MasterChef SA Finalist Samantha Nolan showed her leadership skills in the team competition in episode 5 of MasterChef South Africa last week, with her Red team winning the Harvest Celebration lunch challenge.  Her selection of mainly Cape Town Finalists to her team reflected her loyalty to Cape Town and to the team members that she had got to know in the earlier rounds of the reality TV show competition, and who had become friends.  She appears to be a strong contender for the title, not having been faulted by the judges in the episodes to date.

Samantha agreed to an interview immediately when I called her, subject to the approval from M-Net’s Senior Publicist Ingrid Engelbrecht, as we had to obtain for our interview with Finalist Guy Clark.  I asked Sam to choose a suitable venue, and even offered to drive out to Table View, but she selected Andiamo in the old Cape Quarter.

Samantha brought along her husband Paul, and he comes across as the most wonderful supportive husband one could wish for, the two making a good team.  They ‘met’ telephonically fifteen years ago, both working for ESKOM, and he called her in the Medical Aid department with a query. On his next visit to Johannesburg, where she was based, they met, and the rest is history.  Both had two children from their previous marriages, and now the family of six lives in Cape Town.  Paul left his job at ESKOM, and has become an electronic contractor, with contracts in Kazakhstan, Kenya, and Liberia, the family joining him for the first two contracts.  Disaster struck when Samantha had a heart attack last year, while Paul was in Liberia, and a rare genetic defect, being a shortage of chemicals which had never been evident before, was diagnosed.  She takes medication for the condition now. She said that the stress of MasterChef has not affected her at all.  It did mean however that she could not join Paul in Liberia, because of the poor medical conditions in that country.  Paul works six weeks away, and then comes home for two weeks. He finishes the contract next month, and then wants to start a facilities management consultancy, helping companies like ours with all maintenance requirements.

I asked Samantha where the MasterChef interest had come from, and she said that she saw the first Australian programme three years ago, and just knew that she wanted to be part of it when it came to South Africa. She has been Googling it over this period. She dreamt about being a contestant, and having become a Finalist is her dream come true. She is proud to have made Top 15 to date, out of an initial field of 9500 applicants.  For her cold audition at the Cullinan Hotel in Cape Town, when they were reduced down from 4000 to 120 contestants, she prepared hot cross bun ice cream with clotted cream (a challenge to find the unpasteurised milk), making it all herself, which she served with three berry sorbets and a white chocolate ganache. She loves experimenting with and making ice creams, something she developed when they lived in Kenya, as ice cream is very expensive there.  For the Hot audition in Johannesburg she prepared ceviche, seeing in the last minute that it had to be a literally hot and cooked dish, having interpreted it figuratively initially.  She quickly had to rewrite her recipe, creating a dish called ‘Fish cake journey‘, which represented three types of cultures in South Africa, and it put her into the final 120 finalists, and earned her the MasterChef SA apron:

*   the European influence was represented by salmon with dill sour cream

*   the South African influence, being smoked snoek with curry and a sweet chilli sauce

*   the Asian influence, being a prawn fish cake with a ponzu dressing

Taking part in MasterChef SA was something she absolutely wanted to do, and despite Paul being in Liberia, and the Finalists having to be at Nederburg for up to two months without contact with her family, the family made a plan to make Samantha’s dream come true.  Her 14 year old son Ryan seems to be following in his mom’s shoes, and had the cooking duty for his siblings, her daughter Caitlin did the shopping,  each child having specific chores. A friend down the road kept an eye on the children, and took them to school.  The children Skyped Paul daily, and so any problems were sorted out with Paul, even if he was far away from home, so that Samantha could be focused on what she was doing at MasterChef.  The children enjoyed the experience too, learning to be responsible, and independent. Her family organisational skills, with Paul away so often, seem to have benefited Samantha, from what we have seen in MasterChef so far, not easily getting rattled.  It appears that the judges did not manage to bring her to tears in the series.

Samantha looked soft and gentle in the interview, with her long blond hair loose, something I hadn’t seen in the show as it always tied back, but it is clear that Samantha is organised, determined, and focused.  She is honest and direct, reflecting her European background, with her father being Dutch, and her mother half Dutch and half Austrian.  Her dad didn’t cook, being better at woodwork, but her mom cooked European dishes, such as pea soup and ham, ‘kroketten’‘potjiepot’ (similar to our potjiekos), poffertjies, and she baked cakes, rusks, and spekulaas with her mom. She described herself as ‘a dutiful daughter’, in helping her mother, who lives in Johannesburg, and owns a B&B there.  There is a lovely relationship between Paul and Samantha, and sometimes she looked to him for answers, or he would prompt her about something she had cooked. He proudly said: “I get anything I want culinary-wise”.  But Paul did admit that he is a fussy eater, and he has exact requirements for his fried eggs! I got the feeling that Samantha can be independent, but that Team Nolan always comes first.

