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Lisburn woman and BBC's Best Home Cook winner Suzie Arbuthnot on the debt she owes her mum who tragically died on a flight from Hong Kong

The mother-of-two says she got her passion for cooking as well as a fierce determination to succeed from her mum who arrived in UK as a teenager unable to speak a word of English and went on to teach herself the language. By Claire O'Boyle

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Suzie Arbuthnot pictured at her Lisburn home.

Suzie Arbuthnot pictured at her Lisburn home.

Stephen Hamilton

Suzie

Suzie

Suzie's with husband Steven, daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Suzie's with husband Steven, daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Suzie with her mother

Suzie with her mother

Suzie's children - daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Suzie's children - daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Stephen Hamilton

Suzie

Suzie

Stephen Hamilton

Suzie and daughter Odelia

Suzie and daughter Odelia

Stephen Hamilton

Suzie Arbuthnot pictured at her Lisburn home.

Until recently, most of us had never heard of Suzie Arbuthnot. But what a difference a few weeks can make. Because after her phenomenal success on the BBC's Best Home Cook earlier this month, the Lisburn mum and 2020 champion of the primetime show has joined the ranks of Northern Ireland's famous faces.

Beating fellow finalists Sarah Woods and Georgia Salamat to the crown, she dazzled Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett and produce expert Chris Bavin with Mary Berry's ultimate three-course dinner party.

Her cooking skills were described as "absolutely tremendous".

"It's been a crazy experience," laughs Suzie, who is also known as Suzie Lee. "All the way through the series when it was still on TV I had people coming up to me in the supermarket - mostly older women to be fair - saying, 'Go on, tell us, tell us, you win, don't you?' The support has been amazing. But keeping the secret all that time was excruciating."

As Suzie has revealed, she had to keep schtum about being crowned winner of the series for the best part of a year, since filming in London ended in March last year.

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Suzie's with husband Steven, daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Suzie's with husband Steven, daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Suzie's with husband Steven, daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Back to the day job as an accountant, the high-achieving mum-of-two has carried on working from home juggling motherhood, her passion for cooking and a long list of interests from hockey and singing to her involvement with charity.

"Yes, I keep busy," laughs Suzie. "But my husband Steven is the same, we throw ourselves into everything we do and we get a lot from it.

"I think I get about five hours of sleep a night, but I've always been quite high energy, so it works for me. I go to bed about 1am and then I'm up when my daughter wakes up around 6am.

"The odd time if I'm heading for burn out, Stevie will tell me, 'Suzie, it's probably time to say no to this one'."

Suzie's children - daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander - have taken to their mother's new- found fame like ducks to water.

"They couldn't care less," she laughs. "At the start they saw me on TV and at least looked and pointed, but now they glance up and I'm there and they barely even register."

Family is incredibly important to Suzie, whose Hong Kong-born parents, Peter and Celia, came to Northern Ireland in 1980.

The fourth of five children - she has three older sisters, Angela, Winne and Veronica and a younger brother Timmy - Suzie, who went to school at Lisburn's Wallace High, was the first to be born in Northern Ireland.

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Suzie with her mother

Suzie with her mother

Suzie with her mother

"My dad moved to Blackburn when he was 11 in the hope of a better life with his parents," says Suzie. "He had been at primary school in Hong Kong with my mother and when he left the two of them remained close as penpals. It was pretty impressive of them both, but her especially because she was the only child in the class who was dedicated enough to keep writing letters to him.

"He went back and forth for holidays with his parents to Hong Kong throughout his teens, and when he was 19, he wrote to my mother and proposed. She said yes."

The young Celia, then just 19 herself, made her way across the world to Blackburn, speaking not a word of English.

"It was so brave of her," says Suzie. "But that's what she was like."

After my mum passed away, for a while I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to save people's lives

The young couple, who ran a Chinese restaurant, moved from Blackburn to Ballymacash, Co Antrim, in 1980, on the advice of Suzie's uncle who had heard there was an opportunity to make more money in Northern Ireland than in England.

And in an anecdote that makes Suzie laugh, she reveals her parents arrived at their new home on the not altogether quiet evening of July 11.

"My poor mum didn't have a clue where they'd landed," she says. "They were opening up a new restaurant and suddenly here they were on the Eleventh Night with bonfires going up all over the place.

"Apparently my mum bawled her eyes out because all she could see were these fires going up in the distance. We had one chat about it, and she told me that all she could think was, 'Where have we come?' She was so scared.

"My dad took it as a good omen though and the restaurant, Man Lee, which I worked in all through my childhood, is still there and still run by our family all these years later."

The star cook's memories of her mother are all the more precious because Celia died suddenly 20 years ago aged 43, when Suzie herself was just 16.

"It was terrible," says Suzie. "She should have been looking forward to a nice part of her life and it happened at the end of her first adult holiday away with my dad and some aunties and uncles, without any of us kids.

