She may have lost out on television's MasterChef final, but Claire Hutchings is still a talent to look out for, writes Roz Laws.
She’s the “purple-haired pixie” who has kept millions captivated with her incredible food combinations on MasterChef.
And whose chocolate sorbet is so delicious that Michel Roux Jr stole her recipe.
Claire Hutchings is only 23, but has a glittering future ahead of her after her impressive performance as a MasterChef finalist.
Claire, from Moseley, in Birmingham, lost out to Australian Ash Mair in last week’s gripping final of MasterChef: The Professionals.
The series delivered the show’s best ratings yet and “truly magnificent” food.
Michel Roux Jr declared her main course of birchwood-smoked Anjou pigeon to be “heavenly”, although he was terrified she was going to set the kitchen ablaze as she started a bonfire of twigs on her hob.
“I just thought it would add a bit of theatre to my cooking,” laughs Claire.
Gregg Wallace said of her: “She serves unique, inventive, creative food with a style of her own. She is destined for greatness.”
The judges were impressed by the “Claire twist”, the way she puts together unusual flavour combinations like oysters with buckwheat, cucumber and ham, and pigeon with beetroot.
Claire says: “I try to be creative and different. The other day I invented a dish of lobster with spices, veal sweetbreads and blackcurrants.
“Maybe I push it too far, but I don’t just pluck ingredients out of thin air and put them together. There is a lot of research and science which goes into it. Some ingredients work chemically with others.”
The chocolate sorbet she had served to food critics earlier in the series with lime cheesecake was such a hit with Michel that he said: “That’s the best I’ve ever tasted, I want the recipe.”
And he wasn’t joking. As soon as the cameras were switched off, he swiped Claire’s notes from her work bench and made off with them.
Claire graduated this summer with a first-class degree in culinary arts management from University College Birmingham, a course which combined cooking with business skills. In her spare time in the evenings, she worked at the Michelin-starred Simpsons restaurant in Edgbaston for two years.
She will, naturally, be helping to make Christmas dinner for her family this year.
“It will be traditional – turkey with my dad’s amazing bread sauce,” she says. “I will be making a scallops starter.”
When Claire cooked a starter for The Chef’s Table challenge, catering for a collection of the greatest chefs in Europe, she served a controversial dish of raw scallops. So is that what the Hutchings family will be getting on Christmas Day?
“Probably not, as I will have problems getting them fresh enough on December 25. But I will be adding a Claire twist.”
Claire spent weeks undertaking MasterChef challenges, including cooking at three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, the world’s second-best restaurant.
But she admits: “The hardest thing was definitely having to talk to the camera.
“I just go into my own little world when I’m cooking, so it’s really difficult when someone interrupts you with questions.
“There is a lot of extra filming – shots of us walking through doors or sitting in taxis – which is quite tiring actually.
“Under pressure, cooking with four cameras in your face, you make mistakes you wouldn’t normally. I look back and think ‘What a stupid error’, but fortunately nothing went badly wrong. I was really pleased with all my dishes throughout the competition.”
Claire’s success has brought her a lot of attention, including a Tweet from singer Lily Allen who said “Claire is amazing, love her so much”.
And then there are all the comments about her hair.
“I’ve had heaps of response about that, it’s quite funny! People have been asking how they can get their hair my colour. It’s a bit darker now, but it was platinum blonde with purple tinges. Someone called me a ‘purple-haired pixie’.”
Claire now plans to move to London to further her career – if she can just pass her driving test.
While she’s a whizz at cooking, she reveals she is going nowhere fast outside the kitchen, having recently failed her test for the second time.
She hopes it will be third time lucky when she takes it again in the new year, so she can get her career in gear.
“I failed for hesitating at a roundabout,” she sighs. “I can drive, but the traffic is so bad in Birmingham.
“I will move to London next year, though I’m not quite sure yet what I will be doing.
“I have been contacted by a few chefs asking me about my future plans, which is exciting.
“I would love to get the chance to cook somewhere like Noma, or in my own pop-up restaurant. “There’s heaps of stuff I want to do, but I mainly just want to carry on cooking my food in my style.”
Claire’s MasterChef final menu
Poached oysters with vinegar aioli, bellota ham, toasted buckwheat and pickled cucumber slices and balls
Birchwood-smoked Anjou pigeon with pickled beetroot, rosemary oil and a Barolo wine sauce
Chocolate and coffee marquise, cocoa nub tuile, amaretti crumb and silver life, griottine cherries with a cherry gel and chocolate sauce