At 60, Irini Tzortzoglou had always been a huge fan of the competitive BBC cooking show, MasterChef, so it was a welcome surprise when her own application to series 15 of the show was accepted. The former banker was driven onto the popular TV show by her love of Greek food and her desire to inspire people of all ages – which is exactly what she went on to do. In March 2019, Irini stood beside two other female contestants in the first ever all-female final, where she was crowned MasterChef winner.
Speaking about those final moments leading up to the final results, Irini, now 63, says, “I will never forget the excitement and energy in the studio that day. All the time that we were cooking, the atmosphere was electric! The moment we plated up and all the way through the judging, for me, was an anti-climax. I was sad that it was all over. I could not think beyond that!
“When [judge] John announced my name, I was dumbstruck! I was not expecting it. In fact, I was not expecting anything. It felt as if I was in a state of limbo waiting to see how my life would unfold next. The result only really sunk in when the other girls (Jilly and Deliah) left the studio, and I was handed the trophy and a glass of champagne.”
So, what was Irini’s life like before appearing on MasterChef?
Irini – who lives in Cumbria, UK – grew up in a small village on the Greek island of Crete, where she enjoyed copious amounts of delicious home-cooked food made by her mother and grandmother. At age 20, she moved to London where she pursued a career in banking. Irini’s fast-paced lifestyle meant she swapped comforting home-cooked delights for quick and convenient meals that she could fit around her busy schedule.
At age 50, Irini and her second husband, John, left the world of finance to share their time between the beautiful Lakeland village of Cartmel (UK) and Crete. As a result, Irini was able to spend time with her mother after many years apart. Irini found that she had more freedom and energy after leaving her chaotic lifestyle, and now spending time in her fertile and foodie home island, she fell in love with home-cooked food all over again.
Irini explains that life in Cartmel is a world away from her former life in London, and more reminiscent of her childhood in Crete. Cartmel, she explains, has a great emphasis on fresh, high-quality produce, and a deep appreciation for food, cooking, and entertainment.
A few years passed, and although Irini enjoyed time spent in both Cartmel and Crete, she became bored and unchallenged – leading her to consider what could be next on her life’s agenda. She says, “With hindsight, I realise that I retired a little too early. But I don’t regret it for one second as I had the opportunity to live many happy moments with family and friends in Crete, and give something back to my mum and our local community here in Cumbria.
“I joined the ‘Cartmel In Bloom’ Group, which focused on protecting and enhancing the environment – and I still continue to pick litter to this day. I was also on the committee of the Cartmel Village Society, and headed an oral history and film archive project for the village.”
“Unless you experience the adrenaline rush of that competition, you cannot understand what it is really like!”
In an attempt to challenge herself and hopefully unlock a new and exciting life chapter, Irini applied to take part in series 15 of MasterChef – and to her surprise, her application was accepted.
The surprises kept coming when Irini sailed through the whole series to the grand final, where she was tasked with completing a final three-course meal for judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Her Greek-inspired winning dishes consisted of red mullet with a squid risotto, griddled rosemary lamb chops, and fig and hazelnut baklava. Irini completed her final challenge alongside two other female finalists, making it the first ever all-female final in MasterChef history.
Speaking about her feelings towards finalists Jilly and Deliah, Irini says, “It could not have been a better team for any of us I don’t think. We loved spending the evening together before the final, having dinner and drinks and many laughs. We were going to be genuinely happy whoever had won that day. We are still good friends and I don’t expect that to change. None of us took ourselves too seriously and we were able to relax and enjoy it.”
As Irini tells us about her MasterChef journey, her gratitude and appreciation for the experience is abundantly clear, and she admits to having hopes that she will one day get to revisit the show and compete again. Irini says, “It is an addiction, really! I have already contacted the production company asking them to invite previous winners back for a cook-off. Unless you experience the adrenaline rush of that competition, you cannot understand what it is really like!”
