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Masterchef: The Streamlined

Maggie Gordon-Walker

94F177B3-5465-44F6-BB76-4271BFC054D6These are lean, mean, streamlined times in 2020, chaps. With us undoubtedly going to hell in a handcart, the collective teeth-sucking at the continued existence of the BBC licence fee means some tough conversations have almost certainly taken place offscreen. ‘We need to show we’re not Oxbridge educated layabouts. We need to show we understand the value of money. We, the BBC, what hath spawned the mighty Shrek (Gregg Wallace); WE must lead the way. And verily we shall do this by making the Masterchef contestants bring their own food in.’

Where once the hopefuls glided across the approach to urban edgy Masterchef headquarters in a slow-motion Reservoir Dogs style, now they’re humping cool bags over their shoulders like demented hausfraus. From which they emptied the contents of their kitchens, literally in the case of Dev, whose bench was strewn with half empty cartons of this and that. Obviously the Beeb could have cut massive corners by painting a smiley face on a giant boiled egg, but no, here was Shrek – gurnometer turned up to the max and Toady (John Torode), perhaps too much of the good life. There used to be a vast discrepancy in their sizes. Now, not so much.

The new regime didn’t stop there. Are they wearing their nice white aprons? No they are not, in these lean, mean times, no they are NOT. There’s four aprons and six of them. Even Shrek can do the math. ‘Two of you will be going home,’ he announced, boiled egg aquivering so that his yolk nearly runneth over. The aprons sit, demurely folded, on a stool out of reach. You’ve got to earn me baby, they silently emit.

First batch of contestants also included Teddy, who is most definitely actor James Norton moonlighting. I’m going to call him James in fact, no space for cuddly teddies here in this dystopian nightmare, and smiley Glaswegian Karen. ‘Was it important to bring something from home’, Shrek patronised. Yes it was, she had some haggis. Yorkshire lass Becky DIDN’T appear to have brought something from home. Oh yes, a squeaky cheese. Like halloumi but better. She’s a cryer though. In the first challenge! No space for cryers here, love. Off you go.

Karen and Dev made the first cut and she clutched her newly won apron as if it were her firstborn: ‘No-ones taking this away from me.’ I wouldn’t be too sure, love. They’re not embroidered yet. In the next cook off they had to create a splendour from sea bream, fennel and tomatoes. Amanda told Shrek she didn’t like fennel. Too bliddy right lass. I’ve never been fond of the toothpaste taste meself. It had been all of two minutes since his last gurn and predictably enough, the mouth saucered open. James and ‘Three-sauce Pete’ got through and also worshipped at the Altar of Apron. It’s as if they were made of gold. I damn well hope previous years’ contestants realise how fricking LUCKY they were to get handed one, willy-nilly, on the way in.

Next up sees the four of them, their aprons now adorned with their names, having to cook for last year’s finalists. James announced his dishes as being, ‘simple but good-looking. Like him. No, don’t put that in’. Uhuh – it’s been noted, sunshine.  They were indeed simple – these are dishes from ten years back. Perhaps he should focus less on the acting and the being good-looking and make recipes with 435 ingredients in like Dev.

‘This is Masterchef life and death for Karen,’ piped up Shrek at one point (a whisker away from calling in the Apron-Removal Squad). The excitement didn’t stop there. Adorable Delia the cop and splendid teacher/sports star Jilly came back to judge their food, along with 2019 winner Irini, who looked twenty years younger and was dressed for a cocktail party. Were THEY wearing Masterchef aprons? They were NOT! They competed in pre-Brexit days when aprons rained out of the sky like rain does.

But there’s yet another twist. The three of them got to choose their favourite. What?! Lessening the stranglehold of Toady and Shrek! Clearly the good looks had worked for James – making dishes that everyone had seen before paid off as he went through. As did Dev and Pete, at the same time, so James didn’t really have that much advantage. He’ll swagger though, you mark my words. Sad that no woman made it through having faced an all-female finalists’ panel, but there you go.  Everyone’s got to man up here.

We’d like to think Karen got to keep her apron but who knows? Perhaps it was wrestled off her as she exited the premises and her embossed name whittled off with a partridge feather by an Oxbridge graduate determined to show his worth. In later episodes look carefully at those aprons to see if the segment of cloth bears the residue of disappointment.

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Celebrity Masterchef: Your 15 minutes is up

imageI actually quite enjoy this version, truth be told. Not so much the personnel in question, who range from quite endearing to making you want to put your fist through the wall, but because they have some rather good challenges in this incarnation. The ingredient recognition test was always one of my favourites and I’m pleased to see it’s made a comeback, even though some of the items are insultingly simple. Red pepper, seriously?! Although I’d suppose you’d technically get brownie points for knowing it is a bell pepper, but this wasn’t adhered to.

