We learned everything about her in 2019, when, at the age of 61 and while being an amateur, she won the MasterChef competition in the United Kingdom. Since then, we see her travel between Britain and Greece, create new recipes and share them with us, live every moment of her life creatively and with love for what she does.
We asked her to share with us her thoughts on life in the midst of a pandemic, about gendered ageism, about the things that make her angry but also what makes her smile, about the recipe she would dedicate to A40s women. And our pages were suddenly filled with creation, nature, good food, optimism, beauty.
It was an honor and we cannot thank her enough!
Describe a usual day in your life.
I start by doing a couple of hours of work on my laptop in bed with a coffee that takes that long to drink. My husband bought me a great mug for my birthday which keeps the coffee warm all that time, so I am a happy bunny! I write recipes I tested the day before, spend some time on social media, answer emails, etc. I then tend go into the kitchen for more recipe testing or simply cooking. I am making up for the ground I lost all the years I worked in banking you see when I hardly had the time to cook at all. If the weather is good I go out for a long walk with my husband and back to the kitchen. Early evenings, I have a virtual zoom class and once a week I give a virtual cooking class myself to University students. After dinner I tend to stop for the day and very often need to watch something mindless with John to relax and be able to sleep. In the meantime, amazing books I have bought recently on the subject of food, the way it has evolved and where it is heading are waiting for me to find the time to read them!
Has covid19 affected your life and work?
Most certainly. I missed so many joyful things I would have done like book signings, book festivals, food festivals, culinary flights I had agreed with hotels and cruise ships, so much! At the same time, it gave me the opportunity to devise the program Uni.Yum which is the cooking classes for university students, it allowed me to plan and start writing my book and afforded me opportunities to do Instagram lives with chefs and other people I admire who would probably normally not have the time.
Ηow would you describe yourself?
I am a typical Aquarian which often confuses my husband who is a firmly grounded Taurean. He often accuses me of changing subject too quickly, moving on, looking for the next challenge to apply myself in. I inherited a very strong work ethic so a little bit of a workaholic too. I would like to think I am generous and empathetic, romantic too. I am always dreaming of a better world where we are all kinder to each other and the planet.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement as a person?
Being a step mum was probably the biggest challenge I had to deal with but it is also the single most important thing that I believe I have done. I am very proud of my three step children and now step grandchildren and hope that I am a little bit responsible for some of the values they aspire to.
Have you ever made life-changing decisions i.e. moving to another country? If so, was its carefully planned, or did you wake up one day and said I want to do this and you just did it (leap-of-faith kind of decision)? How did that turn out?
Marrying my first husband who was English and leaving the closely knit family background was a huge step for me. It was not done for the right reasons either but more as a reaction to pressure I felt at the time to conform, tow the line. I have a rebellious streak and marrying someone just to escape a family situation you don’t like is always a mistake. In those days, I could not see another way and Ian was a lovely man who taught me a lot about myself anyway. It was equally hard separating 8 years later and deciding to continue to live in London away from my family post divorce. It was something that I fought hard to avoid and struggled with the thought of the pain that decision caused others but I don’t regret it.
With Frank Roddam, MasterChef creator
Women face a double challenge when they reach a certain age: gendered ageism. How do you think people react to women over 40s? Have you seen any changes in behavior and / or business opportunities?
I still think that the appearance plays a very important role in the way women are seen and as age is reflected on the appearance, sadly it is a huge obstacle leading often to unpleasant and disastrous medical procedures which we should not need to endure in order to be hired to do a job. Men are not required to do so! Some times I hear the word energy, or lack of, when it comes to older women. That is a total myth as I find I have more energy now than I did in my 20s. But, having said all that, I find that in the UK at least (less so in Greece) in the world of catering, women are respected more and I have never met the slightest resistance when going into professional kitchens. And when it comes to food writing, women are well ahead so in my current world of food, I don’t find my sex or age to be a problem. It could be though that I am proud of both and self assured and therefore my body language and behaviour does not allow much room for rejection. And here lies a lesson for us all. We need to believe more in ourselves and our capabilities. It took me many years to realize this but we are all much better than we think we are. This is my moto these days. We need to empower ourselves and each other! Once we believe in our value, men will have to follow!
