By Steve Favell
MasterChef is a TV show where home cooks compete for weeks in pursuit of a swirling M-shaped trophy and a shot at a cookbook deal. John Torode and Gregg Wallace host. This is a peculiar dynamic because neither of them seems to especially like each other: as they stand and shout easily edited sound bites about cooking, six feet away in a coldly-lit studio, their dynamic is more like two father-in-laws, briefly forced to make friends as their sons marry each other. John Torode is tired of being alive, and tired of eating food, and too tired to do anything much more than wear zip-thru over-shirts and say, “this better be good”; and Gregg Wallace, the polar opposite of this spectrum, is TV’s greatest living madman, who wishes to die by putting his head in a bucket of caramel. Both men want to die, is what I’m saying. It’s just how they want to go that colours their opinion of the food.
The format is this: the first rounds, held over a three-day week, see seven cooks compete for a place in the Friday quarter-final, with the winners of that going through to the next rounds. This is the fun part of MasterChef, and it is deeply un-fun. Three cooks are lost from the first heat – the “Market Round”, where they go into a faux shop and panic grab a series of seasonal items and store cupboard essentials – lentils, rice, vegetables; poussin, Parma ham, mince; somebody always, derangedly, does something with prawns – with the instruction “cook something that tastes good”.
Very often, competitors fail at this low hurdle: they will lurch between two extremes – doing something both technically and flavour-combinationally insane, and failing at both, like deep-frying an orange and serving it with beef, or, playing it too safe and failing to alight the palate or the crotch; I fell into the latter category.
In September last year, I competed in Masterchef. I’ll be honest it would have really helped if I’d watched the show beforehand as not only was I out of my depth in the breadth of my cooking knowledge but also at in knowledge of situation I was throwing myself into.
Before you are told to, “go shopping” in the fake market, you see the kitchen station you will be cooking at and the studio for the first time. At the workstation is a wire shopping basket with a baking tray in it, two glass ramekins and a pair of tongs. As soon as the 1 hour 15-minute countdown begins muggins here takes all of the contents of the shopping basket out picks up the wire basket like he’s going to Morrison’s and wonders into the “market” to be present by loose veg and raw meat and seafood and a couple of exposed lamb’s necks.
I am going to require the tongs at least.
I rush back to my workstation cutting through people’s shots and return to the “market”. By the time I am back everything half decent is gone and I am left with the option of lamb neck or lamb mince. An hour and 15 minutes is nowhere near long enough for the lamb neck so had to settle for the safe option of lamb mince.
There is a weird thing that happens when you are presented blind with ingredients under pressure to cook where it feels like everything you know about cooking or the things you like to cook falling out of your head so am happy that I managed to cook anything at all. And with my head on the course and not having to miss another day of school I was happy to leave when I did.