Masterchef 2017 contestant Ben Ungermann.
Masterchef 2017 contestant Ben Ungermann. Inga Williams

Masterchef's Last Man Standing

Can Ipswich do it again?

JUST weeks after Judah Kelly took out The Voice, Ipswich is on the verge of getting our first ever MasterChef as Redbank's Ben Ungermann challenges for a spot in the Grand Final on Sunday night.

If he gets through, he's in the 2017 Grand Final which airs on Monday night, along with a chance to win Australia's toughest cooking show.

The Queensland Times office got behind Ben this week when he popped in for a chat after being mobbed by fans at the Regional Flavours Festival last weekend.

No Ipswich contestant has ever appeared on MasterChef, but this year Ben and medical receptionist Nicole Stevenson both flew the flag for the city. Nicole finished in 11th place, but Ben has continued to survive and thrive in the final weeks of the show.

Traditionally, the MasterChef Grand Final tends to be one of the most watched shows in the nation.

For the father of three, former St Edmunds College student of Dutch-Indonesian heritage and former model who is Ipswich born and bred, Ben never expected to get this far in the competition, as he told The Queensland Times in an exclusive interview.

"Early on, in those first three weeks I thought I was in trouble, and I knew I had to do something about it. I can honestly say with this season of Masterchef I saw very early on how good my fellow contestants were," Ben said. "So I studied cookbooks for about 3 to 4 hours every night and that's one of the reasons how I developed."

Ben became a father at 19, and admits that while his modelling career was fun, it was time to get a real job. Ben has worked as a retail manager, but it's not something he plans to go back to.

"I've pretty much worked in sports retail all my life. I was at the DFO in Brisbane running a sports store along with a few others. I've lived here all my life, and my parents still live here. My dad's my gym buddy and he's always been an inspiration that man, he works really hard.

"I guess I learned the basics from my Oma (that's Dutch for grandmother). I lived with her for a while when I was at high school. We'd have big family events where we'd have Dutch donuts and I'd help her out.

"I'd learn from her, and I was always going on you tube to look at cooking techniques, and constantly reading cook books...it was something I'd always been interested in," Ben said.

On the show Ben has cooked meals for the likes of Peter Gilmore and Heston Blumenthal. Keep in mind this is the manager of a sports store, and Ben credits his passion for cooking for those he loved that resulted in him going on the show.

"I've always loved cooking. I've absolutely loved it. I'd come home from work, and no matter how tired I was I would cook. That was my release, that was my time...that is how I relax.

"I can honestly say my happiest times that I can remember, is cooking for family. They've been on my back for a while now to go on the show, and this year my girlfriend put the application in front of me and I just went with it," he said. "MasterChef is the best thing I've ever done. I've grown not only a person but as a cook. I feel very lucky and blessed.

"It wasn't till I did my first pressure test that I felt like I belonged there. I didn't expect to be there for long early on I kept thinking 'surely I'll be going home soon?' Eventually i started to believe in myself a bit more. When it came to Heston week, I felt I had my best week in the competition, and that's when I got the hunger. When it got to the top six, suddenly your mentality changes and I started to think 'I could win this'."

Ben's three children Ella 13, Phoenix 9 and Oil 7 have been loving the fact that Dad is on TV five nights a week.

"Ella's a teenage girl and most of her friends are into the show, but she's a bit shy. The boys on the other hand are just taking it in their stride!'

Ben made the top three after cooking a dish at one of Australia's top restaurants, Dinner by Heston in Melbourne, where he made a lamington themed dessert consisting of 105 steps.

"It was stressful, but I also had that fear of failure. I'm a perfectionist, and even though I did that recipe with 105 steps, more than all the other recipes on that day, it did put me on the back foot from the start. So I just pushed on, put my head down, and I started to enjoy it," Ben said.

"At the end of it when they told me I was straight into the top three, I was so broken, and just empty. There were several points that day where I truly believed there was no way I was going to get it up, but in the end it was absolutely amazing to taste. It's hard to explain it, as there were so many flavours in that dish... but when they come together its beautiful.

"It still reminded you of a lamington and ice cream!"

Ben's time on the show this weekend will either come to an end or see him in the Grand Final. No matter the result, Ben has made lifelong friends, put Ipswich on the 'Foodies Map' and given him some wonderful life-changing memories.

"For me there were two unreal moments," Ben recalled. "The first was putting the dish up for Heston Blumenthal that I was really proud of and he just loved it. That was a real confidence boost for me.

"The other was the Clare Smyth service challenge where I had to put up 40 plates of one dish, and I loved that, I thrived on it. I was just in the right frame of mind that day, and just so excited to work with Clare Smyth. That was a good day."

Ben says he is done with working on the shop floor, and he plans to turn his passion for food into a new career no matter if he finishes, third, second or first.

"There's no way I'm heading back into retail," Ben said. "This is now about waking up and doing what you love, and for me that's food and cooking. It's always been that and I now I have a chance to pursue it."

"I've never really cooked desserts and on the show I've learnt to do so much with ice cream. Now I love it, and I think I'd love to keep working with sweets.

"The whole journey for me, has made me a better person and its also helped with my confidence. I know that seems crazy to say, but I applied to go on and always thought nothing would come of it," Ben said.

"I applied, and I thought I'll do it but I'm not good enough to win it. So I didn't get knocked out in the first couple of weeks, and thought 'not long now till I go home'. Then I made it half way, then I survived Heston week and then to the top six. Overall, my cooking skills have greatly improved, but it's been more of a journey of self-belief and backing myself as opposed to just cooking. That's what this whole journey's been like for me," Ben said.

"I do really want to open that small restaurant. I'd love to do Dutch food with an Australian twist. Most contestants get a reality check when they leave, you can't open a place the minute you leave the show, but for me, opening an ice cream parlour is definitely something I'm working on."

Masterchef Semi Final and Grand Final screen Sunday and Monday at 7.30pm respectively on TEN.



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