Samantha has a curious interest in food, and told me how she tried to make mozzarella herself. She found it very difficult to find unpasteurised milk, and said that she won’t be trying this again.  She taught herself to make artisanal bread when they bought some from Olympia Café in Kalk Bay at a market out their way.  She developed her own recipes, and she bakes a selection of breads, including olive ciabatta, epi breads, baguettes, seed loafs, and paninis, for friends, using Eureka flour. She says she has a standard domestic oven.  She describes herself as a ‘home cook’, and says she really got cooking when they used to eat out, and they were rarely happy with what they were served.  She would head home and recreate the dish, making it better than they had experienced. She told me how she spoilt the children and their friends in Kenya one day, when she made them self-made ‘McDonalds’ breakfast burgers, with a patty, cheese, and egg on a muffin, which she wrapped in wax paper, and then ‘branded’ with the McDonalds logo.  The children loved them, and she still receives ‘orders’ for them!  So too she has made them the KFC ‘Famous Bowl’.

I asked her what favourite dish she likes to prepare most, and Paul said it is her spit braai lamb.  What makes it so special is her marinade, for which she uses garlic, olive oil, lots of lemon juice and rosemary, pepper, whisking this in her Bamix. Both like to braai, but their techniques differ, Samantha keeping her grid closer to the coals, and therefore cooking her meat more quickly. She is good at making sauces, and makes her own Hollandaise, mayonnaise, and other sauces.

She told me how moving it was to do the braai challenge at the Cradle of Humankind outside Johannesburg, a beautiful, humbling and amazing experience, made all the more special that no one else had ever prepared food in this sacred space before, or probably would not do so in future.  In Paarl the group of 18 finalists was divided into three groups, and they took turns to cook for each other at night at the guest house at which they stayed.  She says that when they first started, they made fancy dishes for each other, but over the two month period they got to know each other better, and relaxed the level of cuisine over time. Samantha shared a room with Sue-Ann Allen, also from Cape Town.  She said that the MasterChef kitchen at Nederburg was ‘amazing’. MasterChef SA was tough, she said, a true test of character.  She did reveal that the sending back of her Red team’s pork shoulder in episode 5 by Chef Andrew Atkinson was ‘just TV’, as it had been cooked perfectly!  I asked her what the worst part of the show was, and she said there was nothing.  The best part was ‘everything’, she said, loving it, ‘a surreal experience’, and a ‘dream come true’.   Her end goal in participating is to win the title, but just having been part of it is a huge honour.  I asked her about the restaurant prize which goes to the winner, given her four children and husband, and she answered immediately that it is no problem at all, and that she would relocate to Johannesburg to take up the prize as Chef at MondoVino, if she were to win. Her mother is in Johannesburg, and it is a place that she knows, having grown up there.  She praised the judges, saying how nice they were, ‘all great guys’.  The tears on the show were real, and are important for such a reality show, wanting emotion.  She said that it was easy to break the Finalists’ resistance, giving the long days they had on set, so the tears came easily.

I asked Samantha how she decides what to cook for the family, and she told me that she loves reading cookbooks and magazines.  She rarely repeats what she has made before.  She will wake up, and decide that it is a ‘duck day’, or a ‘lamb day’, for example, and then look for a recipe that will be interesting to make.  She loves making an orange chocolate mousse, Paul said.  She couldn’t tell me what her personal favourite dish is, but finally said that it is pizza, the family having three favourites at different times of the day : For breakfast it’s the BBB, topped with bacon, banana and chilli; for lunch it’s topped with salmon and avocado after; and for dinner it’s the PPP (peri peri and prawns).

I asked Samantha if she is treated like a ‘celebratory’, and she laughed and said ‘unfortunately not yet’. Her children are very proud of her, and want to boast about their mom, and are a little surprised that she is not recognised everywhere she goes, wanting her to tell others that she is MasterChef Sam.  She has just been profiled in the Tygerburger, and more people in their area are recognising her.  Samantha couldn’t answer what her favourite restaurant is, first saying Thai Café, which is near Andiamo, where they enjoyed the crispy duck, but she admitted that her home is her favourite!  M-Net encouraged the Finalists to sign up on Twitter, and Samantha (@SamanthaLNolan) says she is getting used to it.  She is more active on Facebook, where she has a fan page onto which she posts recipes.

Samantha and Paul Nolan are a lovely couple, make a great team, and Paul clearly is proud of his talented wife. He watches the MasterChef SA episodes from Liberia via live streaming.  Their dream is to start a pizza restaurant together, but they were not very specific about where they would set it up or when.  Hearing how determined Samantha was to get into MasterChef SA, and having made her dream come true, it can just be a matter of time before the Nolan Pizzeria opens.

POSTSCRIPT 24/4: Samantha sent a photograph of her MasterChef logo steak and Guinness pie she baked with her son Ryan just before the start of the MasterChef SA episode tonight.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage