A COUNTY Durham dad with a passion for food and foraging is a contestant in the new series of MasterChef, which starts on Monday night.

For years, Mike Bartley has watched the BBC One show and imagined himself on the other side of the television screen.

So it was a dream come true when he got to compete in the 17th series, and found himself serving his own culinary creations to food experts.

The 34-year-old, from Bishop Auckland, said: "All those things I've seen on TV, I found myself doing – flopping into the chair after a challenge or having 90 minutes for a signature dish and finding the time absolutely vanishes, especially when you've 20 minutes left and Gregg comes for a chat.

"It was amazing ­– fascinating to be part of filming and cooking for people with so much experience and expertise.

"That was what I wanted to get from the show, those experiences and to get feedback to better myself."

The Northern Echo:

Judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace said lockdown resulted in one of the show's strongest ever line-ups, as amateur cooks have spent longer in the kitchen experimenting with ingredients and practising techniques.

Mr Bartley, who is tight-lipped about how far he progresses in the competition, agrees.

He said: "I have watched it for many years and you see the odd disaster but it really surprised me just how good the other contestants were.

"I knew straight away 'I'm going to have to bring my A game', there was no room for error."

The Northern Echo:

Mr Bartley's love of cooking dates back to his student years.

After attending St John's RC School, in Bishop Auckland, and Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form, in Darlington, he studied music at York St John University.

He said: "The passion for cooking really started at uni. I was almost falling into a trap of ready meals, Pot Noodles, typical student fodder but as a house we decided to start cooking for each other. The passion developed since then and I really pushed myself in lockdown."

Mr Bartley's interest in foraging for ingredients has also grown in the past year, as he and fiancee Tammy looked for new activities for the oldest of their sons Jacob, nine, and Dexter, one.

He said: "It has become a bit of a daddy-son thing so I tried to incorporate that, I'm a meat eater but not afraid of a completely vegetarian or even vegan dish."

Mr Bartley, who works in retail as a store manager in Sunderland, hopes to have a career in catering in the future.

"I'd love to cook for people in the North-East.

"It is not viable to open a restaurant at the minute, I'd love to in the future, but am looking to explore options such as supper clubs, pop-up restaurants, food delivery boxes or working as a private chef," he said.

Mr Bartley shares his food journey on Instagram @djamkitchen

MasterChef returns to BBC One on Monday, March 1, at 9pm.