Did you feel you had to put up with any age discrimination during your participation at MasterChef? Either by members of the MasterChef team or by followers at your social media accounts etc?
No, the BBC is very good and have a very strong diversity policy. They still send me surveys to complete even when I return to the show to be a guest critic. I did not sense any discrimination whatsoever by anyone during the show, all credit to the broadcaster and the production company. And, I certainly don’t feel any discrimination in social media. I have funs who range from 7 to almost 80 years of age of both sexes.
We know you come to Crete every year – what is the one thing you always seek when you first arrive in Greece?
First thing always is to meet all my fellow villages. We are in a tiny village so that does not take long, normally a coffee in the kafenio deals with that! I then see as many members of my family as I can in the shortest period of time. I need to get missing them out of my system. And then, John and I take wants in the countryside. I want to breath in the air, take in the sunlight and pick anything that nature has to offer at that time of year. Then food markets and shopping in general follow.
Name three things that make you smile and three things that make you angry.
Watching the baby lambs jumping about right now brings a smile to my face as does seeing all the birds on the wire outside our Cretan home. Being called yo-yo (a derivation of yiayia) by my step grandchildren makes me smile and some of the clever comments on social media do too. Seeing rubbish on the side of the roads always angers me. Conspiracy theories anger me too as I find a denial to look closer to home for answers behind them. The sense of entitlement angers me. It is a hugely debilitating attitude to have as whilst we are looking to others to provide, we do very little to achieve things ourselves.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Believe more in yourself. Go out there and fight for what you believe you can do.
If you could dedicate one of your recipes to the A40s, which one would it be and why?
The image that springs to mind is of a woman, tire perhaps but full, satisfied with life and her day’s achievements, sitting on her balcony overlooking a beautiful landscape with a glass of expensive, chilled dry white wine in hand digging into a piece of my chocolate and cardamom cake. Because I am told by many women followers that they love it and we have worked hard enough and deserve the best!
Chocolate, coffee and cardamom cake with a rose white chocolate ganache
I made a chocolate tart flavoured with cardamon and served it with rose loukoumi ice cream and a Greek coffee soil for a dinner that MasterChef hosted for spice merchants and experts and the dessert was a great success. This time, I thought that I would incorporate all these flavours in a cake to celebrate International Chocolate Cake Day.
If you don’t have Greek coffee, use the same quantity of strong black coffee to which, whilst still hot add the crushed cardamom pods and leave to go cold.
Ingredients (serves 8)
160g plain flour
160g granulated sugar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
50g Greek yogurt
75ml full fat milk
100ml Greek coffee
6 cardamom pods, crushed
150ml vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 tbsp vanilla extract
A knob of butter for greasing the cake tin
For the ganache
100ml double cream
200g white chocolate buttons
A few drops rose water
A few drops food colour, pink
Start by making the Greek coffee. In a small pot, add 200ml of water, 2 and ½ tsp of Greek coffee powder and the crushed cardamom pods. Heat slowly and remove from the heat just as it is about to boil. Pour into a cup or glass and leave to cool and for the sediment to settle. When the coffee has cooled, remove any floating coffee powder from the top and take 100ml of clear coffee. Discard the rest.
Preheat the oven to 1800C.
Grease a pretty bundt tin and use 20g of the cocoa to dust it with.
In a bowl sieve all the dry ingredients, including the remaining cocoa powder.
In another, large bowl beat the egg and add the remaining wet ingredients. Whisk with an electric mixer to incorporate fully. You should have a pale, fluffy looking liquid. Add all the dry ingredients to the bowl and whisk for a minute to fully incorporate.
