Heroin addict to MasterChef star
New MasterChef judge Jock Zonfrillo has revealed how celebrity chef Marco Pierre White saved his life.
Speaking to news.com.au the morning after last night's high-rating premiere, Zonfrillo opened up about his past and said that if it weren't for Pierre White he'd be "in a pine box".
When Zonfrillo was 17 years old, he was using heroin and was sacked from his job at a one Michelin star restaurant in Chester, England after a foul-mouthed outburst.
"My language really got the better of me in terms of frustration," Zonfrillo recalled. "I lost the plot and the language was absolutely disgusting and the entire restaurant heard it and subsequently I got fired.
"It was low for me, I was in a hole," he said.
As he was leaving the restaurant, the executive chef turned to Zonfrillo and said that he would never work in a Michelin-starred restaurant ever again.
"That comment was like a red rag to a bull," Zonfrillo told news.com.au.
Rather than give up, he decided to go straight to the best restaurant in the UK to see if he could get a job.
"At that time, the best restaurant was the one Marco Pierre White was running at the Hyde Park Hotel," Zonfrillo said. "It hadn't got three Michelin stars yet but everyone was talking about Marco. He was the new greatest guy in food globally. Everyone was talking about him.
"I knocked on the front door of Marco's restaurant. It was in between lunch and dinner service and the last person I expected to open the door was him, but there he was.
"I was speechless," Zonfrillo said. "He was already a legend in the industry by this stage. I couldn't talk. I was just spluttering and stammering like a bloody idiot. I managed to say that I was there for a job and he said, 'well you'd better come in'."
Pierre White took Zonfrillo into his office and said, "so, what's your story?"
"It was a moment I'll never forget," Zonfrillo said. "I had a choice. I could have lied about what happened in Chester or I could tell the truth. I chose to tell the truth and it was ruthless because there was every chance he was going to tell me to get out of there."
But Pierre White didn't seem bothered.
"Marco's like a psychologist," Zonfrillo told news.com.au. "He's got a way of creeping inside your brain in seconds. The only thing he said to me was, 'how do you think your mother would feel about that?'
"I just started crying. I can't describe the emotional effect that guy has on you."
With Zonfrillo in tears, Pierre White picked up the phone and asked the operator to put him through to the executive chef at the restaurant in Chester.
"The executive chef answered the phone. Marco introduced himself and he hung up because he didn't believe it was Marco," Zonfrillo told news.com.au. "That would be like Obama ringing you, at that time it was just not something you would believe.
"He rang back and Marco said, 'Don't hang up. It is me and I'm after a reference for a young chef called Jock'."
Pierre White put the call on loudspeaker so Zonfrillo could hear what his former boss had to say.
"The guy just went to town on me, saying, 'He's a drug addict, he's a waste of space.'
"It was just horrifying … It was the worst experience. I was sobbing. There was no escape from it.
"Marco was super polite," Zonfrillo said. "He thanked the guy and hung up and he looked me in the eye and after a big, long silence, he said, 'I think you should come work for me.' And that was it."
Zonfrillo went straight into the kitchen that day and worked the next shift. But the 17-year-old had no money and nowhere to live.
"We were working 18-hour days," Zonfrillo told news.com.au. "I would leave with everyone else at the end of my shift and do a circuit around Hyde Park, then I would go back to the hotel and let myself in and sleep in the change rooms.
Three months in, a co-worker busted Zonfrillo sleeping in the change rooms and the teenager was convinced it would result in him getting fired.
"I got hauled into the office in the morning and Marco was like, 'What are you doing?'" Zonfrillo said.
"I explained my situation. I didn't get fired. Marco came back later in the day and he had arranged a bed for me at a youth hostel which was for hospitality workers under 21. I'd already put my name on the waiting list but I'd been told it was going to be six to nine months before a spot would be available, but Marco picked up the phone and worked his magic and got me a bed. It was amazing."
Zonfrillo continued to use drugs during his time under Pierre White, and the famous chef was well aware what he was up to.
"Back in those days, if you had any kind of drug addition or anything like that, you were cast off," Zonfrillo said. "Marco was aware of my situation and the battles that I had personally, but he had the ability to put that to the side and take you at face value as a chef and I couldn't be more thankful for that."
Zonfrillo continued using drugs until he landed a job as head chef at Restaurant 41 in Sydney, he told news.com.au.
"New Year's Eve when I flew to Australia, it was a clean start for me," he said, getting emotional.
"I thought, 'I'm emigrating to Australia. I will land in Australia in the year 2000 and it will be a clean sheet,' and that was it."
After a nine-year struggle, Zonfrillo stopped using.
"I'm not proud of it at all," he said about his drug use. "It's embarrassing and it's embarrassing for my parents. But I'm thankful to have been able to come through the other side of that and I'm thankful for all the people who helped me at the right moments."
He's particularly thankful to Pierre White, with Zonfrillo saying that if it weren't for him, he'd be "in a pine box or behind bars".
Zonfrillo went on to open Restaurant Orana in Adelaide and was named Australia's Hottest Chef by The Australian in 2018. That year he also won the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize.
Already a star in the world of hospitality, Zonfrillo is now on track to become one of Australia's favourite TV personalities with viewers swooning over him in MasterChef.
Gotta say, Jock is way more animated than I was expected. Such a happy surprise and will make for great viewing! #MasterChefAU— Elise Ferrari (@elise_fastcar) April 13, 2020
Fun Fact: It takes the same amount of time to set up the full masterchef set, as it does to set Jock’s hair in that perfect curly tousled masterpiece #MasterChefAU— Caitlin (@caitiejayne) April 13, 2020
The Channel 10 cooking show kicked off last night with 1.23 million viewers in the five capital cities. It continues tonight at 7.30pm.
Originally published as Heroin addict to MasterChef star