me a job and I'll show what I can do." It's strange going from architecture to picking and peeling spinach and potatoes. It was a bit demoralising, but I kept telling myself I was on the pathway to doing what I wanted to do and it could turn into something great.
I also applied for an apprenticeship in London at [further education college] Westminster Kingsway, and went in on my day off to London at 6.30 in the morning. You had to be there on the dot in your pressed whites even though you'd travelled miles, but I did that for three years. Everyone tells me you don't need to train in that way because you're always learning at work, but I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted another certificate to show I could do this.
All of this shaped my personal cooking style. It's influenced by my Asian background, but I'm also fascinated by fine dining and Michelin. It's a metamorphosis of everything I've learnt from Neil, fine dining, and other restaurant I've worked in. I call it "modern British" because it's using lots of different techniques and styles, but sticking with British ingredients that are in season and current.
Pidgin is probably the best platform for me to express that. I get to play with whatever is in season and by the next week, I've got something else lined up. You can go into a restaurant and you could be doing the same menu for months or even years and it becomes a routine, whereas at Pidgin, you can keep cooking and creating whatever you want.
I just calculated that it's just over about 200 dishes that we've done. We have customers that come back every week because they enjoy the food and that's one of the most fulfilling things as a head chef.
When it comes to being named as one of Britain's "female chefs to watch," I'm split-minded about it. It's absolutely amazing when you're working as hard as you can and I'm appreciative of [Pidgin founders] James and Sam for giving me the platform of being head chef.
But I hate the title of "female chef." I'm just a chef and it would be nice if I was just one of the rising chefs in the city. I appreciate the coverage on the fact that there's a deficit of us in the industry and of course, I'm never going to say I hate being named as one of the rising stars, but when it's about the "coolest female chefs," there isn't a list of the coolest male chefs. They're just chefs.
In most industries, you can ask why there aren't a lot of females at the top. Food is particularly hard because it's physically and emotionally difficult. You're on your feet for 16 hours a day and working weekends. But I love being in the kitchen with the heat, passion, and noise of it. A lot of people are put off and that's their choice. You can't force people to go into working in kitchens.
I never expected my career to progress like this. I feel fulfilled as a chef. It's stressful and exhausting but I can't think of doing anything else. I was approached about doing a new Channel 4 show and I can't wait to see how everyone receives that. I just thought, What have I got to lose?
As told to Mia Holt
Elizabeth Allen planned to be an architect but soon realised her passion was food. She applied for Masterchef and was booted off for a smoked duck dish, but soon went on to work at former Pitt Cue Co. chef Neil Rankin's Smokehouse restaurant in Islington.
Allen is now head chef at Pidgin, a supperclub-turned-restaurant in Hackney that serves a weekly changing, four-course menu.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2016.