Thursday, 15 March 2012

Masterchef 2012

I have written earlier on this blog about Masterchef. It is a British cookery programme which has (I think) three versions: amateurs, professionals and celebrities.

The amateur Masterchef, as the title suggests, has people who have not had professional training compete with each other to win the title of Masterchef Amateur Champion. They are usually those who want a different direction in life, and, having (probably) always fancied themselves as good cooks, believe that a win on Masterchef—and the attendant publicity—will open doors for them to a successful culinary career.

The professional Masterchef involves professional chefs who want to make the quantum-leap from whichever greasy-spoon they might be toiling in to the world of fine-dining (where they will end up toiling to prepare dishes which no one in his right mind would make, but enough people out of their minds would part with their money to eat them in pretentious restaurants boasting Michelin stars).

Finally there is celebrity Masterchef. This involves P-listed celebrities (reality TV participants, women who once dated someone who was a friend of someone who was a cousin of an Everton footballer, someone who used to read News on the BBC in 1989 etcetera) who have come to the conclusion that not being good at anything else they must be good at cooking.

In the last couple of years I had gone off this programme. There was too much of it. With each series going on for between 6 to 8 weeks, the programme was on air pretty much all the time, and I was beginning to find it repetitive and a bit boring. I am sure it requires great skills to ‘prepare a carrot’ to go into your salad that includes other exquisitely pruned raw vegetables and arrange the whole lot in a manner that must be aesthetically pleasing, but to watch it week after week is about as entertaining as reading a telephone directory.

I watched, after a hiatus of more than a year, most of the episodes of the most recent Amateur Masterchef series, which concluded yesterday. And perhaps for that reason found it mildly entertaining.

I have to say that the programme attracts participants from different walks of life. If I remember correctly one of the participants this year was a doctor (things must be pretty grim in the National Health Service for a doctor to be wishing to be a chef, although, now that I think about it, the doctor refrained from saying, unlike many other contestants, that she lived for cooking, that her ambition was to open a restaurant and serve delicious dishes to customers till they died of overindulgence etcetera.); another was a quantum physicist (a dainty Japanese woman who in her quieter moments resembled a rabbit in the midst of an amphetamine psychosis). Then there was a man, the size of a double garage (but not flabby), with obligatory tattoos covering both his arms, who said that he enjoyed nothing more than cooking a perfect fish. The man was a former bouncer and now ran a security firm. Since he did not make it to the final, I guess he has gone back to running his firm. (He will no doubt also perfect his fish-cooking technique, but in his home-kitchen and not in a professional kitchen.)

The two judges of the Masterchef are JohnTorode and Greg Wallace. Torode, an Australian, looks like a cabbie with an alcohol problem, but in fact is a professional chef and owns a chain of burger restaurants around London. He seems to have a liking for spicy food, and when he encounters such food expresses his satisfaction eloquently by saying ‘Boom!’ (If the food is really spicy, he says, ‘Boom! Boom!’) The other chap, Greg Wallace, is British. I am not sure what makes him more qualified than, say, me to be a judge on a cookery programme. He is not a qualified chef. I don’t think he is a professional restaurant critic either. Because he is a judge on a cookery programme we are expected to believe that he has a discerning palate, which is a bit like saying Prince Charles oozes sex appeal because he married Diana. Wallace has a sweet tooth; he may also have an alcohol problem.

The three finalists this year included a woman: Shelina, who, depending on your perception of female physiognomy, you could describe as voluptuous or fat (and you wouldn’t be wrong either way; it’s a matter of perception). Shelina was introduced as a former diversity manager (so not a real job). She was (I am sure still is) of Mauritian descent (which might explain why she liberally used mangoes in many of her dishes). Her dishes were usually spicy. The other two were men: a lugubrious plasterer fromYorkshire named Tom, and a research analyst named Andrew. Tom looked as if he had recently received the news of a death in the family, attempted dishes such as rhubarb spaghetti, and almost always struggled to get his dishes ready in time. Andrew was industrious and a bit hyper (but nowhere as hyper as the super-hyper Japanese quantum physicist). He too attempted dishes which the judges described as very ambitious (which I suspected was a kind way of saying: ‘You’re out of your depth, mate’; or ‘We think you are deranged’.) The (former) bouncer (who made it to the last four) was solid, if a tad unimaginative—his dishes, when they didn’t include fish, almost always had fillets of beef that were so rare they were practically breathing. He lacked finesse, I think.

