From jewellery designer to visual merchandiser, to finalist in this year’s Masterchef.
41 year old Alex Jorge’s journey has certainly been a unique one. Raised by her Portuguese parents in West London’s Ladbroke Grove, Alex spent her childhood surrounded by love, laughs and good food.
“It was always Portuguese-inspired, really tasty, but really simple food,” Alex tells me, as we catch up over coffee in Central London, October 2018. I’ve known Alex for 20 years, and I couldn’t wait to hear how she came to be on Masterchef.
“I had an epiphany,” Alex tells me. “I wasn’t happy. I mean, I enjoyed my role at the time, but I wasn’t fulfilled. I had an honest talk with myself and I thought, what do I love doing? In my mind a big word flashed up, and that word was ‘cooking’.”
“At the start, I wanted to get to the quarter finals. The semi finals were beyond my wildest dreams. Everything after that was a bonus.”
As a little girl, Alex remembers helping her parents cook at home. At school she was shy, and not particularly academic. “I’m definitely more of a creative person, and I think my parents championed that a lot,” Alex recalls. “My dad, in his own way, is crazily artistic, and both my parents show their creativity through food.
Yet it was jewellery design that Alex studied at Middlesex University, based just a few short miles from her Palmers Green home. “Cooking was something I’d always done, but I just thought it was a normal thing. In my head I was just feeding myself.”
To support her studies, Alex started a part-time job in a bar, which evolved into a six-year stint after Uni. Then she moved into retail, and a managerial role at Accessorise Monsoon. But there was something missing, and an urge to be more creative led Alex to a massive decision. “I talked to a friend and she said ‘your cooking’s not a normal thing, not everyone can do that.’”
So Alex decided to explore the possibility of cooking for a living. She considered doing a diploma at Leith’s cookery school, before in May 2017, her sister talked her into applying for Masterchef. “I had to do a 30 second show reel, and there was no way I was going to do that, as I hate listening to my own voice,” Alex explains. “So my sister invited me round for lunch one day. When I got there she said ‘right, after lunch we’re going to do your show reel’, and I was like ‘what?!’ So about 165 takes later, there was a 30 second video of me being all shy!”
Two months later, and with no word back yet from Masterchef, Alex was faced with a ‘sliding doors’ moment. “I was just about to pay the Leith’s deposit when I got a call from the TV studio, asking if I wanted to come and audition for Masterchef. And I was like, ‘OK…’”
How scary was auditioning, I ask Alex. “Well I just thought, ‘I don’t have to do what I’m doing – I could do something else’. And the moment I left that old world behind and started seeking happiness, things just started presenting themselves to me, and I thought ‘oh my god, perhaps I can do this.’ You need to push that first domino. If you don’t, you don’t know what could happen down the line.”
After a restless few weeks waiting, the call finally came from the show – and it was good news. “I was really shocked,” Alex confesses. “I remember hanging up and thinking ‘oh my god, I’m actually going to be on TV – how am I going to do this?’ Immediately the doubts set in, and I was thinking, ‘what are people going to think of me. How am I going to look on TV?’”
In March 2018, the 14th series of Masterchef began on BBC1, and for Alex Jorge, opportunity knocked. “It was really weird,” Alex recalls. “The first task was the first time we’d stepped into the studio, and the first time we’d met John and Gregg. I was terrified, to the point where I was physically shaking. And I remember thinking ‘all you’ve got to do is cook. It’s fine, you can do it.’”
She certainly could. Alex progressed through the heats, reaching the round she’d always dreamed of taking part in – the professional kitchen episode – at the Sartoria in London’s Mayfair. “At that point I was quite confident in myself,” Alex says. “But nothing can prepare you for that kind of environment. After that day, we all said we’ve got so much respect for people who do this job every single day. It’s so gruelling, 15 hours a day, under the most enormous amount of pressure.”
Alex’s Portuguese heritage really came through in the series, with her Bacalhau dish earning rave reviews from the judges. “I spent ages trying to elevate that dish, to make it look restaurant quality. I knew the flavours were good, but it’s only got five ingredients. The feedback from the judges was amazing – they absolutely loved it. Sometimes the most simple cookery is the most effective, and I’m really proud that dish was on TV.”
Her food consistently wowing the judges – including one of her heroes, Theo Randall – Alex went all the way to the final, which was held in Peru. There she had the chance to work alongside another of her culinary idols, Virgillo Martinez of the world-renowned restaurant Central. “It was out of this world,” Alex enthuses. “I was so emotional going there, because I am a huge fan of Virgilio’s work – he’s like an insane genius. He’s the equivalent of Michelangelo, but in the food world. It’s just another level.”
How was cooking for Virgillo, and the other Peruvian food figures who mentored the contestants during the trip? “It was intense,” Alex admits. “We wanted to show them what we’d learnt, and what we’d absorbed from their incredible culture. They are so passionate about their country. They were so supportive and, fortunately, they loved our food.”
The series was eventually won by Kenny Tutt, but for Alex, reaching the final was beyond her expectations. “At the start, I wanted to get to the quarter finals. Getting to that stage was a bit of a game changer for me. The semi finals were beyond my wildest dreams. So at that point, I’d already won, for myself. Everything after that was a bonus.”
What a journey. And the people you shared it with – your fellow contestants – you must have made friends for life there? “We became so close,” Alex says, with warming affection. “We’re still in contact with each other, we have a WhatsApp group. They’re so supportive, and it’s like I’ve gained 10 people in my family. They’re all really busy now, I’m really busy, but we always check in on each other and it’s really nice.”
You can now find Alex working at Tom Oldroyd’s Duke of Richmond restaurant in Hackney. “I love going to work every day,” Alex says, with a big smile across her face. “I’m learning loads.”
Alex’s is an inspirational story. She never gave up, took a massive leap of faith, and has never looked back since.
“I had support from my parents and my sister, who were all incredible – I owe a lot to them,” Alex says. Sure, but ultimately you had to go for it, and that’s what you did.
“You’ve got to walk through a door,” Alex concludes. “And then, on the other side, there’s another massive goal. But when that goal starts to get difficult, or it’s more of a challenge, you don’t realise how far you’ve come, what you’ve overcome, and what, now, is really easy to you.
“Do you understand? I don’t know how to describe it. But it’s doing that one little thing that frightens the shit out of you. Other people say, ‘oh my god you’re mental’, but I just say, ‘trust me!’”