Alexina Anatole started her career on the trading floor in London. But food was always a big focus. After many years of watching the show, she decided to apply for MasterChef, and reached the final. Her book Bitter is a celebration of the complexity of sharp, tart and acidic flavours. With ideas and recipes you won't have thought of before...
What’s the best thing you’ve eaten recently?
I was recently in Paris and popped into the famous ice cream shop Berthillon. I had one scoop of their bitter chocolate sorbet and one scoop of apricot: heaven!
What’s the one dish that will make anyone fall in love with your food?
Is it weird to say a salad? There’s this raw kale and grapefruit salad in Bitter that everyone seems to be going mad for! I think it’s just a really perfect combination of flavours: bitterness from the kale and grapefruit, toasty notes from the almonds, sweetness from the dressing, a little punch from the spring onions and shallots.
What is it about cooking and food that makes you really happy?
I find cooking quite meditative – a chance to use your hands and let your mind wander – but then, once you’ve had that moment of calm, you get to share something delicious with the people that you love: a magic combination!
What are the components of a good meal for you?
When I’m putting on a spread I like to think about balancing the five tastes (bitter, sour, salty, sweet and umami) as well as different textures, colours and temperatures across the dishes.
But to be honest, a good meal can take lots of different guises. Outside of the food, it’s all about who you share it with (and the music!).
What is one kitchen tip everyone should know?
Salt early! I think salt can make people nervous, because they’re worried about overdoing it, but what I often see is people holding back the salt at the beginning of the process, and then adding salt at the table – which simply results in the meal tasting of salt!
Salt is a powerful ingredient that can make other ingredients taste more of themselves, but for that to happen you need to add salt early in the cooking process rather than at the end.
What dish do you turn to most often?
My chicory, walnut & roquefort salad from Bitter: it’s a classic French combination that is so much greater than the sum of its parts, and takes no more than 15 minutes to make.
It’s perfect as a starter for a dinner party, or as a side alongside steak, or simply as a lunchtime salad all by itself. It’s satisfying, intensely savoury, mildly bitter and refreshing. I’m obsessed.
What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with right now?
At the moment, it’s probably yuzu kosho – I’m addicted to its zingy, warming and slightly fermented flavour. It’s wonderful used in a dressing to dress noodles.
What makes a great comfort dish for you?
Few dishes give us more comfort than the ones our grandparents, parents or caretakers made for us, so it’s deeply personal to each individual.
For me, a great British pudding is the ultimate in comfort – and in particular my gran’s apple and blackberry crumble served with cold double cream!
It’s all about those contrasts: sweet apples/tart blackberries, hot crumble/cold cream, crunchy top/soft fruit.
Where do you find inspiration?
From everywhere! From friends, from travel, from eating out, from going to the market, from music, from cookbooks, from locations, from history, from art. Inspiration is all around.
What ingredients are always stocked in your pantry?
- Maldon salt (or fleur de sel de Camargue, if I’ve recently been to France) and a big pack of Diamond Kosher salt.
- Salted butter
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Lemons & limes
- Creamed coconut
- Papaya hot sauce (homemade)
- Ortiz tinned tuna
- White balsamic vinegar
- Bay leaves
- Greek yoghurt
What ingredients have you recently discovered that you are excited about?
Less discovered, but more have had my eyes opened to… sumac. One of my friends is Palestinian and he recently taught me how to make their national dish, musakhan, involving onions cooked for a long time in lots of olive oil and sumac, then combined with poached chicken and flatbreads.
It’s very special. I’ve also recently developed an obsession with adding sumac to strawberries, where its citrusy notes provide a counterpart to strawberries’ inherent sweetness.
What is a lesser-known recipe you would love to see more people try?
From my book, I would love to see people try the pineapple, rum and liquorice upside down cake near the back. It’s the first recipe that I developed for the book and I imagine that people might shy away from it due to the liquorice, but I really think it works – especially with a pour of cold double cream!
How do you source your ingredients and what do you look for when selecting them?
I like to hand pick my fresh produce (the exception being my much-loved fortnightly Riverford box!) so I visit my local greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers and bakery wherever possible.
Ultimately, I’d like to grow my own fruit and veg. I pop to Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Asian grocers from time to time, to stock up the pantry, and I also source specialist ingredients online (yes, from Sous Chef!).
How do you stay current with food trends and incorporate them into your menu?
I have a terrible memory and attention span for most things, but food is the exception!
Social media is obviously one way of staying on top of trends but since I’m always reading, thinking and talking about food, I think I just pick things up through osmosis.
Can you tell me about a particularly memorable meal you have had and what made it so special?
To this day one of the most memorable meals I’ve had was at Evelyn’s Table when the Selby brothers were cooking there (before they got the Michelin star!). It was my idea of the perfect fine dining experience: a small but beautiful counter in a basement in Soho, watching the chefs prepare the dishes before us, a soundtrack of 90s hip hop classics on in the background.
The food was so precise, so beautiful, so elevated, and yet the vibe was cool and relaxed and unstuffy: it was that perfect balance of special and comfortable. The Japanese influences in the menu were sublime and the wine pairings (usually something I find to be overrated) were creative and spot on.
It was phenomenal value too – it’s always so exciting to “discover” places before they get really well known!
How do you balance tradition and innovation in your cooking?
I think innovation has to be based in tradition. I find “fusion” goes wrong when there isn’t some sort of organic progression or thought process behind a new combination.
Once you have a sufficiently broad knowledge of different cuisines and traditions, it becomes easy to start making connections and innovating in a way that works, and remains grounded.
What new tips, tricks or ideas have you learned while writing your book?
I’ve discovered ways to handle bitterness that I wasn’t previously aware of – for example, I didn’t realise that acidity would so effectively distract from bitterness, and I was surprised by the extent to which salt can neutralise it (try a teaspoon of grapefruit juice or Campari, then try another to which you’ve added a pinch of salt – you’ll be amazed at how much the salt knocks back the bitterness!).
Which other recipe books, writers and chefs have influenced you over your life?
Ravinder Bhogal has always inspired me in terms of how she combines flavours. Going back to what I said about fusion above, Ravinder is a master of fusion in a way that’s really authentic and grounded. I also love her restaurant Jikoni in Marylebone, with its feminine energy (you don’t come across many female chef-patrons).
Samin Nosrat is an inspiration, not just because she wrote a phenomenal and very clever book (Salt Fat Acid Heat) about the art and science of cooking, but because her Netflix series (of the same title) was one of the few times I’ve seen a woman of colour present a food travelogue. She really broke the mould there.
Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus is a chef’s dream, and a fantastic read too. I use it all the time when considering new flavour combinations. It lives by my bed.
Can you tell us about your journey into food - were you always destined to cook?
Insofar as I’ve always been extremely greedy, I think, yes, I was destined to cook! It’s the one thing I’ve applied myself consistently to over the last 15 years or so.
Prior to MasterChef I had a different career, but once I reached the final I thought “this is it, this is your chance to give the food dream a go”.
So here I am. It’s not been easy, but I also can’t imagine doing anything else. Even when I’m sick to death of recipe testing you’ll find me, two days later, experimenting with how to perfect a Victoria sponge, just because.