FRESH from his successful television debut on the BBC’s Masterchef: The Professionals, Ben Bullen is hard at work in the kitchens of Faringdon’s Sudbury House Hotel.

Head chef in the hotel’s Magnolia Brasserie, the 33-year-old gave a strong performance in the popular show in November. Ben made it to the quarter finals, in which he prepared a herb-based dish of sea bass with cauliflower, samphire and gremolata and a dessert of chocolate delice, with poached cherries.

His gremolata was described by judges as “brusque” and his cauliflower puree as “creamy indulgent”, while the chocolate delice looked “absolutely gorgeous”.

At the end of the show, Ben told the audience he was proud for having got so far in the competition – and now he adds the experience gave him a real boost. “I’m really glad I did it. The whole experience gave me confidence, and faith in myself as a chef,” he said. “It was very intense and nerve-racking, and it pushes you outside your comfort zone.”

Ben, who lives in Bladon, joined Sudbury House Hotel in June 2014. He was persuaded by wife Genevieve and chef colleagues to enter the contest. He went through a rigorous application process of form-filling, interviews and references before being accepted on the show.

A spin-off from the original, Masterchef: The Professionals chooses talented young chefs to battle it out for the award. Monica Galetti and Marcus Wareing returned as judges, with Gregg Wallace hosting the show.

Ben said dealing with nerves was a challenge at the start: “The first skills test was hard. I have never felt I wanted the ground to swallow me up so much in my life!”

But family and friends were watching avidly and gave him lots of support and encouragement. “They thought I came across well,” he said.

The winner was Craig Johnston, a chef at the Royal Oak, Paley Street, in Maidenhead. Aged just 21 at the time, he was the youngest winner of the contest, and a sous chef at the Michelin-star pub and restaurant.

The series marked the 10th birthday of the popular cooking contest, with 21 episodes in total. At the start, 48 professionals were ready to compete for the coveted title, and over the course of the show, they were all put through their paces, with the judges testing their technical skills, as well as their knowledge, creativity, and ability to work under pressure.

Ben is the third chef at Sudbury House Hotel to demonstrate his talents on television. Executive chef Andrew Scott appeared on Great British Menu in 2016, and Restaurant 56 head chef Nick Bennet made it to the Masterchef finals in 2015.

“Of course I got a bit of banter from them over the whole thing, but I think they were proud of me too,” Ben said.

Sudbury House Hotel was completely refurbished in 2015, and has 50 en suite bedrooms, as well as the restaurant and brasserie. Ben’s brasserie has a feature open kitchen and wood-burning stove, so you can watch him and his team, hard at work preparing your meal.

Now head of a team of five at the brasserie, Ben says his love of cookery goes back to his teens and a love of his mum Linda’s family cooking.

“When I was about 14 I realised I wanted to be a chef. I remember how good food brought us together as a family. My mum brought us up on good quality food and I remember the expressions on people’s faces when they were enjoying a meal. It made me feel I wanted to do that for everybody,” he said.

After school, Ben attended North Oxfordshire College and studied NVQs in catering and hospitality, then a level 3 NVQ in cooking.

He started out at Whately Hall in Banbury, then worked as a commis chef at Gee’s in Oxford. Over the following few years he gained experience at various restaurants in the region, including Jesmond’s in Highworth, the Churchill Arms in Paxford and Malory Court in Leamington Spa, before returning to Gee’s as a sous chef in 2013.

“You want the experience, and I did all kinds of food – fine dining, pub food – and I discovered I like doing brasserie food. It’s a more relaxed kind of style. It’s like proper home cooking with a bit of a twist, and done cleverly,” he said.

He likes to experiment with textures and new techniques, to add a new dimension to old favourites like trifle or chicken Kiev.

Ben says he has no particular favourite among the celebrity chefs: “There are so many talented chefs out there – I work with two of them,” he said. “My colleagues Nick and Andrew are the most talented I have ever seen.”

Ben said using quality, seasonal food was a key factor. “You have to roll with the seasons. This time of year, you have root vegetables – celeriac, swedes – as well as fruit like blood oranges. And there’s rhubarb – the early forced rhubarb is the best, with that vibrant pink,” he explained.

The brasserie is always busy, and meals for the hotel residents and plenty of special events. His team prepared 90 dinners on Christmas Day, and they cater for weddings at the hotel.

“I enjoy the creativity of being a chef – otherwise there would be no point in doing it. It’s all about putting your stamp on menu – everyone has got a different style and a different way of doing something.”

Ben said his mother was delighted by his success and proud of his achievements – on Masterchef and in his everyday job. She has dined at the brasserie and watched her son at work.

“She loves it,” Ben said. “She’s a proud mum.”

At home, Ben still enjoys cooking a roast for his family, as well as dog-walking and going to the pub. And while Ben says it was every chef’s dream to run their own restaurant one day, his current focus is the expansion of his family, and the imminent arrival of a baby – a new sister for stepson Josh.

  • For more information on the Magnolia Brasserie at Sudbury House, visit