Up-and-coming Bishop Auckland amateur chef, Mike Bartley, is appearing on this year’s series of Masterchef, which airs on BBC One from this Monday, 1st March at 9pm.
Josie Eldridge – herself a budding young journalist from Bishop Auckland – discussed his inspirations, learning curve, his passion for foraging and how lockdown was a catalyst for applying to be in the series.
Mike’s culinary journey began at university around 15 years ago. He describes eating ‘stereotypical student fare’, such as Pot Noodle until the realization among his housemates that they could cook for each other and start making more exciting meals.
Now the 34-year-old’s favourite ingredient is celeriac, and he said that ‘probably one in four dishes’ he makes has some form of celeriac in it. (For the best flavour combination he recommends pairing this with lovage – a herb which tastes similar to celery or aniseed – and black garlic.)
Drawing inspiration from across the world he said, ‘There’s no cuisine I don’t like, I have influences from everywhere’. With his partner from South Africa, they both enjoy barbecued food but his specialty is probably ‘traditional British and European with a modern twist’.
Mike explained that it’s only within the last four or so years that he became more serious about cooking as a hobby. Initially learning recipes from cookbooks and reading about chefs he admired, he soon started hosting dinner parties and received high praise from friends and family, who encouraged him to apply for the show.
The application process this year, he said, had a ‘different dynamic’, with a telephone interview and a video audition, having to cook the meal in a time limit, show it on camera and then describe it for the interviewers as they weren’t able to taste it.
Entering the studios for the first time was a surreal sensation for Mike, finding himself at the heart of the famous purpose-built kitchen that is normally something you only ever expect to see on television.
‘You meet the other contestants,’ he explained, ‘put your apron on, walk through the door and are faced with John and Gregg. Suddenly they say, “you have 90 minutes to cook”‘.
Normally able to control his nerves well, Mike described his ‘massive adrenaline high’ on the first morning of filming. ‘Everything you know about food just leaves your brain. You think: “Oh my goodness, I have to cook for them now”‘.
Cooking within a time limit was also difficult, particularly with interruptions when Gregg comes to the worktop for a chat.
However, Mike is grateful for the judges’ feedback and expertise and the relationships he built with the other contestants, learning from their ideas and techniques. He is looking forward to catching up with them when it’s permitted to do so.
The experience allowed Mike to discover that what he really enjoys is the intensity of cooking under pressure, something he says he is ‘very eager’ to repeat, especially cooking for other people.
His biggest challenge was adapting to equipment he’d never used before, such as induction hobs, which use magnetism between the base of the pan and the hob to create heat.
He realised quickly that if he was flipping the food in the pan or shuffling it by breaking contact with the hob surface, ‘the hobs just turn off and you have to bring them to temperature again’.
As well as the technicalities of induction cooking, he did also pick up new cooking techniques which he continues to use, like sous vide, in which food is placed in a plastic pouch or a glass jar and cooked in a water bath over a longer than usual cooking time at a regulated temperature.
One of Mike’s pleasures is foraging. On the morning of his interview he had gathered his first wild garlic of the year – which he uses to make pesto and butter while pickling the seed pods to make wild garlic capers.
This also draws the enthusiasm of his eldest son, nine-year-old Jacob, and they enjoy gathering ingredients such as the meadowsweet plant from Tunstall Reservoir (apparently very nice in cookies and ice cream), or wood sorrel from Hamsterley Forest.
Having previously worked in music venues and running a comedy club in London, Mike had relocated back to Bishop Auckland after meeting his fiancée, Tammy. They have two children – Jacob and one-year-old Dexter. They had intended to get married last year, however Covid restrictions forced them to postpone.
During lockdown, on furlough from his job as a retail manager, Mike ‘ramped up’ his efforts, cooking daily and experimenting with new ingredients each time.
He now takes lots of inspiration from Instagram and networking, trying to replicate meals which pique his interest when he sees chefs on television or online.
His favourite chef is Tommy Banks, who runs the Michelin-starred Black Swan in Oldstead and Roots in York. He had appeared as a critic on Masterchef 2018 and left an impression on Mike, who has visited his restaurants and says they’re among his favourites in the area.
He also praises the innovation at Hjem in Northumberland, which has recently gained a first Michelin star.
When asked about the support of friends and family, he confessed that they’d only known about this appearance on the show for a week as he’d had to keep it a secret but that they were ‘over the moon’.
Mike has also received hundreds of messages of encouragement on social media from people in Bishop Auckland and across the North East since he mentioned on social media that he was taking part in the show.
He is most touched when young chefs reach out to him and expressed that he’d be staying in touch with them to watch their progress too.
Euan Walker, who competed last year also showed support for Mike on his Instagram Stories last week, with the caption: ‘watch out for this one’.
While he feels that opening his own restaurant after the show might be a stretch given the financial climate, Mike would realistically love to branch out into cooking full time by hosting supper clubs, live cookalongs on the internet and hopefully create foraged products to sell at food festivals.
His advice to people interested in a culinary career is to ‘go for it’, recognising that this was something he ‘could have done years ago’. His takeaway point for those first starting is to be authentic is to ‘cook what’s special to you’.
To any amateur chef thinking about applying for Masterchef, he’d definitely recommend it: ‘It’s just the best experience. If you think that you’re good enough for Masterchef, then the chances are that you probably are.’
Mike makes his appearance on this season’s Masterchef in the first episode, due to be aired on Monday 1st March at 9pm on BBC One.
You can follow Mike’s food journey on Instagram at @djamkitchen.