We speak to Andrew Kojima about the bleak years of banking and takeaways before MasterChef, and the new era of Oud Sluis, hand-made noodles and professional catering since the series aired.
“The service is atrocious – think surly motorway café run by Chinese – but it does the best stewed beef lamian I’ve ever found in London.”
I ask Andrew Kojima, MasterChef 2012 finalist, where he wants to meet for the interview. The place he suggests doesn’t have a name – but his message includes a string of colourful directions, a grainy photograph of the street front and a pre-emptive apology.
Through the door of the Leicester Square dive, Kojima is watching the chefs pulling their own noodles. He has a particular interest in the technique thanks to a recent stint at London ramen bar, Tonkotsu. That was before a stage in Holland’s legendry Oud Sluis the week before we meet. Now he’s grabbing a bite before dashing off to the London Library this afternoon to do more research – hungry to learn. “Have you read The Science of Cooking by Peter Barham?” he asks excitedly. “It looks at the simplest of things in a new way – like food sticking to a pan. It’s all about the chemical reaction between the protein and the metal.”
You’ve got to show talent to get on the show. But MasterChef isn’t about the finished product. Good television needs a good story.
It is just over a year since Kojima finished filming MasterChef 2012. But he’s keen to maintain the momentum from the three-month long show which, last year, saw contestants foraging in the Lake District with Simon Rogan, and cooking everywhere from a Jane Austen Festival to a Thai prince’s palace.
Unlike other reality shows, the MasterChef prize is a perspex trophy. No job, no cheque, no guaranteed book deal for any of the finalists. The reward is the journey itself. A journey which provides the narrative backbone for the series. “You’ve got to show talent to get on the show” Kojima says. “But MasterChef isn’t about the finished product. Good television needs a good story.”
Kojima was keen to play down his background though: “I tried to hide the fact that I’d been to Oxford and then worked in the city” he says, referring to an impressive classics degree, followed by five years in banking and another five years in fund management.
“Especially in the current environment, I didn’t want to be portrayed as the banker who wanted out” he says. “But the MasterChef director prised it out of me. They like to have a variety of backgrounds – me cooking next to Tom, a plasterer from Yorkshire.”
Banking was hellish. I got fat. I ate takeaways. I worked a lot of weekends, and I often came home late. Cooking wasn’t a priority.
Speaking to Kojima though, it’s clear that his high-flying background didn’t necessarily work to his advantage when cultivating his culinary talents. “I lived in college throughout my whole time at university, and there weren’t any cooking facilities.” he explains. “Then I went straight into banking. It was hellish” he says. “I got fat. I ate takeaways. I worked a lot of weekends, and I often came home late. Cooking wasn’t a priority.”
After eight years of barely even turning on the microwave – let alone the oven, Kojima left banking, and moved into a job with more forgiving hours. He got married, and “got into hosting dinner parties,” impressing friends, who encouraged him to apply to MasterChef.
Having been brought up by his Scottish mother, and Japanese father, Kojima had a good understanding of different cuisines from his childhood – in particular Japanese food, which inspired several dishes on the show, such as the miso aubergine which accompanied loin and sweetbreads of lamb, or the kohlrabi and nashi which he served with pork belly and a strawberry salad.
Kojima laughs, remembering how the dish was famously critiqued by Gregg Wallace as a “floral, sweet, oaty fish biscuit”.
His mother’s Scottish influences cropped up throughout the series too: “I remember her once cooking herring and oatmeal” he says. “But it got me in trouble on MasterChef. I wanted to recreate it, but I didn’t have any herring, and I didn’t have any oatmeal – though I did have red mullet and oatcake biscuits.” Kojima laughs, remembering how the dish was famously critiqued by Gregg Wallace as a “floral, sweet, oaty fish biscuit”.
“I don’t know how long it took them to come up with that soundbite. But it was very funny.” Kojima shrugs. “I really didn’t think the dish was that bad. The way I see it is that I’d had six or seven good episodes, and they basically needed to take me down a peg or two.”
That’s not to say that Kojima felt unfairly portrayed by the series. “All the contestants were invited to view the episodes once they’d been edited, but before they were broadcast – it gave us a chance to point out any errors or discuss any bits we aren’t happy about.” Kojima explains.
At the end of each episode, the producers open a bottle champagne, and the person who has been eliminated goes home.
“It’s nicely done. They show the programmes in batches of four or five. At the end of each episode, the producers open a bottle champagne, and the person who has been eliminated goes home. So if you stay in until the final, you end up being there for a load of the episodes.” He smiles. “By the end of the day you don’t really mind what’s true or what’s not any more.”
When the filming finished, Kojima described it as the end of a “funny, secret life… [where] instead of going to work, you’re going to cook, and chat to other foodie people.” But far from returning to the world of finance, Kojima’s transition to food is for good. “I’m pleased to say that I’ve moved careers – and that now I can step into the top end of that career rather than working my way up.”
Kojima has spent the months since MasterChef 2012 starting a catering business for both private and corporate clients, as well as teaching: “I design menus for people, and then do the lesson in their own homes. We prep the meal together, and then I help them cook it for their friends in the evening.”
What is his advice for this year’s contestants though? “Make the most of the experience, commit it to memory by writing everything down, and then work out how you want to use MasterChef as a platform, but most of all – enjoy it.”
About the author
I'm Koj. I am half Japanese, half British. In 2012, I was a finalist on BBC1's MasterChef, a dream-come-true experience in itself but also my springboard out of a career in finance into a new life in food. I now work as a chef, food writer and cookery teacher specialising in Japanese cuisine. I opened my first restaurant, Koj Cheltenham, in March 2017, following a successful popup in autumn 2016 and crowdfunding project via Kickstarter