We ask the queen of gin-soaked suppers, Carol Donner, where she finds her inspiration, how to cook successfully with spirits and the secret to hosting a Come Dine With Me-winning evening at home.
Has cooking always been a passion for you? When did you start getting serious about developing your talent as a chef?
I cannot remember not being passionate about food and cooking. As soon as I could safely reach the hob I started cooking. I first started to get really serious about developing my talents when at university. I would round up my housemates for a big Sunday cook off. I prepared pheasant from scratch – in the feather!
You’ve competed in several TV competitions, including MasterChef and Come Dine With Me, and won quite a few of them. How do you prepare for an appearance like that? What does it feel like to take home the crown?
I'm a very self-confident person, and so being in front of the TV cameras has not been a problem. The key to success largely depends on the nature of the competition. For MasterChef, on which I was a finalist, it is important to be original and show an understanding of flavours. It's important to practice the dishes for this kind of competition, as you have so little time thinking time when filming you have to almost work on instinct.
For Come Dine With Me you are being judged solely by others who want to win, so the key here is to demonstrate skill and take a calculated risk which, if it comes off, is a winner. I did this by cooking crab – all the other contestants loved crab, but it could so easily have gone the other way.
When I won Culinary Genius with Gordon Ramsay, the key was keeping it simple and stunning. Taking home the crown really only sinks in the following day, as filming takes so long. It’s exhausting, and my first thought was always 'where is my bed and how quickly can I hit the pillow?'!
As our resident gin chef, you’ve made more than a dozen delicious meals with our Gins of the Month. What’s the secret to cooking with gin?
The secret to cooking with gin is the botanicals. There are so many wonderful flavours in gin: juniper, citrus, herbs, star anise, liquorice, cinnamon, angelica, pepper. There are so many flavours to build on.
One thing I have learned about cooking with gin is how surprisingly versatile it is as an ingredient.
Where do you find inspiration for your recipes? When you’re developing a recipe, what’s a good starting point?
Mostly my inspiration comes from the botanicals. Gin works well with both sweet and savoury dishes, and I like to ring the changes. Sometimes I surprise myself, as when I did sticky chicken wings with Warner Edwards Honeybee Gin rather than a more predictable, sweet recipe.
Do you have a particular tipple you like to drink while you’re cooking, or does the gin wait until dinner is served?
Of course, a gin and tonic is top of my tipples, and whilst cooking I love to enjoy a beautiful G&T, in a large copa glass, everything chilled to perfection and garnished correctly. I'm a bit of a diva and a perfectionist when it comes to my G&T, and everything has to be just right!