When she worked in banking, Irini Tzortzoglou’s idea of cooking was to pick up a ready meal from Marks & Spencer at Waterloo station on her way home and put it in the oven. But now, since she won the BBC MasterChef cooking competition in 2019 at the age of 60, with menus inspired by her Greek heritage, food has become her life and new career.
She wasn’t particularly interested in cooking, she says with a laugh, although food was an important part of her life even as a child. Tzortzoglou, 64, was born in Crete, where her grandparents’ house was always open – her grandfather was a priest – and her grandmother often cooked for dozens of people. Tzortzoglou would help out: “I loved the smells, I loved the processes.” After her parents moved the family to Athens when she was about eight, she didn’t really cook until she got married and moved to London. “I thought, ‘I better be a good housewife and feed my husband.’ I bought cookbooks and started cooking three course meals every day because I was bored.”
But she stopped cooking when her husband complained that he was gaining weight and started her career – she worked in finance for 30 years and eventually became an executive at Piraeus Bank, one of Greece’s largest financial services companies. “As my career progressed, I found that I had less and less time to cook,” she says. In 2000 she married her second husband, John, who was often away on business. Then she says, “I really didn’t cook. I want to cook for others, I don’t particularly like feeding myself.”
She decided to join MasterChef after her retirement “out of boredom”. “Because he didn’t feel challenged and it drove John crazy, one day he said, ‘Why don’t you try it, because you always like to see it.'”
Tzortzoglou was a reasonably good chef who loved to entertain and could put together a decent dinner party menu, but taking part in the show required a whole new skill set. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself by retiring in round one, so I trained myself for a year,” she says. She put in time, effort and money (including buying appliances and overhauling her kitchen back home in Cumbria). “I’ve been to Athens and eaten at Michelin-star restaurants,” she says. “I wanted to see what is happening with Greek food today. I watched a bit of Greek MasterChef to see what the young chefs were up to. And then I started practicing.”
She also started physical training because she could see how hard it was running around the kitchen or standing for hours while filming. “What worried me was that I was going to have a heart attack in the studio,” she says, laughing. “I’ve had an office job my whole life.” She took up running, joined a gym, and went on hill walks around her house. She treated it, she says, “like my life’s work”.
Since her victory, Tzortzoglou has immersed herself in Greek cuisine and has written a cookbook called Under the Olive Tree. As we speak, she has spent the past few weeks at a London restaurant, catering for two dinners, designing and cooking the menu for an award-winning lunch and launching a Greek meal for a recipe box company.
“I don’t have any free time, but I love it,” she says. “I feel like a kid being let loose in a candy store.” She has also become a public speaker determined to inspire others to start over in later life. “When you see how alive I feel and how much energy I have, the alternative is unthinkable – to think that at 60 you’re like, ‘Oh, now I’m sitting in a corner reading books and one day I’m going to die.’ “
Tzortzoglou found that participating in the program not only gave her a new career, but also changed the way she felt about herself after a lifetime of low self-esteem. “I’ve always felt like a scammer in banking,” she says. “I had an incredibly demanding father for whom nothing was ever good enough; there was always room for improvement. I thought I had processed it all but obviously I wasn’t because MasterChef showed me that I still don’t believe in myself enough.” She couldn’t understand why she made it through the rounds and ended up winning – by one Starter of red mullet followed by lamb chops and a fig and hazelnut baklava – because she was so self critical. “I would say [co-host and chef] John Torode: What’s wrong with your taste buds? That’s rubbish.” He’d say, ‘Stop it, that’s my job.'”
She’s emotional when she remembers how it felt to win. “Actually to be able to say: OK, I’m good enough.” Last weekend she worked as a catering job and cooked for 20 people. As she entered the dining room, she received a huge round of applause. “A few years ago I was like, ‘No, no, it wasn’t good enough.’ Now I actually think that was a damn good dinner.”