Irini Tzortzoglou was the winner of MasterChef 2019.
“I was born in a small village (Ano Akria in the Monofatsi area of Heraklion Prefecture) on the island of Crete and was the youngest of three. My early memories of life are of scarcity of luxuries but an abundance of fresh, home-cooked food in a loving home full of people. Treats were rare and usually home-made, delicious and created with produce the family grew, were given or sourced. Being raised in a culturally mixed environment – my mother originated from Crete and my father from Asia Minor – I was blessed with different but equally valuable life lessons and principles. Hospitality, responsibility and pride on one side and humility, appreciation and a zest for life on the other.
When I was 20 and following my father’s untimely death, I started working in my uncle’s hotel in Crete where I met my first husband who was English and I moved to London in 1980. Whilst working for the National Bank of Greece I studied for professional qualifications, and later for a History of Art, Architecture and Design Degree.
My career in banking lasted over 30 years and gave me the opportunity to enjoy a lot that London had to offer as well as activities and hobbies such as acting for the London Greek Theatre Group, being a member of the Committee of The Hellenic Bankers Association and participating in cultural and community events.
In 2010, I moved to the small village of Cartmel in Cumbria with my now husband, John, where life could not be more different to London. Cartmel is similar to Crete in that there is great appreciation of food, cooking and entertainment. The focus is on quality and freshness of produce – themes reminiscent of my upbringing.
In 2018 I decided to enter MasterChef, driven by the hope to inspire both old and young (such as my nieces, nephews and step grandchildren). I loved every single minute of the competition, including those of fear, anxiety, pressure and the occasional personal disappointment although these were greatly outweighed by the sense of achievement and the joy of having my food appreciated by others. Greek food has always had its fans amongst the millions who have visited the country over the years with appealing strong flavours, the freshness of the ingredients and the simplicity of their preparation. I firmly believe that the ingredients are king and respect the traditional methods of their treatment, but I have developed my own approach which is a little lighter than that of my grandmother and mother. As for presentation, emphasis on this has been more a thing of our times and I do enjoy spending a little time on making my food attractive. After all, it is a way to honour the person eating it, the ingredients used and my own time spent in preparing and cooking the dish.
I am loving all that has followed my success of 2019, the publication of my book Under The Olive Tree (recipes from my Greek kitchen) and my Olive Oil Sommelier course. I am working on a number of projects including culinary retreats, pop ups, development of recipes and menus, private dining, olive oil tastings, festival demonstrations and teaching university students under my programme Uni.Yum”