The disparity between competence levels is both amusing and frustrating and makes you realise all the more they had to take who they could get, so thinly stretched is the ‘talent’ available. These Celeb versions littering the schedules rely on us, the ever-slavering public, giving two figs as to whether so-and-so who once presented something on an obscure cable channel is now able to boil an egg satisfactorily. You do get one or two bona fide big names per series, Vic Reeves being one this time round. Shame he couldn’t have been paired with Ulrika Jonsson. Or Ulrika-ka-ka, as she’s better known from their time on Shooting Stars. He might have relaxed her slightly. She looks like she’s being almost constantly tortured, which makes you wonder why she’s subjected herself to it. Oh yes, for cash probably. Continue reading

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Masterchef: This little Masterchef went to market….

‘I’m a pig in a sweetshop’. Ooh Wallace, with your Wildean bon mots, you are rillllly spoiling us. Actually, he said ‘kid’ not pig, but he doesn’t enunciate properly and it’s all much of a muchness with our fruit and veg man anyway. Yep, Masterchef, in all its infuriating glory, is back. So, what’s new? Well, they’ve got their names embroidered on their aprons, rather than one of those badges you get at conferences, so the budget must have been upped. Anything else? Yep, there’s a new challenge. ‘It’s called the market test’, announced Torode proudly, as if his toddler had just taken its first step. ‘We’ve built you a market.’ Woah, slow down there with these breakneck speed ideas. I thought he was going to say he’d built a brand new combine harvester!  Continue reading

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MasterChef: Off their trollies

I happened to speak to someone who had made it to the very end of the (very long) MasterChef process a number of years ago. A life-changing experience? Yes. But they also reminded me that there is no money involved in winning MasterChef, and you don’t get paid whilst you’re engaged in the process either – when you’re not earning money from your day job. Success gives you a lot of exposure, you learn an incredible amount and it offers the winner the opportunity to work in a top professional kitchen (unpaid) but for people without serious financial stability or a high-earning partner, even for those who make it through the weeks of competition, this is one tough gig.

And now they’ve changed the set and the format. This is a ‘culinary cathedral’, according to the blurb. Well, I’m a food lover and it’s not my kind of church. And the style is X factor apparently. With ‘auditions’. Since I don’t watch the X factor, I can’t comment on that (is it because they’ve brought their families along, in what feels, watching, like a precursor to a massive and really weird church picnic?). And worst of all, I could not believe my eyes when I realised contestants are now expected to provide their own food. In they trekked, these gaggles of hopefuls with their carrier bags and picnic hampers and kids and partners and eyes full of hope that gets as crushed as their new potatoes as it all goes horribly wrong for most of them. And that’s exactly why I don’t want to see the families or hear the backstories. So many dreams of leaving current jobs, so many nights reading poncy cookbooks, all boils down to some especially bad trifle and lumpen mash. Following Grace Dent concurrently on twitter helps with this actually, providing the nice acidic edge you need to cut through the cloying treacle of India Fisher’s voiceover.

Never mind the cameras and audience, it’s such a strange and unnatural cooking environment. It feels more like It’s a Food Knockout than a culinary test. The strangest of all is the last-ten-minutes cooking part of the format when they have to pack part-cooked food from one part of the set onto a TROLLEY and wheel it though to finish the dish off then serve up to Gregg and John. They are perched on their boy band (Blind Date?) stools with a pile of immaculate white Aprons of Joy to give out to The Chosen Ones. The apron ‘prize’ makes even the Generation Game cuddly toy seem generous. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s ‘symbolic’.

In the words of John Torode to one poor contestant ‘Everything is soft and wet. You don’t have to chew on anything. It just disappears’.

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Lustbox: Michel Roux Jnr

Woe, woe, misery and woe. The light has gone from my weekday evenings. And when Normal Masterchef returns with Gregg the Pudding Oinker, with it will come John Torode, all Australian and shouty rather than the pale and lovely Michel Roux. Very few people get Michel-as-lustbox. He is cadaverous, pale and wears truly terrible jackets. He looks like he needs a big sandwich made of Maman’s caramelised bananas. He has the gauntness of an etiolated marathon runner who never gets out during the daytime (which he is). Despite all, he is the King of Cooking Programme Lust.

Michel has is sternness combined with (occasionally) kindly mercy, extreme delicacy and exacting standards. This is very, very sexy indeed. One would need to try very hard not to be disappointing in any way whatsoever. The pressure to achieve the highest standards of taste and presentation would be immense. Swirl those nipple tassels unevenly and see his left eyebrow raise almost imperceptibly. Let your moustache go unbleached for a day too long and see a very small moue of disappointment. Serve the sushi from your bellybutton slightly too warm and Michel might sigh, deeply, painedly. But the joy, the pure joy, of making Michel smile…oooh! Oui Chef!

