Chelsea wins MasterChef
She stayed calm and collected through 16 weeks of culinary challenges - and several near misses - but Aucklander Chelsea Winter finally broke down when she was announced the winner of MasterChef 2012.
The 27-year-old beat Waiheke Island mother-of-three Ana Schwarz in last night's two-hour episode.
She had been a dark horse in the competition, which she took pleasure in reminding the judges.
"I've proved a few people wrong. Josh [Emett] gave me a 'no' at auditions," she said.
Winter had come close to elimination several times, but the judges stood by her despite a bloody misadventure and allegations of cheating.
And although she admitted to being "terrified" on the day of the final, it didn't show.
She had a weak start with the first challenge, when she and Schwarz had to taste a curry made by judge Ray McVinnie and name as many ingredients as they could.
"The taste test was awkward - I was so nervous and my mouth was so dry I could hardly taste the ingredients," she said.
She mistook the lamb and goat in the curry for beef and insulted McVinnie by daring to suggest he would use curry powder instead of making it from scratch.
But she came into her own in the next challenge, serving up peppered carpaccio of venison and a venison fillet with caramelised plums and jus, which McVinnie called "near-perfect".
The judges raved over her presentation - a triumph for Winter, who had previously been admonished for her sloppy plating up.
The third challenge wasn't quite as successful - Winter's version of Rick Stein's prawn laksa wasn't as balanced as Schwarz's - but she still went into the final round with a one-point lead.
It has become a MasterChef tradition that the contestants' final challenge is an over-the-top dessert.
This year it was a 10-layer trifle created by Euro chef Eugene Hamilton, which they were given three hours to replicate.
"Here it is, the torturous trifle. It looks like it's going to torture us," Winter quipped.
Both chefs ran into trouble. First Schwarz failed to chop her walnuts, then misplaced one of her key ingredients.
Winter macerated her fruit salad too early and was left frantically rinsing liqueur off it, and her top layer of meringue slumped.
"Perhaps looks aren't everything," she reasoned as she delivered the slightly lacklustre dessert to the judges' table.
And it seemed they agreed, as they lavished her with points and announced her the MasterChef winner.
Then and only then did Winter let her emotions show, breaking down in tears. She recovered enough to give a gracious thank-you speech, and enjoy a reunion with her boyfriend.
Back home, Winter is enjoying the respite from MasterChef's high-pressure atmosphere.
"I maybe got a little better with my time management," she said. "But I still like to take my time. [Cooking is] a relaxing thing for me."
She's had to keep her victory secret for eight months, even staying at her job as a marketing executive so as not to raise suspicion.
"Although it has been a bit painful carrying around this big secret, it's been really cool watching the show," she said.
She thought the public had faith in her because of her composure, which stood out next to the oft-panicked Schwarz.
"My friends have been saying 'You never seem to get flustered'."
Her clearheaded approach will come in handy as she works on her first cookbook, part of her MasterChef prize package along with a car and loads of kitchen supplies.
The book is "simple food well done", she said.
And the hedonists among us will be relieved to hear that, unlike last year's winner Nadia Lim, Winter is adamantly not focused on healthy eating.
ANA'S MASTERCHEF TEARS
Ana Schwarz, 39, said she was "pretty shocked" when Gault announced that Winter had won the 16-week reality TV cooking competition.
"It was really close and I thought I had done enough on the day to win. But it's one of those things, it's a reality TV show. And I'm so happy for Chelsea."
Schwarz performed strongly throughout the contest, winning six personal challenges and two team challenges. She took the lead in the first of the finale's four challenges, but stumbled through the next - cooking two venison dishes suitable for fine dining.
Schwarz regained her equilibrium and did well in the third test, cooking a Malaysian prawn laksa for English chef Rick Stein, meaning she went into the last challenge just one point behind Winter.
She got off to a bad start in the final test - making a towering 10-layer trifle in three hours - by failing to read the recipe correctly. Then she had to improvise to make the strawberry sphere decorations for the top, but still felt confident.
"They gave us a time extension, which made me feel like I could have got through because I was about 15 minutes ahead of Chelsea," she said.
"But that doesn't matter now. In a way I still feel like I've won, I just didn't get all the prizes. But I've still got lots to celebrate."
When filming finished late last year Schwarz headed back to her family - "it was so lovely to go home and not have the pressure of cameras in my face all the time" - and then spent three months working at a local restaurant.
"That was a fantastic experience, I learned a lot and really honed my skills."
Schwarz said she is planning to launch a website offering recipes and cooking classes, along with designing a range of kitchenware and publishing an e-book.
"I'm not New Zealand's MasterChef but I feel an amazing sense of achievement."