When Rachel McSweeney began her MasterChef journey, she had no idea where it would take her and what it could do to her life. Conceding that it has, in fact, changed her life forever, we decided to catch up with Rachel to see what life had in store for her post-MasterChef.
Courtney: Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview, we’re catching up with a few of the past contestants, so we really appreciate it.
Rachel: My pleasure!
C: Just on your time on MasterChef; as a wife to a fly-in-fly-out miner and a mother, what was it like to be accepted onto the show and successfully pass all the audition hurdles? Was it daunting?
R: No, honestly, I went to the auditions which were held in the afternoon, and by 7.30 that night, we got to the stage where they asked me to come back the next day and cook again. My husband picked me up that night and I was standing there in a daze with all my cooking stuff and he asked me how I went. I just said ‘they want me to come back!’
Every time that I got a step further or stayed a week longer on the show, I was like ‘whoa!’ and it was really amazing. I love to cook and it’s really nice for your ego and for everything else to be told that what you cook is really good, so, for me, I just loved every minute of it. I really never was scared or intimidated about the cooking side of things. The judging side of things, well, anyone would be nervous about that. To stand in front of complete strangers, which they were at the time, and be told that ‘you’re cooking is s**t’ or ‘what do you think you’re doing’ or ‘why would anyone want to eat that’ and it was sort of like ‘oh my god’. But thankfully they didn’t say anything like that, they weren’t rude.
C: Yeah, they all seem really nice.
R: They really are and I think that’s probably why you have so much fun on the show. They do want you to have a bit of fun and learn and get involved in the industry and they’re very supportive, even when you leave the show.
C: So in the audition stage, are you always cooking for Matt, Gary and George?
R: Well, on the very first day, you bring in something you made at home and this is the only phase really where it is casting. On that first day, the people who taste the food are MasterChef’s head chef Glenn Flood, a producer and a food critic from a Sydney magazine. On day two, that’s when you meet Gary Mehigan. So, every day you go, you meet someone you’ve only ever seen on the TV and you’d go ‘oh, wow!’ and honestly, I just thought it was a lot of fun. I always thought someone was going to say ‘you’ve been really good and we’ve had a bit of a laugh, but bye!’ but it just kept going and it was great!
C: Fantastic! Is it even possible to sum up what it’s like to be on MasterChef?
R: I had absolutely no idea how much the MasterChef experience would change my life and change my focus and I think what MasterChef does is make a lot of people realise what they can do and how much their lives can be changed by putting themselves out there a little bit. Being on MasterChef, for me, being a 45-year old mum, was the most egotistical, self-centred thing I’ve ever done, it was all about me. I wasn’t dropping off kids or doing washing and cleaning a house and looking after a husband. I was cooking and looking to see if this is what I wanted to do and it was.
C: And it’s great you did it! It must have boosted your self-esteem so much because cooking for someone can be so nerve racking because they’re going to be eating what you have prepared for them.
R: It’s how you show people that you like them, or that want them in your house. If you had a mate over, you’d spend heaps of time planning the dinner and you’d have a great time and you’ll cook beautiful food. Whereas if you don’t really care who they are, you don’t put much effort into it, haha.
I mean, the other thing about being on MasterChef is living in that house for four-odd months and all you do is, with like-minded people, talk about food and practicing with food.
The produce that came back to the house and that you could practice with was just incredible! You’ll have nothing to do one afternoon so you’d ask ‘oh, what shall we do’ and someone would suggest ‘oh I know, let’s practice with the spatchcocks!’ and it was hilarious. You’d explore all these different foods. I mean you’d never go down to Coles and buy a bloody spatchcock. I mean, I do now, but I wouldn’t have done so before haha.
C: Haha. So I assume you keep up with many of the past contestants.
R: Yeah I do. I actually had a big family holiday over New Years in Sydney and we went over, saw the fireworks and caught up with Kate (Bracks) and her family. It was quite funny because we’ve spoken about each other’s family so often that when we met each other’s kids and family, there was no stranger moment at the beginning. My kids and hers were automatically talking to each other because they had heard so much about each other from each other’s mothers. It was crazy.
C: You two were very good friends on the show.
R: Yeah and we still are! I think it’s a friendship I’ll have for the rest of my life. She’s a great person and she’s doing so well.
C: The reason why we’re doing these interviews is because MasterChef contestants do mostly tend to go on to great things.
R: I don’t think there are any of us that have gone back to doing exactly what we did before. It makes you realise what’s out there and what you can do. It stops you from being boring and explore different avenues. I was a secretary in a concrete company in the industrial area, and now I work at Frasers Restaurant in Kings Park, a premier function centre in Perth and I served the Prime Minister of Britain his cup of tea a couple of weeks ago during CHOGM!
C: So what are you doing at Frazers?
