From City to chef
MasterChef finalist and former investment banker Andrew Kojima on fund managers, finances and food.
What do you get when you combine the flavours of olives, rosemary and chocolate? Well, if Andrew Kojima is involved in the concoction, you get a dessert that TV presenter Gregg Wallace – a man who really knows his puddings – describes as ‘genius’. Kojima starred in the 2012 series of MasterChef, making it all the way to the finals with cooking that Michel Roux Jr said was ‘from a professional chef, not an amateur chef’. Yet, when Kojima applied for the show in 2011, he really was an amateur. His culinary skills had been developed by holding dinner parties for friends, and he was making a living as a freelance investment analyst.
Kojima read Classics at Oxford and then moved to the City, working for the London arms of three international investment banks: Dillon Read, UBS and then Morgan Stanley. But after just a few years he realised that banking – the long hours, the stress and lack of social life – was not for him.
‘I was in my mid-20s, not far away from starting a family, and knowing I just didn’t want to be there in 10 years’ time. The pay cheques weren’t enough of a compensation.’ In 2005 he switched to fund management with Silchester International Investors, a small firm that manages money for institutions. The move changed his life. ‘Fund management allowed me to change my work-life balance and I was suddenly in a much nicer place. I got my evenings back, and because dinner parties were more my thing than nightclubbing, I developed a passion for cooking.’
After five years Kojima and his wife decided to move out of London. He became an investment consultant; with the increased flexibility created by working from home enabling him to apply for MasterChef.
Viewers only see the competition once applicants have been whittled down to the best, but when Kojima applied in March 2011 he was one of 25,000 applicants. After telephone and casting interviews, Kojima was one of about 100 people invited to cook at a further interview. ‘It took place over the August bank holiday. I had been invited to a wedding, and because we had to keep it secret that I was interviewing for MasterChef, I couldn’t tell the bride and groom why I couldn’t go.
‘It’s very difficult for those who are employed, because they have to lie to their employers about what they are doing. One woman who worked for a large fashion retailer lost her job.’ Filming the programme is a hugely emotional experience – regular viewers will know that most contestants end up in tears at some stage, and Kojima admits he cried more than most. ‘You’ll be there at 8am, they interview you all day long and you are under pressure the whole time. You’re talking in clichés, and suddenly those clichés become real because you are giving up so much to be there and it’s so important. It’s the biggest cooking programme in the UK.’
The sadness – mixed with relief – when contestants are voted off by Gregg Wallace and John Torode is absolutely genuine. ‘You get to know each other very well during the filming, and you share the same passion,’ says Kojima. ‘Those 20 seconds of waiting to find out who is leaving the competition are just the worst. Your heart is pounding.’ Unlike other reality shows where the winners are offered cash prizes, recording contracts or jobs with entrepreneurial millionaire bosses, all MasterChef offers is a trophy and a reputation for being able to cook. That is not enough to earn you backing for your own restaurant, or even a job in a professional kitchen. ‘I didn’t know how to cook properly yet, let alone open a restaurant. Chefs are not going to offer you a job. They don’t want a 32-year-old upstart in their kitchen.’
Realising this, he used his success in the competition to ask for unpaid work experience, or ‘stages’, in top, Michelinstarred restaurants, including Le Gavroche, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, The Ledbury, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Oud Sluis in the Netherlands. Now, through writing, cookery lessons, workshops, corporate events and demonstrations, Kojima passes on the skills he has learned to others. His lessons cover a wide range, from knife skills and butchery to preparing sushi and sashimi, and he offers private tuition for individuals and small groups of friends in their own homes. He also does private catering, ranging from lunch parties to a full chef service. For one client, on holiday with his family in South Africa, Kojima used the shells of huge .50-calibre bullets as gravy boats for a dinner of kudu, a native antelope.
Although he clearly lives and breathes his new career, the impact on his salary has been drastic: he estimates that he earns about 20% of his peak earnings in the City. ‘My St. James’s Place Partner, Matthew Swan, has been through this whole painful process with me. I have gradually become a less reliable client; but hopefully I will become a more valuable one in the future.’
After two years of building up experience and knowledge, he is finally considering opening his own restaurant serving Japanese food, possibly in Cirencester or Bristol. Kojima’s father, who was Japanese, suffered from cancer during the filming of MasterChef and it was uncertain whether he would live long enough to see the programme aired. ‘He died later that year, but he did get to see me in the final,’ says Kojima. ‘For him, I want to make Japanese food.’