Empty the cake mix to the tin and bake for 40 minutes. Test that a skewer inserted in the cake comes out clean. Leave to cool for a few minutes and turn upside on a cake stand.
To make the ganache, bring the cream to boiling point in a saucepan and take away from the heat. Empty the white chocolate into the hot cream and leave to stand for a few seconds. Add some rose water, 2-3 drops at a time as they do come in different strengths and finally a couple of drops of pink gel food colouring. Leave the ganache to cool a little and thicken and spoon over the chocolate cake. Sprinkle with some dried rose petals if you have.
Irini Tzortzoglou is a celebrity chef, author, business woman and motivational speaker. Both Irini’s talent and fire for cooking has led to a breadth of challenging work projects – from appearing and winning MasterChef 2019 and shooting Instagram Live videos with Michelin Star celebrities, to lecturing at universities and authoring her own cookbooks.
Irini won UK Masterchef in 2019 by wowing the judges with her signature red mullet with squid risotto, griddled rosemary lamb chops, and handcrafted hazelnut baklava and fig leaf ice cream. That year, the champion chef also held a culinary retreat at a 5-star hotel in Crete her home.
In 2020, Irini published her first cookbook with Headline, Under the Olive Tree: Recipes from my Greek Kitchen. She is currently working on the copy for her second book, which is due spring 2022.
Irini has recently helped develop recipes for a brand of Greek feta – a true cheese lover!
A little closer to home – Irini now delivers cooking and nutrition classes to culinary enthusiasts at Cumbria University. The classes, called UNI.YUM, focus on ensuring university students prepare for, cook, and eat beautifully balanced meals while creating minimal waste, whilst discovering the mental and emotional benefit of own cooking.
When she’s not wowing uni students with her resourceful approach to food shopping and cooking, Irini is inspiring the public by regularly being published and appearing in the media as well as appearing on the BBC. Irini is also the darling of the Greek media, often interviewed for TV and press in Greece but also the US, Australia and Canada. She has over 15k followers through social media and other channels.
Irini was born in a small village on the island of Crete, where the food heritage stems right back to the Minoan civilisation.
From a young age, she loved to explore the traditional Greek flavours of wild ingredients that grew on her doorstep – and she admired how they were always fresh, wholesome, and readily available.
Irini quickly learned how to forage for food and eventually grew her own, too; her hunter-gatherer activities are huge inspirations to the way she cooks today.
While living on the island, she also became potently aware that our shopping and cooking behaviours affect the planet.
Irini makes a conscious effort to choose local, avoid wastage, and to use where possible environmentally friendly options to assist her cooking.
Her heritage really is in the eye of her cooking – this is evident by the use of wine, cheese, herbs, fruits, filo, succulent seafood and abundance of juicy meats in her dishes.
Irini’s degree in Art, Architecture and Design from Kingston University has a lot to do with the artistic flair and daring displays of aesthetics you’ll see in her dishes.
Though it was her upbringing and family which inspired her to enter MasterChef, one could argue it was her creativity and ability to present food as art which earned her the winning status!
Irini is also a trained olive oil sommelier and enjoys informing on the health and flavour benefits of extra virgin olive oil.
Irini regularly has produced cooking videos for two charities – Kids on the Green and Royal Voluntary Service. She has been recently appointed an ambassador of Slow Food UK and is working with a leadership expert in creating food-centred corporate retreats to help people in business re-connect and re-energize for the post-Covid era.
Irini is currently working with a villa holiday specialist to offer culinary weeks in Crete in Summer 2021 and with a top hotel operator to do the same in Corfu in the Autumn.
When she has spare time she loves walking in the beautiful Lake District where she lives.
Before she became a competition-winning chef, Irini spent 30 years in the banking industry
For more information on Irini visit:
Instagram: Irini Tzortzoglou & Uni.Yum
Facebook: Irini Tzortzoglou