"They had been over to Hong Kong for Chinese New Year and they were on the flight back to Heathrow when it happened. She had deep vein thrombosis. She actually passed away on the plane and they weren't able to save her."

The day Celia died was February 8, 2000, and looking back Suzie feels it was a blessing that neither herself nor any of her siblings were there when it happened. "It was such a terrible thing to happen, the fact we weren't there probably helped with some sort of self-preservation," she says.

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Suzie's children - daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Suzie's children - daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

Stephen Hamilton

Suzie's children - daughter Odelia (two) and five-year-old son Zander

But despite the many years that have passed, Celia's impact on her daughter's life, both before and after her death, has been huge. As well as her immense passion for cooking, and recipes like the Chinese chip shop curry she made during her time on the BBC show, Suzie also inherited Celia's fearlessness and determination to do well.

"My mum did push us, I'd say, but none of us would be doing what we do without that," she says.

"We all achieved what we wanted to achieve and every one of us was driven because we were always told, 'Don't give up'. We had to at least try everything and work hard at it. If in the end it was going nowhere, then it was fine to call it quits. She was realistic about that.

"But the message always was, 'if you're capable and you can do it, then carry on'. She'd come the whole way around the world and only ever picked the language up by herself, she was completely self-taught.

"That's where I get my personality from. If my mum could do everything she did - she basically became the Lisburn translator for the Chinese community, ferrying people around to the doctor's and dentists - then I've always felt I have nothing to be scared of.

I’d applied a couple of years before to The Great British Bake Off and got as far as the reserve list, but I never made it to the show

"Her English wasn't amazing, but it seemed like she just got braver and braver, and I think the same thing has happened to me. She'd give the impression that there's nothing stopping me from doing anything, that I shouldn't let anyone put me down or tell me I can't achieve anything. So I really haven't. I've gone for everything."

And while her GCSE grades were fantastic by any standards - an amazing four A*s, four As and one B, all achieved just months after she lost her mother - with a huge interest in food and cooking, the path to success wasn't clear back then for Suzie.

"I was disappointed with those results," she says. "After my mum passed away, for a while I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to save people's lives. I'd always worked really hard and I guess with everything that happened that year I was knocked off a bit.," she says.

"Before she passed away my mum had said she'd support me in going to cookery school in London if that's what I wanted after my exams, because growing up at the takeaway and working there so much of my life, I had a massive love of food.

"Of course with everything that happened, it just didn't work out at the time but it was always in my head that it was what I wanted to do, and as the years went on I hoped that I'd get to do it way down the line. But it felt like a bit of a pipe dream.

"In the end I got swept along down the academic route. I didn't actually intend to be an accountant either, but after a term doing food nutrition at Queen's University, Belfast, I switched to economics and management and a post grad in events and PR, and eventually got onto a graduate scheme that led me to accountancy. It wasn't what I planned for but I enjoy it."

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Suzie

Suzie

Stephen Hamilton

Suzie

After years in full-time work, Suzie made the decision to go it alone as a self-employed accountant at the beginning of last year, when her daughter Odelia was one.

"Unbelievably, it was my very last day in the office when I got the call to say I'd been accepted onto Best Home Cook," she explains.

“It was crazy. I was getting ready to go off and say my goodbyes, to go home and launch myself into self-employment when I got this life-changing phone call. I literally had to go outside, say sorry to the woman on the phone and scream. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Suzie, whose husband Steven is an A-level psychology teacher, had four weeks to prepare herself for her time on the telly, before heading to London for a month of filming.

“It was crazy,” she says. “But it was amazing too, because I’d applied a couple of years before to The Great British Bake Off and got as far as the reserve list, but I never made it to the show.

“I think these things come down to fate, because this show and the timing were perfect in the end. The kids of course were small — Odelia was only one — but Steven was amazing and I was able to get home really regularly between filming.

“The production team was really supportive too because my kids were the youngest out of anyone on the show,” she says.

And while she’d love more TV work to come out of her success on the show, Suzie is the first to admit she wasn’t a total natural when the cameras first came on.

“Definitely not,” she laughs. “I was a bit like a wooden mannequin in the first couple of episodes but then I relaxed into it. I think it was mainly that as time went on, I just didn’t really expect to get any further. All I’d hoped for was to get to cake week and once I did that I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve made it past cake week’, so I just really let go after that.

“I think I got a bit emotional — in fact I definitely did. But I was in a bit of shock really and they were my natural reactions. I saw some people criticising me on social media, saying ‘Come on, she’s so sentimental, I can’t believe Suzie’s crying’.

“But the week that was hardest was Curry Week, when I was making the curry that my mum had developed herself. Mary Berry (inset) said she didn’t know what a Chinese chip shop curry was, but to me it was a big deal.