R: I’m doing a traineeship in hospitality. When I started a couple of months ago, I did a range of things. I baked brownies, worked in the kitchen, taught kids cooking in lessons, worked as a waitress and for the last few months, I’ve been in a supervisory role in the function centre which is front of house managing of staff, weddings, seminars, etc, and it is so interesting. I mean, I think the things I know now, if I had known them on MasterChef, I would’ve just won it! It’s amazing how much the knowledge of how a commercial kitchen works would help you on the show. I don’t usually cook the food I serve, but I love doing it every day.
C: And have you been doing any other promotional appearances?
K: Oh, god, I have had such incredible opportunities. When I first got back (to Perth after MasterChef) I was invited to go to the Mundaring Truffle Festival here in Perth to go on this panel and do a demonstration and when I got there, I found out that Chef Wan from Malaysia was there! It was so much fun, he was so hilarious. From there, I’ve done a few paid appearances like a cooking demonstration at a display village and a tasting at the Perth Royal Show where I had to eat ten different types of food and talk about them. But most of the work I do has all been charitable appearances and work. I’ve got very involved with HeartKids WA, which is a charity that raises funds and awareness for congenital heart disease in kids.
Through that, I’ve also been working with MasterChef 2009’s Josh Catalano. He went to Trinity College, same as my boys, here in WA, and they had this Ladies Auxiliary lunch and Josh was a guest speaker. At that time, no one knew who I was but when the show started, they asked me to join in too! It was just hilarious; it was the Josh & Rachel Show!
Since then, we’ve done a few things together. We were the prize in a silent auction where we went to a ladies house and cooked dinner for six people. When Trinity had their fete, we got involved in a Mystery Box challenge for it. Josh is a really nice kid; he’s done really well for himself.
C: That must have been such a bizarre experience.
R: Well I have to tell you, another thing about MasterChef is that you get to associate yourself with all these wonderful people. I went to Malaysia and got to meet Rick Stein, so when he came to Perth, his PA gave me tickets to his show and you know, it made me realise that they are all real people.
Another thing I got to do was this celebrity cook-off with Eskimo Joe. Stuart MacLeod is actually quite a good cook. We were cooking away and when we had a break he pulled me aside and asked ‘Rachel, do you mind if I had a photo taken with you?’ and I was just standing there going ‘WHAT! Haha’. I mean, when does Eskimo Joe have time to watch MasterChef?!
C: That must have been amazing! You haven’t got any books planned as of yet, but would you consider writing one in the future?
R: Umm, I have NO drive to publish a cook book. I spoke often with Kate when she was putting together her dessert cookbook. My god it’s a lot of work! Do you have any idea how much work it is?
C: Kumar did mention actually that he was working flat out with his cookbook, which would have taken him close to two months to produce.
R: Well, with Kate, she said she’d get up at six in the morning, work, get the kids to school, and then get stuck into working on the book. That involved developing recipes, typing recipes, trying out recipes, photographing recipes. She would then pick up her kids at three, spend a few hours with them and then continue working on the book until midnight! That was for two months until the book went to the publisher. So no, I don’t really want to do that, haha.
I’m very aware that I’m just an ordinary person; I don’t have any amazing recipes. It was quite interesting when Nigella Lawson asked me for my recipe on the show. I mean, it was such an ordinary recipe. It’s another thing that you learn on the show; what you consider ordinary probably isn’t for someone else.
C: Coming back to your work with HeartKids, you said you were the Western Australian ambassador for the charity (Kate Bracks, winner of MasterChef 2011, is in fact the national ambassador for the charity), how does that feel and how did it all come about?
R: Yeah, HeartKids phoned me and asked me if I would like to be involved in their annual fundraiser, Cupcakes for Kids, and so I got on board and did a couple of these tea parties, and they said I spoke so well and I got on well with the kids, so they asked if I would like to become their ambassador. I had to do it.
1 in 100 kids in Australia are born with congenital heart disease and in Western Australia, the surgery can’t be done. They all have to be flown to Melbourne and most babies are operated on in the first three weeks of their lives. It is such a traumatic experience, not just for the kids but for the parents and families as well. So HeartKids support the family in helping them when they’re relocated in Melbourne having the surgery and for the follow up counselling when they come back. I mean, some of these kids have the surgery and they’re fine, but some do have ongoing problems and can die at a young age.
So I got on board, and unbeknownst to me, my son’s godparents, their daughter was born with congenital heard disease and has had numerous operations through her life, and I never knew that they were supported all the way through by HeartKids, so it’s interesting that once you start talking about it, how many people in your life have had heart surgery. It’s quite common, but it is quite a traumatic thing.
It’s rewarding, and as I said, a lot of the work I do is for charity, and I get so much personal satisfaction out of going to places like Ronald McDonald House, where I cook breakfast with Greenhouse Restaurant’s Matt Stone, for the kids and their families. You have to pinch yourself sometimes; I’m working with Matt Stone! So I get these perks where I get to meet all these people. Like, I was invited to the Red Kite Quiz Night and I was sitting with all these rugby players and football players, and I had a pretty good time thanks for asking, haha!
