Alex Parker (27) was a quarter-finalist in this year’s series of MasterChef. After being knocked out of the competition he has developed his cooking skills and has amassed an impressive following on Instagram. Palate caught up with him to discuss all things MasterChef, Winchester and Negronis.
Palate Mag (PM): So, you’ve been quite busy since you left MasterChef. Tell us more about what you’ve been working on and the dishes you’ve been developing.
Alex Parker (AP): I started my Instagram account after being knocked out of MasterChef. (Almost) any of the contestants will tell you that it’s a tough experience to go through, and I decided that I needed a goal that would distract me and improve my cooking.
With each new dish that I post, I try to learn something new, such as a technique, flavour combination or even plating style. Not every dish tastes or looks great, but as long as I learn something I don’t mind. I rarely cook the same thing twice, apart from dishes that I really like, such as my Gochujang pork belly.
PM: You recently moved to Winchester having grown up in London. Winchester was recently voted the UK’s nicest place to live. Why do you think this is?
AP: I was dubious about relocating to the ‘country’. Almost three years have passed since then and I’ve come to love Winchester. It’s small enough to not feel sprawling, large enough to have almost everything, has a great variety of restaurants and is on the doorstep of the Hampshire countryside. If I need to go to London, it’s just an hour on the train – handy for nights out or visiting friends. Winchester also has a great Asian supermarket.
PM: How did you get in to cooking and who inspired you?
AP: I left school not being able to do much in the kitchen apart from pour cereal, toast bread or boil an egg. Things didn’t change much until I left university and had to start looking after myself properly. Since then it’s snowballed from means of survival, to interest and finally to passion, aided by an ever growing collection of cookbooks. I’m lucky enough to have a family and girlfriend with an enthusiasm for cookery – they’ve been instrumental with encouraging me and more importantly supporting me post-MasterChef.
PM: What did you learn from your time on MasterChef?
AP: I completely wasn’t ready for the competition – I was guilty of doing what a lot of novice cooks do by trying to showcase as many skills as possible with one plate of food. This led to a confusion of flavours and textures – something that I wanted to cook but no one wanted to eat! I’d say the most important lesson has been that less is more – it’s harder to take a step back and mark something as ‘done’. I’m not there yet, but I’m learning.
PM: What advice would you give to anyone considering taking part on MasterChef?
AP: Know your style before applying. I’m not saying you should just cook one sort of dish, but you should have a good idea about what your cooking is about and what you’re trying to achieve. That, and make sure that you have a solid repertoire of dishes, should an invention test be set upon you!
PM: How did you find John and Gregg (the MasterChef judges)?
AP: John and Gregg are great, Gregg especially. They were very supportive behind the scenes and gave some great advice (John saved my scrambling custard in round two). Gregg really lightened the mood and made the contestants feel at ease – he showed genuine interest in us as he walked around meeting everyone for the first time.
PM: At Palate we are no strangers to cocktails and we see from your Insta bio that you’re a “serial Negroni drinker.” Where have you had the best Negroni so far? And how do you make your Negroni?
AP: In my opinion you don’t mess with the classics – the standard equal parts gin (Tanqueray please), Campari and vermouth works for me, with a zest of orange. I’ve tasted many variations – Lillet Fraise in lieu of standard vermouth, prosecco instead of gin, but I always prefer the original. I used to live in Perth, WA, and my local knew my order – a Negroni with a splash of soda, to make a slightly longer drink to cope with the heat.
PM: Last but not least… We’re now on the cusp of summer: many students will soon go to university or embark on gap years, and will most probably have to cook for themselves for the first time. What would you say are the key cooking skills anyone should teach themselves over the summer?
AP: This subject is something that’s very dear to me – I’m due to go back to my old school to give a talk on starting to cook. I’d say to learn the real basics – eggs, how to make the most of tinned food, DIY pasta sauces, learn that onions and garlic form the basis of so many dishes. The most important thing that I wish I’d done would be to make twice as much dinner – that way you get a cheap lunch the next day! The amount of money I spent on sandwiches…
I’d like to leave you with a quote that really helped me post-MasterChef, from respected chef Christian Puglisi: “Failure is a way of learning, and becoming more creative”. Thanks!
You can follow Alex Parker on Instagram at @alex_cooking