“So when people are saying things like that on social media — and I know I’ve only had a small amount of it compared to what other people get — it’s hard. Walk in my shoes and tell me exactly how emotional I should be.”

But with a reputation as a bit of a perfectionist, Suzie is quick to point out everything she’s achieved she’s worked incredibly hard for.

“There was a bit of that online too,” she says. “It actually drove me mad, like there’s Suzie, she’s just one of those people, a real perfectionist, she’ll start to cry if things don’t go right.

“Yes, I’ll have a bit of a wobble, but I think that’s natural and I’ll just try to get it right the next time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. The reality is, I know what failure is.

“I know what hard times are like. It took me eight years to get my accountancy exams — and that really is hard. That really is mentally draining. But I just got my head down and tried again. That’s all you can do, keep going and keep on trying. I got there in the end. Like I got there in the end with cooking.”

And now, reflecting on her remarkable achievements, hardworking Suzie believes her mother would be proud.

“I think she would, yes,” says Suzie. “I guess like everyone, I always felt something like this would be pretty unattainable for me, but in the back of my mind I had my mum there telling me to reach for the stars.

“As long as you’re kind and respectful to everyone along the way, it’s always worth having a go. Because, really, what’s stopping you?”

Two of Suzie's winning recipes to try at home

Roast chicken and perfect gravy

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Roast chicken with perfect gravy

Roast chicken with perfect gravy

Roast chicken with perfect gravy


What you'll need

For the gravy:

1 large carrot, roughly chopped

1 large celery stick, roughly chopped

2 large white onions, 1 roughly chopped and 1 finely sliced

2 large garlic cloves, crushed

15 black peppercorns

200g/7oz smoked bacon lardons

1 chicken stock cube, crumbled

1 tbsp of butter

2 tbsp plain flour

1 tbsp cornflour, if needed

Salt

For the roast chicken:

1 x 1.5kg whole chicken

Large bunch fresh flatleaf parsley, finely chopped

Large bunch fresh thyme, finely chopped

7 tbsp olive oil

1 large lemon, cut in quarters

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. To make the gravy, remove the tips of the legs, tail and wing tips from the chicken and put in a stock pot or casserole. Add the carrot, celery, roughly chopped onion, garlic, peppercorns, lardons, a large pinch of salt and the stock cube. Add enough water to completely cover the ingredients and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 1ƒ–2 hours. Once slightly cooled, strain the stock through a fine sieve and set aside.

2. For the chicken, preheat the oven to 180C. Use a sharp knife to slash each drumstick three times and the underside of each thigh once. Mix the herbs with 5 tablespoons of oil and lots of salt and pepper. Rub the herb mixture into the slashes and under the breast skin. If you have any leftover, rub into the cavity. Put the lemon quarters in the cavity and seasoned the chicken with salt and pepper inside and out. Rub the skin of the chicken with the remaining oil and place breast-side down in a roasting tin. Roast for 10 minutes then turn over and roast for another 1 hour 15 minutes. To check it is cooked, insert a skewer into the thickest part of the leg and check that the juices run clear. If not, return to the oven for 10–15 minutes then test again. Once cooked, remove from the roasting tin and leave to rest for 10–15 minutes.

3. To finish the gravy, skim off any excess fat from the roasting tin. Add the butter and gently fry the finely sliced onion for a few minutes, until soft and translucent. Stir in the plain flour, then add ladles of the stock, stirring all the time. If the gravy is too thin, make a slurry by mixing the cornflour with a little water. Add any meat juices from resting the chicken and keep stirring until thickened. Strain and pour into a serving jug. Serve.

Celeriac and potato dauphinoise

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Celeriac and potato dauphinoise 

Celeriac and potato dauphinoise 

Celeriac and potato dauphinoise 


What you'll need:

  • Butter, for greasing
  • 500ml double cream
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp rosemary finely chopped fresh
  • 2 smoked garlic cloves (or regular garlic if smoked unavailable), minced
  • 400g celeriac, peeled and thinly sliced (ideally with a mandolin)
  • 400g Maris Piper potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (ideally with a mandolin)
  • 100g Parmesan (or a similar vegetarian hard cheese), grated
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C (fan oven)

2. For the dauphinoise, grease a large baking dish with butter

3. Add the cream, mustard, rosemary and garlic to a saucepan. Stir well and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and season generously with salt and pepper. Toss the celeriac and potatoes in the cream sauce to coat.

4. Place layers of the sliced vegetables in the prepared dish. Pour any remaining cream sauce over the top.

5. Cut a piece of baking parchment large enough to cover the top of the baking dish. Place on top of the dish and then place a ovenproof dish on top or heavy duty baking tray, to weigh down the ingredients.

6. Bake for 1 hour, then take out of the oven and remove the paper and baking tray. Sprinkle with the Parmesan and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes to brown the top. Serve.

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