Through MasterChef, people who I have known all my life, like this girl I went to school with who now runs an orphanage, she rang me and asked me to cook with the kids. She would have never have gotten that opportunity to ask me if she hadn’t she gone to school with me and by asking me it has brought awareness to her cause.
Honestly, it has been great; I can’t say a bad thing about my MasterChef experience and the best thing is, despite the change in production company (Shine Australia now takes over from Fremantle Media Australia in the production of MasterChef Australia), they still called up and asked me to help out and I thought it was really lovely how they thought of me!
C: You’re also doing a spot at the South Pacific Food & Wine festival with Kumar Pereira and Craig Young to be held in Fiji. How did that come about?
R: Well Craig is apart of the Brisbane Symphony Orchestra and he, as you know, is a very talented cellist and he was already going to the Food & Wine Festival with the orchestra and that’s how it all started before they asked him if he’d be interested in doing these kids programs. You know how you go away to these festivals, they put things on for the wives and the kids and basically, we’re the entertainment for the kids. Over three days, each day, we have about 30 to 50 kids in each class. Each of us take a course and at the end of the session, we all have this big feast. We teach them to make their own pastry, desserts and sauces. I’m in charge of desserts, I think!
The festival itself is featured in a number of hotels in Nadi Island, so my husband, who is a keen surfer, is quite happy to hear I’m heading to Fiji so he’s coming as well. There, there’s live cooking demonstrations, trade shows, and it is just a big show for people in hospitality to learn about new innovations and ideas and on the last night, they have this big night where all the visiting chefs cook a 7-8 course menu and each chef has cooked a different course. The chefs that are going are actually quite exciting, you have Manu Feildel, Ben O’Donohue and quite a few chefs from the UK and or NZ and the Culinary Ambassador is Chef Robert Oliver.
C: So you’ll be working with mostly local children?
R: Yeah, they are mostly from the area, but it is also for the kids that come along with their families as well. So if you, your partner and your kids wanted to come to this expo, you can wander around the trade expo while you children are entertained by me, Kumar and Craig in these programs, so over the three days, the kids can attempt all of the cooking classes available.
C: You’re cooking with local produce; so are you going to mainly be focussing on Fijian cuisines?
R: Yeah, we’re using all Fijian ingredients because they want to promote South Pacific cuisine so we’ll get there a couple of days early and learn a few things about the cuisine and see what’s available and most of it will be things we wouldn’t get here in the cooler climates. I’m really interested in seeing all those kind of things.
C: So how long does one workshop run for?
R: It’s a three and a half hour thing each day. It will be three hours of cooking and a half hour of kicking back, eating the food and chatting with the kids!
C: And are we going to see you at any local food festivals?
R: I’ve been involved in a few things, as I’ve said. Most of the work I’ve done is up at Frasers and through my work, people will have their function and I’ll come out as the entertainment. I’ll teach them how to make things like crepes and that’ll be their dessert for the day. We also have a lot of wine shows where we match food with wines.
And the best thing is that you’re always with someone different every day so you always learn something new.
C: So going back to MasterChef and you said you were involved in the audition stage for the next season. For budding chefs out there, what can they expect from this? Do you have any advice?
R: My biggest advice, from going to those auditions and being on the show myself, you can tell if someone is one of those people who just wants to be on the telly (for the fame and not for the cooking) and, you can tell by how much effort they’ve put into the dish as to whether they’ve put their heart and soul into it, or if they’ve just gotten their mum to make it. Trust me, you do see a few who do that.
And just be yourself because if you try to be anything else, the producers will see that. They don’t want any raving lunatics on the show, haha. You just have to be real about what you’re trying to do. One of the questions they were asking people were ‘what do you want to do’ and there were a few people saying ‘I want to be a chef’, ‘I want to be a chef’. Bulls**t, you know, haha. If you wanted to be a chef, why didn’t you do something about it before? This one lady only just discovered she liked to cook four years ago, and she was in her fifties! Like, what?! I think she just wanted to get out of the house and onto the telly, haha.
You have to know the basics. How can you run if you can’t walk? When you’re cooking during the challenges, the judges are talking to you, teaching you stuff. When we got into the top 24, we had people coming to the house teaching us how to do stuff. You’re constantly exposed to so much knowledge; you have no choice but to absorb it all.
C: Rachel, it’s been a pleasure to speak to you and we wish you all the best for the future!
R: That’s not a problem, it’s been great!
Rachel McSweeney is the WA ambassador for HeartKids. For more information on this charity and what they do, you can go to http://www.heartkidswa.org.au/
And for more information on the upcoming South Pacific Food & Wine Festival, to be held over 14-17 March 2012, you can head to the official Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/South-Pacific-Food-Wine-Festival/187618187974494
MasterChef Australia 2012 premieres later this year on Network Ten.
You can read our interview with fellow contestant Kumar Pereira here.