Donal O'Donoghue meets the winner of the inaugural MasterChef Ireland, Mary Carney

There was always something about Mary Carney, winner of the inaugural MasterChef Ireland TV series. As she dashed about, panic on her face and emotion in her voice, we loved her not just because she was a talented cook, but because she wore her heart on her apron. Frequently teary-eyed, the 28-year-old from Waterford city gave us drama and emotion and ultimately, a winning three-course meal. Even if Mary never believed she could scoop the top prize of €25,000, most of us watching out here in tellyland had our fingers crossed.

“I have a tendency to be very hard on myself”, Carney says when we meet. She is clutching her trophy – a hefty work of bog oak and bronze – for her appearance on Four Live later that day. When she was told that she had won (the final was actually recorded in July), Carney rang her mother with the good news. Mary Snr didn’t believe her. “My mum’s a bit like me in that she wouldn’t allow herself to believe that anything is possible.” But the meek inherited the earth and having kept schtum for months, Mary was finally able to let her hair down.

“I still can’t believe that I won”, she says, a smile on her face and a firm grip on her trophy. It was a long and hard road. Over last summer, instead of counting sheep, Carney was having nightmares about wild summer berries. “Before the final, I woke up in the middle of the night and said: ‘that’s what I will do!’” she says. “I had been dreaming about the dessert and how I would put it on the plate and make it all work.”

Mary brought her notebook to every restaurant she visited; furiously scribbling culinary notes between courses. “I couldn’t think of anything else”, she says. Her husband, Mike – also a foodie – tasted her experiments and cleared up the mess she left in her wake. “Mike deserves the trophy for that alone!” she says with a laugh.

Mary Carney is the youngest of five – arriving on the scene some five years after the rest of her siblings. Her father, Cormac, who died over seven years ago, instilled self-belief in his daughter. “He was a very determined person and I think I got that from my dad as well as my mum”, she says. Her mother is her culinary inspiration. “I grew up watching my mum, so I had the basics of cooking from a very early age”, she says. “From the age of five, I was making white sauce and watching everything she did, picking at the dough and mixtures while she cooked.”

At school, her favourite subject was fine art. “I toyed with the idea of something in art but I never thought about a career in food”, she says. Eventually she did European Studies at Trinity College in Dublin and after graduation moved to London, where she worked with the communications industry regulator OfCom, for two years. She returned to Ireland in 2010, married fellow Waterford native Mike (they met in college) and worked as a policy and strategy advisor with a major telecommunications company. But that’s all about to change as she embarks on a one-year sabbatical.

“I always had a burning passion to do something creative and until now I didn’t have the opportunity”, she says. Her brother, Niall, convinced her to enter MasterChef Ireland. She wasn’t too keen. “Reality TV?” she wondered. “I don’t know about that.” But she went for it. “If nothing else, I reckoned this will be a few days doing something that I love and it could potentially give me the platform to cook permanently.” There were over 1,000 entries. Her audition dish was pan-fried scallops and the dish that got her into the final was ham hock, three ways. But that was just the beginning.

“I was really living on my nerves for those few weeks”, she says. She was emotional, she panicked and she was messy. “Ah, yes, I am a bit messy, there’s no denying it”, she admits. “But I did improve.” She was the perfect reality TV contestant – and everyone liked Mary. “I love you Mary”, said judge Nick Munier, after tasting her mackerel dish. “If you weren’t married I’d marry you.” Fellow judge Dylan McGrath also approved. After that you felt that if Mary kept it together she was favourite for the big prize.

“I don’t ordinarily get that upset but this was something I wanted to do for a long time and I was really passionate about it”, she says of her emotional out-takes. “It wasn’t just a competition; it was the chance to do something I love and possibly make a career out of it.”

Her dream is to run a café in the style of her culinary hero, Yotam Ottolenghi, but in the current economic climate, that ambition is on hold. “Without the business skills it would be a bit premature”, she says. Instead, she has taken a one-year career break to see if she can make it as a professional cook. “I would like cooking to be my career”, she says. “I’m keen to write recipes, do some food writing and I have set up a website – There’s a lot I don’t know but what I do know, is that I will give it my best shot.”

Ross Lewis of the Michelin-starred Chapter One restaurant in Dublin had already promised Carney a job – whether she won or not. And she’s going to take him up on that. Now her trophy, somewhat appropriately, takes pride of place on top of the TV. It is back-lit so the MasterChef logo is projected onto the ceiling. “Just like the Batman sign”, she says.

After our interview, she dashed off to Four Live: eight minutes to rustle up a classic dish. “Not very long”, she wrote in her blog. So she opted for one of her favourite mid-week combinations: prawn, caper and tomato linguine. She remains friends with some of the other MasterChef contenders, especially fellow finalist Brídín, who lives ‘just around the corner’ in Dublin. And some things haven’t changed. “Let’s say, I still create a mess but I tidy up now, whereas Mike would do it before”, she says.