It has been a week since the MasterChef final aired, and runner-up Nawamin Pinpathomrat is already back to the grind, attending an immunology conference in Oxford. In person, he is just as he seems on the show – articulate, friendly, and incredibly humble about his talents and achievements. “It was absolutely bonkers,” he says, “I didn’t expect to get that far – and you have to be so organised to do a PhD full- time and finish within three or four years, but I was away for a full week in Peru [the MasterChef finalists faced three culinary challenges there].” It is no small feat to be a competitor on a prestigious national cooking show, while also working on a PhD, developing a vaccination for tuberculosis.
Unsurprisingly, Nawamin does not often have the time or resources to develop the ornate dishes he presented on MasterChef. However, he does “always [make] Thai food”. He insists that, while making a curry from scratch seems very technical, it is quite easy, and even saves time, particularly if you make curry in a big pot, so you have plenty of leftovers.
On MasterChef, he was known for his amazing twists on Thai cuisine. “If you want a chance in the final,” he tells me, “you have to take a risk and do something different”. His ‘reversed pork satay’ was particularly special: in this dish, he took a whole piece of bamboo and laid the pork inside, and created profiteroles with peanut sauce inside rather than on top of a toast. “Why not?” he asks, “It paid off.”
Of course, it’s a high-pressure environment. The smallest error or misjudged risk can ruin a dish and take a competitor out of the running. But Nawamin explains that there was always a good atmosphere and the competitors were friends rather than rivals – “this year we are all so different and cook in our own ways. I’d be thinking, I want to know what Kenny and David will come up with today, rather than that I want to fight against them.”
He tells me that the finalists still use a WhatsApp group to share tips. “We’ll ask each other what we’re cooking each day, and share recipes. They’ll ask me tips on how to make a green curry, or how to make their rice fluffy.”
He explains that John and Gregg also helped to ease the pressure. “John knows everything about food, so actually he did help me a lot. And Gregg is very funny, although he often made British jokes that I didn’t understand, but I’d often just laugh anyway. When you’ve got that kind of pressure, you need someone to distract you so you’re not trying to focus too much and then make a mistake.” Crediting John for his knowledge of Asian cuisine, he admits that that he thinks the controversy surrounding the crispy rendang got “a bit crazy with the internet”, noting that ultimately when it comes to the competition, the best contestants on the day go through.
Overall, Nawamin tells me that it was an incredible experience. In particular, he remembers how his “jaw dropped” when he heard he was going to have the opportunity to work with Tommy Banks, who he had watched make it through to the banquet on the Great British Menu twice. Nawamin still says he can’t believe that he has gone from making curry in his kitchen one month, to cooking piranha in Central Restaurante the next.
Since moving to the UK, he has developed a soft spot for the noble chip butty. “I ordered fish and chips once and they gave me two pieces of white toast and butter, and I said what is this for? What is it?” Nawaman says, eyes glowing, “And then I tried it: the toast filled with chips, butter, and ketchup, and it’s just exquisite.”
There’s no doubt that Nawamin has a big choice to make – whether to pursue his love of cooking or to carry on with his current goal of developing an effective vaccination for tuberculosis. And when it comes down to it, he admits that it’ll eventually be a difficult choice between pursuing cooking or science.
“I have been thinking about this – and cooking is my real passion. I’d love to be a chef, but ten million people become newly infected with TB each year. And if I can successfully make a good vaccine, I can save around two million people from dying from TB each year.
“If I had to choose between them, I’d probably have to keep doing what I’m doing – being a scientist and making a vaccine. Nobody will die if I don’t open a restaurant.”