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Junior MasterChef: just what the doctor ordered

I have to confess I’ve not been keeping up with Junior MasterChef, so I was delighted to tune in today and see that talented Amber has got through to the semi-finals, alongside some other excellent cooks, George, Georgie and Hadra. And if that wasn’t thrilling enough -the second challenge involved climbing into the TARDIS and being transported to the telly studios in Cardiff where Dr Who is being filmed, so the young chefs could cook lunch for Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. I’m a grown woman and I was beside myself with excitement, so the young people must have almost exploded.

Dishes that were cooked were the actors’ favourites and included steak, chips, duck with pancakes, banoffi pie and ginger pudding. Not all went according to plan. The toffee for the banoffi went all floppy. The bearnaise for the steak was too sloppy. But Amber’s ginger pudding and *custard (the first time she’s ever cooked it) looked perfect.

*the first time I tried to make custard, it set like concrete on top of a trifle probably because I used to find the reading of measurements rather baffling

Pauseliveaction and I happened to exchange texts when I was watching it, and she said she was pleased, since she feels that Matt Smith could do with feeding up a bit. He and Karen/Amy were utterly charming. It was all entirely endearing. Even John Torode and Nadia Sawalha donned dashing scarves and looked really thrilled to be on the Dr Who set.

Tomorrow, the kids cook for JLS and Charlie Higson. I’m sure they’ll all be brilliant. But I’m still rooting for Amber!

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Junior MasterChef: the sweet side of Mr T

I would fondly like to imagine I could have been on Junior MasterChef, had it been around in the 70s. My copy of My learn to cook book had food splatters on many pages; not just the recipes for coconut ice and ice cream sundaes. I baked the family Christmas cake every year (I don’t think it ever got eaten. I’m not sure the icing was penetrable without the use of power tools). I even cooked the family roast in my teens. Best not to linger on the unmitigated disaster of the gravy though. Not worth the salt of my tears, to misappropriate a Norma Waterson line.

But chicken laksa? Goats’ cheese and caramelised onion tart? Smoked salmon risotto? None of that. Some of the youngsters on the new series of Junior Masterchef have been coached perhaps a little too much by eager family and friends.

The Junior series is based in the same kitchens as adult MasterChef but with a jolly makeover, involving brightly coloured stuff around the place, and beanbags instead of sofas for the contestants to sit on. John Torode is avuncular and cuddly. He begins by giving the young people a masterclass in making Toad in the Hole before letting them have a go at cooking it. He then judges their efforts with Nadia Sawalha, who has the remarkably perky, up-beat temperament of a crisp meringue.

They clearly create a positive environment, because the contestants cook well and seem really proud of their achievements, as indeed they should. No-one knocks their batter to the floor, as I would have done, or leaves out a key ingredient, like the time I omitted flour from chocolate-chip cookies, which essentially meant I made a sweet, chocolate oven omelette, that not even the dog would touch.

Thanks to Shine Ltd for pic of Amber

I was, however, shocked when Mr Torode told the contestants to prick their sausages before cooking them ‘so they don’t explode’. Rubbish! He clearly needs to watch a bit of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Nigel Slater to catch up a bit. Not the modern method at all – you only needed to do that with rubbish bangers full of cheap filler.

When the kids cooked their own dishes, it got a lot more fancy than Toad in the Hole. Except for Amber, who cooked food that seemed to fit her character and age better than some of the others. Amber, India Fisher tells us (yes, she’s still narrating) recently cooked up £800 at a Jewish charity fundraiser. She has a similar shape to me at her age and I really warmed to her. At one point she says earnestly to camera: “I needed to get my onions a bit more floppy” bless her. She cooked tasty fried potato latkas, lovely herby meatballs and a smashing looking chocolate, cream and raspberry roulade. Not fancy, but they require skill, and she clearly knows her way around the brightly coloured kitchen implements.

Anyway, they all did really well, but the lovely Amber won, which made my day.

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Masterchef: The palate of an angel

Masterchef has hung up its collective apron for this season, and there’s a new King of the Kitchen in the rather attractive form of Dhruv Baker.

What have we learned? Well, we learned from Gregg Wallace that Dhruv has “the palate of an angel.” If I ever ponder angels, I don’t normally think about their food-tasting capabilities, but I suppose you might do if you think of cookery as a high art form, as Gregg and his little mate John Torode do.

I do know, because India Fisher repeatedly told me in such an insistent and breathy voice that she couldn’t be ignored, that all the finalists could “produce exceptional plates of food,” “deliver flavour,” “wow the judges” etc etc and blah blah blah.

