Exose Lopo-Ndinga, a 22-year-old chef de partie at James Martin Manchester who trained at South Trafford College, is currently storming ahead on hit BBC show MasterChef: The Professionals.
From thinking he was going home after the very first round, where he had to prepare and cook an artichoke on the skills test (“It was scary. I’d never seen one before in real life! And the other team got chicken – I’d have loved that”) he has gone on to impress more and more with each task.
And now he’s through to the finals of the TV show, with judges praising his “ambitious, boldly flavoured and elegant” dishes.
Exose was interested in cooking from a young age, intrigued by the dishes his mum Marie-Claire prepared at home (“lots of African food and lots of cakes. I used to watch her and sometimes I’d be in the kitchen helping out”), but it was really at school that he realised his talent.
“There was this one day when we all had to make a sauce,” he recalls. “We all had to make the same sauce, and we all had the same ingredients, the same recipe.
“But mine turned out to be really good. The teacher said, ‘everyone try Exose’s sauce’. And that made me feel like, yeah, I’m good at this, I’m going to pursue it.”
His first proper job in the food industry was making burgers at Five Guys in the Trafford Centre, where Exose worked for two years while he was at college. But doing a work placement at James Martin Manchester confirmed his passion for learning new culinary skills.
“James Martin was actually in the kitchen when I was doing my placement, so that was amazing,” he says. “They liked me, but they weren’t taking anyone on.
“So I kept messaging to ask if there were any jobs. And the sous-chef at James Martin would come into Five Guys a lot, so I kept asking him for a job, too! And then when it came to Christmas time, in October 2015, they took me on.”
MasterChef is the second time Exose has appeared on a national TV cookery competition, having also been on Channel 4’s Bake Off: The Professionals earlier this summer. What made him want to go through it again?
“I loved the rush and the competition,” he says. “I wanted to boost my confidence. I wanted to see if I was good enough.”
And he certainly has been good enough, getting through to the final four from the 48 chefs who started the competition.
“The journey has been incredible, I’ve learnt so much,” he says. “I’ve just been soaking everything up like a sponge. It’s really boosted my confidence, to see what I’m capable of. I really love the experience – as you can see, I’m always smiling!”
Tuesday night’s episode saw the four chefs cooking for some of the industry’s biggest names. This year, the VIP guests boasted 26 Michelin stars between them and included three Michelin-starred Matt Abé, two starred Sat Bains and Mark Birchall, Jun Tanaka, Nigel Haworth, James ‘Jocky’ Petrie, Nieves Barragán, Atul Kochhar and James Knappett.
What was it like cooking under such pressure?
“Scary!” he laughs. “I was so scared from watching previous years – the level of skill is so high. And Marcus and Monica chose me to go through, so I didn’t want to disappoint them either.”
Exose cooked poached seaweed butter turbot with octopus, crispy potatoes and a sauce vierge for his course. All the top chefs loved it. Where did he get the inspiration from?
He chose to do turbot after his time filming for the show in Ollie Dabbous’ top London restaurant Hide, he says, for an episode where he learnt how to cook one of Ollie’s signature dishes.
“And we’d had a similar dish at James Martin before, with fried octopus and hake, so I wanted to do my own version as a thank you to the restaurant and to Ollie at Hyde.”
The octopus dish at James Martin was actually the first time he’d tried the ingredient, he admits.
“I was initially a bit like, ‘ewwww, octopus’, but I thought, I’ve got to stop being fussy with my food. I’m a chef now, so I’ve got to try it. And it was really, really nice.”
Now he’s learnt to broaden his palate more, does Exose, who comes from a big family with five sisters and three brothers, find time to cook for pleasure in his spare time?
“I don’t have time to cook much at home – maybe slam a frozen pizza in the oven! – I can probably speak for most chefs when I say that. But on my days off, my family love me cooking. They want me to cook all the time.
“I normally do two or three courses. When I got my own place I had to invite them in groups of four because we’re such a big family. I do love to cook in my spare time.”
He also still loves a Five Guys burger: “I’ve not had one for ages, and I’m missing it,” he laughs.
And he also loves the city he calls home.
“I was born in London but bred in Manchester,” he says. “I moved here when I was three. All I’ve ever really known is Manchester. Manchester has always been my home.
“I just love the style of Manchester, and the cuisine. We’ve got some really good restaurants, and loads to do. It’s just a great city.”
Exose is becoming a household name now, both in Manchester and beyond, but he didn’t even tell his family he was going on the show to begin with.
“I told my sister when I hit the semi-finals, and my mum when I hit the finals. The rest of the family didn’t know until I was on TV. They knew at James Martin, though, and they’ve been so supportive. They’re so proud.
“Everyone seems proud actually, I keep getting loads of lovely messages. I’ve gone from just being a chef to now people are starting to recognise me. People will stop me in Asda now! But everyone seems to be really proud. It’s been really nice.”
In tonight’s penultimate challenge, the four remaining chefs fight to secure their place to be one of the final three, and the the opportunity of a lifetime to work in the kitchen of one of the world’s leading chefs, José Avillez, who has put Portuguese gastronomy on the map.
Only three can take the next step being sent to Lisbon to learn from Michelin-starred Avillez at his flagship restaurant, Belcanto.
Will Exose make it to the final three? We’ll have to watch to find out. Good luck, Exose. Manchester is proud of you. But you already know that.
MasterChef: The Professionals, The Finals continues on Wednesday 18th and Thursday 19th December, 8pm, BBC Two.