The format of the competition was the same as it had been in all the earlier series. In the initial stages the contestants were wheeled out to, say, the kitchen of a factory where they would be required to prepare dishes for lunch, in bulk, for the staff (who would then comment on the quality of the food—‘It’s alright’; ‘It’s nice’; ‘I didn’t like it very much’; and, occasionally, ‘I simply loved the texture and the flavours in this dish; I think the flavours offered a wonderful contrast’—while eating watery chicken curry); or they would be taken (again to prepare food in bulk) at some festival. There was a literary element to this year’s Masterchef. In one of the episodes the contestants prepared food for the participants in a Jane Austen festival. (Roughly hundred men and women wearing garish make-up (women), gowns that looked as though they were made from curtains (women), and silly hats (men and women), and talking rubbish—a side-effect, I suspect, of reading Jane Austen novels. I can’t now remember which contestant’s dish won the day; however, if the tastes of the Jane Austen fans in food were anything like their tastes in clothes (or literature), the bar was not set very high.) As the competition progressed and contestants were eliminated, the venues became more posh. For example, the contestants cooked food for barristers and judges in a building in London of appropriate solemnity, gloominess, and hideousness. (The barristers also talked rubbish, but in posh accents, using phrases like ‘jolly fine’ and ‘topping’, never tiring of displaying their familiarity with the adverb ‘rather’.) The contestants also ‘prepared tea’ for a bunch of geriatrics who acted in (mostly awful) British comedy sitcoms in the 1970s (and have since been relegated to well-earned obscurity). (The comedians talked rubbish, it goes without saying, but I guess that’s what they do. You can’t criticise a comedian for talking crap; it’s their job to talk crap and try to convince the audience that it is funny. Would you criticise a dog for pissing on a pole?)

The three finalists were given a crash course in Michelin star cooking. This meant they had to travel to restaurants with three Michelin stars, where they were personally trained by the chefs (in these cases also owners) of the restaurants. Shelina got to go to Bruges where she learnt from Geert Van Hecke who became the first Flamish chef fifteen years ago to earn three Michelin stars for his restaurant De Karmeliet. (I went on a day trip to Bruges a couple of years ago, but I don’t remember eating in De Karmeliet, which is a pity because had I known about this famous Bruges restaurant I might have taken the opportunity to spend half my year’s income on perhaps the same dish that Chef Van Hecke taught Shelina: how to make a salad of raw mackerel in which the leaves had to be of a particular size and had to rest on the plate at a certain angle on the broccolis, which, in turn, had to be placed on a bed of spinach boiled for a pre-defined period at a pre-determined temperature so that it would attain the desired degree of blandness. (Shelina giggled hysterically at everything the chef said; looking at her face you’d have thought that chef Van Hecke was teaching her not to fillet a perfect fish but to give a perfect blowjob.) Andrew was sent to a three-Michelin-stars restaurant in Holland where, if my memory is not fooling me, he was taught to make a dish that resembled a beach—none of the ingredients was cooked; it was all in the arrangement of the ingredients on the plate which had to look exactly like a beach. (Quite why anyone would want to eat a plate that looked like a beach, including sea-moss, is beyond me; the food looked about as appetising as a burnt hedgehog.) Tom went to a London restaurant where what the French chef said was unintelligible to me (and didn’t make much sense even with the subtitles BBC provided). (As an aside, if total amateurs can walk into a three-Michelin-stars restaurants and within two hours of training can prepare signature dishes—which these hot-shot chefs have supposedly been perfecting for years—without a fault, it suggests three possibilities: (1) These dishes are not very difficult to make, which suggests that cooking is not that difficult to master and we are fools to pay astronomical sums of money to the Michelin-star restaurants. (2) The chefs are being kind to the amateurs, and are describing the dishes as superb even when they aren’t; in which case the viewers are being taken for a ride. (3) The finalists in the Masterchef competitions are, without exception, year after year, geniuses. Britain is a land of culinary Einsteins.)

In the penultimate episode the contestants ‘brought back’ with them what they had learned from the Michelin-starred chefs and prepared dishes for ‘top chefs’ in Britain, who, amongst them—shouted Greg Wallace—boasted 14 Michelin stars. The event was organised in Gordon Ramsay’s (three-Michelin starred) restaurant. All the ‘celebrity’ chefs arrived, one of them wearing a skirt (I think he was Scottish and not a transvestite), looking stern; and told the camera that there was no margin for error; that they were expecting perfection; that they had very high hopes from the contestants. Inside the kitchen Gordon Ramsey’s head-chef (who looked like a Shetland pony) said that her reputation was on line; that she would not let a dish go out if she was not satisfied that it was absolutely perfect. She had also lined up her regular kitchen staff (one of whom looked as though he had seen action on the streets of Soho on Friday evenings) in case the amateurs were not up to scratch. Needless to say, it all went swimmingly, and all the chefs declared their satisfaction: none of them would have had any hesitation, they said, to serve these dishes in their hoity-toity restaurants (and charge 40 quid a plate). (Well, all except one. The one who wouldn't have served the dishes in her restaurant, wouldn’t have served them because she did not own a restaurant to serve the dishes. This woman, the viewers were informed, was awarded an MBE—Member of the most excellent order of the British Empire (!)—one of those silly honours no one outside of Britain gives two shits about (the title might have made sense in 1912; in 2012 it is just idiotic)—for her services to the food industry. This woman told the camera that she was passionate about food and took food very seriously. I am passionate about food, although I could take it a bit more seriously. Can I have an MBE too?)

