There’s a tantalising aroma of exotic spices and the appealing sizzle of gently-fried vegetables, as I arrive at Emma Spitzer’s kitchen.
The MasterChef finalist welcomes me into her East Finchley home and seems in her element as she quickly rustles up a portion of the salivatingly-named “amba-spiced courgette with barberries and labneh”.
It’s just one of the many mouth-watering recipes from her new cookbook, Fress, which neatly reflects her Ashkenazi roots, while also showcasing Sephardi recipes shared by her mother-in-law and influenced from her travels throughout the Middle East and Africa.
For Spitzer, her debut book is the culmination of a whirlwind period of two years since she appeared on the popular BBC show and was described by judge Gregg Wallace as “one of the best cooks we have seen throughout MasterChef”.
“So many things have come my way,” the bubbly 42-year-old reveals. “I’ve done private dining and cookery classes, some catering and I’ve also worked with big brands, including a campaign with Samsung to get kids cooking and stop food waste, causes that I really care about.”
WATCH: Emma Spitzer rustles up Courgettes with Barberries, Pine Nuts and Mango Powder on a bed of Labneh
Before she went on the show, turning her hobby into a profession was not something on the horizon, with her plate – so to speak – already more than full running two travel websites.
She explains: “I didn’t set out to do Masterchef and have a career in food. I set out to prove something to myself. I didn’t expect things to happen the way they did, but I’m hugely grateful and feel really lucky.”
Her latest project, Fress – a yiddish term meaning “to eat copiously and without restraint” – is a colourful, vibrant and flavour-ridden 240-page embodiment of that passion, which celebrates Jewish cuisine at its best.
“Many of the recipes are ones that I grew up with,” says Spitzer, who was born and raised in Brighton. She credits her mother, Hilary, for her knowledge of Ashkenazi fayre, while mother-in-law, Judith, who is Israeli and had an Algerian mother, introduced her to Sephardi flavours.
Of the former, she includes recipes for schnitzel, roast chicken and the nostalgia-inducing oxtail stew, which she tried out on willing friends and family, including her four daughters and husband Carl.
“I made the oxtail stew and all I could hear was the slurping of bones,” she laughs. “That was my childhood, just as I remembered it. We sat there, like greedy animals, sucking out all the jelly. I thought, ‘That’s it, that’s the way it should be. It’s so good.’”
Other recipes have been given a more contemporary spin. She admits, for example, to “taking lokshen pudding and making it sexy.”
Adventurous and flavoursome cooking it is indeed, but Spitzer is also keen to point out that complicated it is not.
“They are all very simple and none that require any technical skill, because I’m not a trained chef myself. So anybody can cook it. That was my mission when I set out to do the book.”
Even her daughters have had a go at trying her recipes. “My nine-year old helped me make a large vat of hummus for the book launch,” she explains with a smile. Spitzer is a huge fan of letting her children tie on an apron and help her around the kitchen.
She tells me: “The more responsibility I give them, the more they thrive. So I give them that. I let my five-year-old crack eggs into her own bowl. I’ve learnt to let go and not be such a control freak in the kitchen, because I want my kids to have an interest and they eat so much better for it.
“In return, for them it’s a sense of responsibility and accomplishment, so I love getting them involved.”
Aside from her culinary wisdom, Spitzer has tried to impart her youngsters with the best thing she learnt during her stint on Masterchef.
“What the show taught me is not how to be a better cook, it was how to be a more confident cook,” she says. “It taught me to trust myself. By the end, my confidence levels had rocketed and that was something that had always held me back. We can all make recipes our own if we trust our own instincts. Anybody can.”
Spitzer is now as keen to enthuse others with her passion for cooking, as she is for spreading the word about Jewish cuisine.
“We’re definitely in a moment,” she declares. “There’s been a huge explosion of fantastic food places in recent years, such as Ottolenghi, Honey & Co, The Good Egg, The Palomar, Bala Baya, and now Monty’s.
“I think this is a moment for Jewish food and deservedly so. Jewish cuisine has always been tasty, but now it’s really getting out there.”
Fress: Bold Flavours From A Jewish Kitchen by Emma Spitzer is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £25 (hardback) and available now.