Life after MasterChef: Becoming an author, teacher, and olive oil sommelier
Since appearing on MasterChef, Irini’s success has continued – as has her cooking! She explains that her cooking today is inspired by the traditional Greek food she enjoyed while growing up, but that it has more of a contemporary twist. This means that it tends to be lighter to reflect her own taste, and she uses influence from other cuisines to create a fusion of different flavours.
Irini’s continued passion for cooking and her thirst for culinary knowledge since the competition has seen her experimenting with vegan and vegetarian Greek dishes, and completing an oil sommelier course – which required her to try 150 different olive oils in the space of a week! In July 2020 she also published her first recipe book, Under the Olive Tree: Recipes from My Greek Kitchen: a collection of over 80 delicious, user-friendly, family recipes.
Talking about her experience of writing the book, Irini says, “When I was approached after MasterChef to write a book with recipes of food I love, it was obvious to me that these should be recipes of the kind of food audiences had seen me cook on the show. It was then the idea and wish of the publishers that the book included quite a bit about me in it too, so it’s also somewhat autobiographical.
“I loved going back in time in my mind’s eye and remembering all the times in my grandmother’s kitchen, all the meals I saw the older women of the family prepare and thinking back to what food meant to my family and myself as I was growing up.”
Credit: David Loftus
The social distancing restrictions brought on by the pandemic meant that Irini was unable to celebrate the launch of her book in the ways that she would have liked – for example by participating in book festivals and signing – but her book has still been a hit with cooking enthusiasts and MasterChef fans alike.
During the January 2020 lockdown, Irini also went on to design a series of online cooking lessons for university students, called Uni.Yum, where students would get to cook along with Irini and ask for help and support along the way.
Other ways that Irini has spent her time since the show include creating recipes for her website (Irini Cooks), and for magazines, websites, and charities. Plus, she has participated in live Instagram sessions with chefs she admires, and spent time planning and working on future projects, like corporate leadership retreats, culinary retreats, and olive oil tastings.
“If it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do but life has always gotten in the way - then even just attempting that thing could give you a new lease of life”
Credit: Victoria Sedgwick
Though Irini is incredibly humbled by the experiences that have come her way since being crowned 2019 MasterChef winner, she also believes that had she been younger, her success could have led to additional opportunities, such as being offered employment in restaurants. Irini says, “It’s a good thing that I did not want to work full time, but if my dream was to do so, I would be feeling very frustrated right now.”
However, Irini would encourage anyone who is thinking about a career change, taking on a new venture, or just trying something new later in life, to believe in themselves and grab opportunities with both hands. Irini herself applied to MasterChef on a whim and had no idea that life would lead her to where she is today.
Offering some words of encouragement to anyone who might be feeling hesitant about stepping outside of their comfort zone and doing something different, Irini says, “If it’s something that you feel passionate about, something that you’ve always wanted to do but life has always gotten in the way – then even just attempting that thing could give you a new lease of life.
“Many people have told me over time that I inspired them to do things from buying an old wreck of a house to refurbish to starting a business and I find that thrilling. The way I see it is: there is nothing to lose! Having nothing to lose is a luxury that we perhaps didn’t always have when we were younger, so why not have a go?”
What’s next on the agenda for Irini?
Credit: Charlie Kartsolis
In terms of next steps, Irini is hard at work writing a second book and has hopes that she will get to visit Greece this summer. In the years to come, she would also like to share her culinary experience with people who are new to cooking, and with those who live a similar busy lifestyle to the one that Irini lived while working as a banker in the City.
Irini says, “I would love to introduce people with very busy lives to some of the culinary knowledge I picked up during my MasterChef experience. I’d love to show them how they can take that knowledge and apply it to their working lifestyle – as I believe it could help them to enjoy their jobs with a renewed zeal and enthusiasm.
“It’s also so helpful to start life with some basic knowledge of how to cook quick, nutritious, and delicious food that will not break the bank – and I would love to be able to help give that to younger generations.”
Did you spot Irini on MasterChef in 2019? Or perhaps you’re an avid cook who is interested in applying to the show yourself? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the Rest Less Community forum, or leave a comment below.