Nico Fitzgerald has been a name hot on everyone’s lips in Gibraltar recently, as this local chef became the first Gibraltarian to take part in one of the most respected cooking shows on television – BBC’s MasterChef: The Professionals.
Nico is a bona fide Gibraltarian, born and raised on the Rock. “I’d say it was a fairly normal, happy Mediterranean upbringing!” Nico shares. “Long lunches with all the family on Sundays; eating barbecued fish in the summer sun; cold watermelon on the beach…” The trifecta of a Llanito upbringing.
So how did Nico go from young, aspiring chef to the MasterChef professional gracing our screens on BBC One? We sat down with the maestro of the kitchen himself to get the scoop.
When did your love for cooking begin? Who taught you how to cook, and what were some of the first dishes you prepared?
My love for cooking began when I was a child, baking with my mum, in my underpants, stood on a chair! I used to bake walnut loaf and carrot cake with her, as well as pollo empanado and torta de acelga with my grandmother. Those memories of cooking and eating with my family are what drive me to this day.
“Those memories of cooking and eating with my family are what drive me to this day.”
How would you describe your style of cooking?
My cooking style is modern European fine-dining, with Mediterranean influences.
How do you add that je ne sais quoi to your dishes? What makes a ‘good’ dish? Spill your secrets!
I always say that the difference between a home cook and a professional chef is ‘taste, taste, taste’. If you want your food to taste restaurant-grade, you need to taste it, take note of the balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami and adjust accordingly.
Has it been hard making a name for yourself in a big place such as London?
London is the place to go if you want to make a name for yourself as a fine dining chef. The sheer amount of talent and determination in the capital makes it challenging to stand out at first, but if you’re passionate about what you do and persevere in the quest for making great food, people will sit up and take notice.
Chronologically, what led you to this point in your career?
After university, I went to Le Cordon Bleu in London, where I studied cuisine and patisserie. I then went on to work with some of the top chefs in the UK, most notably Heston Blumenthal, before most recently helping with a new venture in South West London, where I started out as the Head Pastry Chef, before taking the reins of the entire kitchen as Head Chef – just as the Coronavirus pandemic was taking hold! It was during the first of the UK lockdowns, in fact, when I decided I wanted to test myself and my abilities, so I applied, and subsequently got to, the semi finals of the National Chef of the Year competition. Having tasted competition, I proceeded to apply for MasterChef: The Professionals on a whim, and was lucky enough to be one of 32 chefs selected for the TV series.
“I’m not sure calentita would have got me to the final!”
How did you feel when you found out you had been chosen? Were you surprised?
I was shocked when I found out I had been selected for the show. The next emotion was excitement that I would be given the opportunity to showcase my skills to a national audience. I don’t think surprised is the best word for it, as I worked very hard to reach the quarterfinals, but I was definitely ecstatic and proud that I had reached the final 16.
Are the judges (Monica Galetti, Marcus Wareing and Gregg Wallace) people you had previously looked up to?
They are standout figures in the industry. The judges are all extremely nice and want you to do your absolute best throughout the competition. They are there to offer constructive criticism and guidance and it made the whole experience even more enjoyable.
Did you have any ideas as to what dishes you might want to cook? Or what cuisine? And what was your favourite dish you prepared?
I definitely stayed true to myself and cooked from my heart. Along the way I definitely looked to represent my Llanito roots, though I’m not sure calentita would have got me to the final! I was very much in love with the blackberry cheesecake I made for my signature dish challenge (I definitely ate more than a few in practice).
What was it like cooking within a strict timeframe? Did you meet all deadlines?
Cooking to a strict deadline is part and parcel of being a chef, so in that respect the competition is just a reflection of what I do on a day-to-day basis.
If you could do it all again, would you do anything differently?
If I could do it all over again (which is a terrifying concept) I would go into it with a bit more confidence than I originally had; but I am proud of what I achieved and I have no regrets!
Do you find it hard adapting/refining dishes from your heritage?
I’ve always found Gibraltarian and Mediterranean dishes to be all about heart and soul. In essence, those are the two most important elements of any dish! Refining them is just a matter of using my imagination.
“There is nothing else in the world that is going to feed that spark inside of you.”
What is your best-loved Gibraltarian dish?
I’ve always had a very special place in my heart for a hearty bowl of callos. The combination of flavours and textures is a masterpiece in terms of recipe development, even if it’s not the most beautiful of dishes! It’s always been a dish I associated with family and coming together around the table, so it is so much more than a plate of food to me.
What other dishes (worldwide) are you a fan of preparing/eating and why?
I’ve become a very avid fan of the Scandinavian fermentation movement in recent years. Fermentation is actually all around us, from rough beer and chunky sourdough, to fine cheese and expensive wine. Understanding how the fermentation process can turn something mundane into something packed full of flavour and nutrients is essential for any chef who is serious about the future of food and drink.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a kitchen gadget… do you have any can’t-live-without-them kitchen tools?
I see chefs come into my kitchen with literal suitcases full of fancy gadgets and obscure tools. I appreciate the desire and drive to be able to accomplish any task in the kitchen, but I do find myself reminding them that the most essential bits of equipment any chef can possess are a razor sharp chef’s knife and an avid imagination… A pair of tweezers won’t hurt either!
What’s next for your career post-MasterChef? Can we expect a cookbook from you at any point in the future?
I’m excited about 2022 and all the prospects it brings. I’d love to start my first solo project over the next 12 months, so I am going to look into a pop-up restaurant over in Hertfordshire, where I live in the UK and hopefully a pop-up here too, if all goes to plan! Feeding people and nurturing my team of chefs is my primary goal at the moment… maybe the cookbook will make an appearance in 2023!
And finally, what is your one piece of advice for aspiring chefs?
If you are genuinely interested in cooking, you will already know there is nothing else in the world that is going to feed that spark inside of you. Trust me, I tried! Go out there and get yourself as much experience as possible. Knock on every Michelin-starred kitchen’s back door and ask to peel their potatoes for a week. Ask questions and get involved. Soak up all the knowledge you can; be a sponge. Feed that flame that’s developing inside you, but be ready for some long days and hard slogs! If you were meant to be a chef it will all fit into place and you will never look back once you put that chef jacket on… Also, hit me up on Instagram for a job; I’m always looking for new chefs!
Keep up to date with Nico via his Instagram page: @nicofitzgerald.