Saliha with judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace © MasterChef – Endemol Shine / BBC

What's Cooking?

19th May 2017

Lisa Botwright catches up with the Watford-based winner of MasterChef 2017…

As emotional as MasterChef finals go, this one even brought a tear to John Torode’s eye. He was seen discreetly wiping his sleeve across his face after he and co-judge Gregg Wallace presented twenty-nine year old doctor Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed with the coveted MasterChef 2017 trophy, last Friday.

“It was such an emotional rollercoaster,” Saliha tells me. “When I watch that final moment on TV, I feel on top of the world. It really hasn’t sunk in yet because it has just happened. I think it will take me a few weeks before I can really start believing it.”

Saliha fought off competition from 63 other talented contestants, and triumphed through seven weeks of crazy culinary challenges, before meeting fellow amateur cooks Steve Kielty and Giovanna Ryan at the tense and exhilarating final that was watched by five millions viewers.

As many readers will attest, what endeared us to Saliha even more was the realisation that she is a bona fide local heroine. Her backstory revealed her busy life as a Junior Doctor at Watford General Hospital, and her family life with her husband, Usman, also a doctor, and their two-year old son Aashir. The family moved to Watford a year and a half ago from Middlesex, and when they have time, love eating out in the local area at Sahibs Restaurant in Northwood, perhaps, or Lussmans in St Albans.

Not that there was much time for eating out during filming. “It involved a lot of hard work and early starts – late nights cooking after 13-hour-long shifts, no holidays, no breaks, no sleep – but it was well worth it,” explains Saliha, and claims that she couldn’t have managed without the backing of her hospital bosses. “They were extremely supportive. I used my holidays to go on the show and didn’t miss any of my days off. My colleagues swapped numerous shifts with me so that it didn’t affect the filming schedule. A proper NHS effort!”

But it’s her husband and family whom she credits with giving her the strength and encouragement to go through this ‘incredible experience’. It was Usman, in fact, who entered Saliha into the competition, a discovery that came as a complete surprise. “I didn’t even know that the application was open,” she reveals. “He had such faith in me and has gotten me here today,” she says proudly.

Saliha has a self-possessed, but modest demeanour, and I ask what it was like to compete against a lot of very big personalities on the show. Was there much rivalry between contestants? “To be honest we were all good friends. We spent a lot of time together and we all love food so had a lot to talk about. The main competition is with yourself. I was always trying to cook better than I did the last time.”

She’s referring to those oh so intimidating cooking tasks that would terrify the most confident and experienced of culinarians. “Most daunting was definitely The Chef’s Table and cooking for the four food critics. You are so desperate to impress them. On the other hand, the funniest moment was when I was faced with the lamb barbecue in South Africa, sweltering in 40 degree heat and the burning embers – what a combination!”

I suggest that the daily pressures of hospital life must be excellent preparation for the show. “Most definitely,” Saliha confirms. “The same skills are used in hospital as in a professional kitchen. Organisation, time-planning, prioritisation and multi-tasking are of key importance.”

All these skills and qualities combine to make Saliha ‘a class act’, according to John Torode, and ‘an incredible cook and an incredible person’ according to Gregg Wallace. Both agree that she particularly excels at unique and beautiful interpretations of traditional Pakistani cookery. “She’s walked in here and taken her food culture apart and put it back together in a modern and very exciting way,” Torode reflects. “She always does something a little bit extra – something which always surprises us.”

On her winning menu – Venison shami kebab, followed by a Kashmiri style sous-vide duck breast, and a Saffron rosewater and cardamom pannacotta for dessert that Wallace claimed he ‘was in love with’ – Torode gushes: “Those dishes sparkled. They were clean, crisp, refined and beautiful.”

And for somebody who describes herself as a scientist, not an artist, Saliha’s presentation become more and more exquisite as the series progressed. Wallace enthuses, “When she translated those [eastern] flavours into modern presentation there was no stopping her. Her food is stunning – beautiful art on a plate.”

Saliha started cooking at an early age; on the programme she acknowledged her mother for being a positive role-model in the kitchen – but finds inspiration in other areas of her life too. “My grandmothers were also both fabulous cooks, and I had a food technology teacher at school called Carole Findlay who was fantastic and encouraged me to cook and develop my skills at a young age.” Since then she credits an eclectic mix of food writers and chefs, including Tarla Dalal, Nigella Lawson, Sabrina Ghayour and Greg Malouf for being equally inspiring over the years. Her ‘most treasured cookbook’ is Rani, A Legacy of Recipes and Fables, which was given to her by her granddad.

But the question on everyone’s lips is ‘what next?’ MasterChef is famously life-changing, yet Saliha already has a career in medicine that she loves. “I am definitely going to combine my career as a doctor with cooking. There is a huge amount to be done for the healthy eating cause.” Salina specialises in Gastroenterology and says that being able to help her patients through her existing medical and new-found food knowledge ‘would be incredible’.

It seems she may also be aiming to follow in the footsteps of another famous tv chef, and says “I hope to be able to help drive the country towards healthier meals – and work on national campaigns to tackle obesity, particularly in children.”

Happily for all of us who have enjoyed watching Saliha on our screens, she appears to be in no hurry to give up the limelight. “I would also love to write cookbooks in my own style as well as doing some cooking on tv.”

This all sounds like it’s set to be a recipe for success; and I, for one, can’t wait to see what the talented and tenacious Saliha brings to the table next.

MasterChef: The Final is available on BBC iPlayer.
Continue to follow Saliha’s journey via Twitter @salihacooks

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