This Thursday, Perth MasterChef 2015 finalist Jessica Arnott will be reunited with fellow contestant Jessie Spiby for the New Masters Dinner at The Dominion League. In the lead-up to the event, Arnott reflects on her time on the show, as well as life post-MasterChef.

MasterChef is a weird beast. From your couch, it’s easy to think that all the tears, sob stories and friendships are a bit insincere. Of course, on one level it’s a strange, completely constructed world, built with the purpose of making you emotional and reactive, but for those of us who have been through it, it’s very, very real. No one goes into the experience planning on doing what became known as the “Claire Danes Ugly Cry” on a TV show that is aired around world.

I liken the experience to going away on school camp. Everything is intensely exciting and dramatic. Insanely strong bonds of friendship are formed and when you get back to the real world everything looks a little bit different. You’re changed forever and you know it. I honestly haven’t felt anything as intensely since I was a hormonal teen. Stress can do very odd things to a person.

The last year-and-a-bit since the show ended has definitely been a soul-searcher for me. One of the most common questions I get is: Did it change your life? The answer isn’t really what people are looking for. It changed me for sure, but I began working in hospitality as a teenager. I worked in some really amazing venues in Sydney before moving to Perth so it doesn’t honestly feel all that different. I never went into it wanting to be a chef. I wanted to work with food, because food and cocktails and hospitality are the only things I’ve ever been really passionate about.

When I returned to Perth after filming, I went and worked in a good kitchen for around nine months. I think part of it was to help prove to myself and others that I had some real training other than just what’s on telly (although the experience I gained through MasterChef was truly invaluable). It was a really good experience, but eventually I found myself back behind the bar making drinks. I loved cooking but I never settled in. Professionally, it just didn’t feel right.

Stepping back behind the bar again was a breath of fresh air. I think at the crux of it, I really enjoy the social, service side. Let’s be honest: bartending mightn’t get the same recognition as cooking, but it’s way more fun than being a chef. I like to think of myself as a hospitality all-rounder. I can cook, make drinks, wait tables, manage staff, you name it. There’s a word in the industry for people like me: I’m “a lifer”.

It’s pretty nerve-wracking stepping back into the kitchen. I’ve only made drinks at The Dominion League and haven’t cooked there. It’s definitely mixed emotions: happy and excited to be working with Jessie again, excited but intimidated to show the team at Dominion League my other set of skills.

Jessie and I took a while to make friends. A few weeks into filming I found myself swept up in a bit of behind-the-scenes drama, which resulted in our bedrooms being switched up. Jessie was one of my new roomies and we discovered a mutual love for Sex in The City and a shared pessimism. We’ve been incredibly close ever since.

As soon as Jessie booked a spot at the Perth Food & Wine Expo, we decided we wanted to throw a dinner together. On the surface the food we like looks really different. I’m all big bits of meat and good cheese. Jessie is very Asian and Nordic inspired and uses lots of native ingredients. Her food’s a lot healthier than mine, but at the heart of it, both our cooking styles are actually quite similar. We both love colourful food packed with fresh, punchy flavours. Spices, pickled and charred things put big smiles on both our faces. What’s on the menu? There’ll be dishes starring smoked butter and mussels, plus we’ll be serving confit chicken legs with labneh and pickles.

We’re super excited about the drink offering. That was a really important part of the dinner for us. Jessie had worked with Alpha Box & Dice in Adelaide previously. We’re serving their Golden Mullet Fury, which is a delicious orange [skin-contact] wine that we drank when I visited Jessie in Adelaide for her thirtieth earlier this year, so it holds a bit of sentimentality for us. We wanted to have a bit of an SA vs WA kind of vibe and I thought the wines from Brave New Wine would be perfect to serve alongside AB&D. We’ve got our hands on the very last bottles of their El Rojo, a small batch, biodynamic Spanish blend that I’m super proud to showcase. The young, experimental vibe of both wineries fits with what we wanted this dinner to be: no tasting menu, no lectures about wine pairing, just relaxed and tasty and a lot of fun.

As far as what’s next, right now it’s a hard thing to answer. I’m just going to keep on immersing myself in this industry that I love and keep taking opportunities like this dinner as they present themselves. I’m heading to Japan for a three-month sabbatical with my fiancé and hope to come back completely inspired about where it’s all headed. As long as there’s food involved, I’ll be happy wherever it ends up.

The New Masters Dinner is on Thursday October 13 at The Dominion League, Northbridge. Tickets are $85 and available online.