India has a go in the Masterchef kitchen

Masterchef this year teetered between must-see and must-turn-off TV, and the turn-off bit was in a huge part thanks to India Fisher’s narration. Her voice is beyond irritating, and this is not helped by scripts that are so repetitive they sound like they’ve been churned out by a primitive script generating machine. In fact I’m not entirely convinced that India Fisher isn’t in reality a Scriptbot 500. For next season could we please have someone else doing the voiceover? My vote would go to Richard Armitage or Steven Mackintosh, either of whom could make chicken quenelles sound like something sexy rather than a blob of chickeny mush.

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MasterChef: spicing things up

At last, MasterChef has shifted from its rather dull, static formula, and taken the final three chaps, ‘children’s doctor Tim’, ‘media man and dad Dhruv’ and ‘food blogger Alex’ to India, specifically to Jodhpur. This meant we got some utterly stunning scenery.

It also meant that everyone was out of their comfort zone, in terms of food and the ambient temperature, which appeared unbearable even at 6am when their day began cooking breakfast for local dignitaries on the roof of a magnificent building.

Boiling sun, boiling oil, entirely new dishes, piles of spices they were not familiar with (well Dhruv might have been, since his mum is Indian). For once, I really did believe the MasterChef cliché that ‘cooking doesn’t get tougher than this’. I was worried they’d get heatstroke and wanted someone to pop a nice sunhat on Tim. And talking of Tim, he has every right to pursue his dream, of course he does, and he is a fantastic cook. I do wonder however what the kids he treats make of him clearly not wanting to be a doctor anymore. But I digress.

My favourite part of the Indian challenge wasn’t what they perceived to be the climax –  cooking for royalty, for the very picky Maharaja in his vast palace (although I found it hilarious that a whole other meal had been prepared by ‘proper’ professionals chefs in case they ballsed it up). The best bit for me was watching them become school dinner ladies, cooking dishes for a hundred teenage girls.

Vile British flabby tasteless school dinners made my primary school life hell. The idea of being served the most delicious, tasty, freshly-prepared dishes, even by chefs with sweat dripping off their noses, was so exciting. The girls were beautiful. The person who I guess equated to a head dinner lady, Mrs Singh, was utterly gorgeous (and funny). And the dinner boys produced some pretty fine food too.

We saw less of Gregg and John, heard less of India Fisher, and the show was better for it. It was so much more alive and vivid – there was so much sumptuousness to see, the food was diverse and genuinely interesting to watch for once, and you could almost smell the spices, feel the heat and sweat along with them. Much better.

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Masterchef: Wilted greens, burned walnuts and ladies who lunch

Masterchef has now reached the interesting stage, where the final six have been chosen and are whittled down by a relentless slog of cookery challenges.

Last night, the six had to produce a three course meal for 20 ladies who were all bigwigs in the Womens Institute. These ladies, India Fisher breathlessly reminded us, “knew all about food.” They were “experts in their field,” their field including, but not confined to, jam and relish. And cakes.

The six all set to work, under the relentless gaze of the camera and judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace, who proceeded to ramp up the tension as much as possible by shaking their heads, sighing loudly and exchanging forlorn glances at every opportunity.

One of the contestants was a dead man walking from the start. Despite apparently “knowing all about flavour” and “delivering some exceptional plates of food” (the Masterchef cliches are uttered so often that they stick in your head) he made a right mess of his fishcakes. “There’s something wrong with that,” John Torode commented, eyeing the small bowl of mashed potato that was supposed to feed 20. And then he left half of his wilted green unwilted.  And he hadn’t been keeping an eye on his walnuts.

As well as being a bit horrible, it was all going to be horribly late! The ladies who lunch would have to wait five minutes! John and Gregg were appalled. The ladies who lunch, starters devoured, sat in a frosty silence waiting for the promised fishcakes. They could have profitably spent the time by posing nude for another calendar, but no.

Considering the main course was such a disaster (“My walnut is burned!”), you’d think the ladies would be more than ready for a decent pudding. They were having some kind of jelly, a bakewell tart, a biscuit and a slice of Victoria sponge. Stacie was in charge of the Victoria sponge. Stacie’s fashion sense is rooted in the 1960s – she even has a scooter – and her cooking sensibilities are very much rooted in her native north east. This means massive portions like her mam used to give her, and like she gives her husband (who is one lucky man). So Stacie made the biggest Victoria sponge John Torode had ever seen, and dished out humongous slices. The ladies professed to be shocked. “This is enough for two… or even three!” they gasped. Stuffed full of fresh cream and jam it looked bloody delicious, and I bet if no-one else was watching those ladies would have rammed the whole lot down their necks very happily.

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