The two judges on the programme—John Torode and Greg Wallace—talked as if they had taken (and could give) a masterclass in talking in clich├ęs. Greg Wallace, in addition, had one of the most unpleasant ways of eating a pudding. He dipped the spoon into whatever sweet, treacly goo that was on the plate; opened his mouth so wide that you could count the pustules on his tonsils; then half of the spoon disappeared inside his mouth; then the mouth closed on the spoon like a pincer; finally he pulled the spoon out of his mouth as though it was some sort of tug of war between his mouth and hand. The camera focussed all the while on his bald head really close. (Disgusting doesn’t even come close to describe it.) If he liked the pudding Walalce made grunting noises and rolled his eyes in his socket. Torode (being a chef and an Australian probably knew how to burn a burger in the garden in summer) tried to look thoughtful after he had eaten the food before delivering his verdict. What either of them had to say, most of the time, was banal (though that is not necessarily their limitations, although, without doubt, both Torode and Wallace are linguistically challenged): in how many different ways can you describe a pan-fried halibut or a seared rack of lamb? I think the judges should dispense altogether with talking and, instead, convey their reaction by facial expressions, grunting, barking, howling etcetera.

All the contestants (I think there were 12 to begin with) were ‘desperate’ to reach the final; they were all determined to reach the final. Andrew, the research analyst (who actually reached the final), was the only one who cleverly predicted at an early stage that insofar as he could see only three would reach the final, which—the research analyst further hypothesized—meant that the others wouldn’t reach the final. (There was a joiner in the competition, who, I think was the fifth person to be eliminated. This man showed that he was of the same logical mind as the research analyst, Andrew. After his elimination the joiner said, ‘There are only four people left now, and one of them is going to win the Masterchef. And it ain’t going to be me.’ You couldn’t fault the logic.) Everybody said that they were going to be devastated (except the former bouncer, who seemed to take a slightly chilled out approach) if eliminated; that their self-esteem was totally dependent on whether or not they reached the next stage of this cookery competition; that they didn’t know how they were going to cope or show their faces to the world if eliminated; yet, when they were actually eliminated they were all very proud of what they had achieved; some of them even threatened to continue pursuing their dreams.

A word about the background voice that gave a running commentary on what was happening on the screen. The female voice (attributed to one India Fisher) was perpetually breathless. It didn’t matter what the people on the screen were doing. They might be washing carrots or boiling a curry, all was recounted in a manner that strove to give the impression that the viewers were witnessing history in the making. The voice became very reverent when introducing, say, a chef who earned her first Michelin star when she was 10, or a food critic who wrote for the Guardian and appeared in one of the episodes as a judge. (One critic was described as having a fearsome reputation, obviously the sort of chap who could make or break a restaurant’s reputation. Perhaps he could replace Greg Wallace in the next series.)  

                             Guess which of these three has a fearsome reputation?   

Of the three finalists I thought fat Shelina (there! I have given my perspective on her physiognomy) would win. She got praise from the judges pretty much all the time. Her starters were ‘sensational’; her main courses were ‘mind-blowing’; and her puddings often sent Greg Wallace’s eyes oscillating in his sockets faster than a yo-yo. Torode came as close to dribbling as was possible without actually dribbling, after sampling Shelina’s mangoes. (If you think this is a cheap double entendre, please be advised that I am writing about a cookery programme in which Greg Wallace told a contestant that her squirrel was moist and deep.) That’s what happened. Shelina’s mutton curry and mango dessert won the day. Andrew’s strange decision to serve strawberries with roast pork for his starters didn’t go down well with the judges. Tom pulled the old trick of rhubarb spaghetti, but it didn’t work because Greg Wallace felt the spaghetti was not cooked enough. Shelina declared that this was the first trophy she had ever won (that said all), and then—teary-eyed—blubbered that her father, who died 16 years ago, would have been so proud of her. However, since we also learned at the start of the programme that the dead father wanted her to do an academic course and was against her doing a catering course when she was a teen-ager, I am not so sure that he would have been proud (although I am prepared to concede that Shelina is in a better position to know about her father than me). Andrew said he was going to take away sweet memories of the competition (so, nothing). Tom said he was chuffed for Shelina and looked anything but chuffed. (If you are a gracious loser, you don't deserve to win.)

Now that I have finished watching Masterchef I think I can take a break for the next two years. That’s the way I am going to treat this programme: a treat that will be savoured once in a while.