And then … there were eight. This series of Masterchef (BBC One) has been one of, if not the best ever. We’re on the cusp of the semifinals. The nine contestants in the above screengrab were reduced, like a fine sauce, down to eight on Friday. (We were sorry to see queen of puddings Natasha go.) But even in the early weeks, we were seeing talented and inventive cooks being eliminated, so high has the standard been. It’s hard to believe we got here without Pedro, and Jacob, and Julie, and Alec, and Mark, and Noma, and Kath, and Caron, and Jessie, and Tom, and Rob, whose names are already fading from memory (I made one of those up, just to prove it). In any other year, some of those competent and imaginative preparers of food would still be in the competition, but the heat is so intense this year, and has been since the start. Usually a “home cook” would still be in the running, but although “full-time Mum” Jane was initially patronised into that Masterchef archetype, it seems a dim and distant memory. It’s true that some of the “characters” have fallen by the wayside, but that tends to happen, as the quarter-finals require a raising of the game (especially when cooking game) that allows less room for mucking about and/or getting away with it.
Last year was a big one for me and Masterchef – and I speak as someone who watched the very first Sunday-afternoon incarnation of the show in 1990, with future sauce mogul Loyd Grossman – it’s the year I accepted Masterchef: The Professionals into my heart, after seven years of denial. A full-time adherent to Celebrity Masterchef – a spin-off format I even stuck with after Michael Buerk tried to derail it by not only being a bad cook but by clearly not wanting to be on the programme in the first place – I snubbed The Professionals, as I could not for the life of me see the appeal of watching professional cooks cook. (In many ways, this is what sucks Bake Off: Creme de la Creme of the mothership’s charm.) I was wrong. In August last year, I met and interviewed no-nonsense Professionals judge Monica Galetti at an exclusive screening of the first episode in a cinema in Edinburgh attended by hardcore Masterchef fans, and it opened my eyes. (Yes, the contestants work in professional kitchens, but at a level that makes them just as keen and hungry as the non-professionals. The format works. I’m in.)
It’s a big commitment watching a full series of Masterchef, as, unlike the Bake Off, it’s way more than just a bucolic weekly pleasure. We’re talking at least three, and up to five times a week (the precise format is constantly tinkered with). That’s a lot of reductions, fondants, tuiles, ganaches, three-ways, crumbs, purées, brittles and inadvisable sous-vide bags, and a lot of variations on the clichés: “I’m gutted,” “I like to push myself in the kitchen,” “I want to show the judges what I’m made of,” “I go to bed at night thinking about food and I wake up in the morning thinking about food,” “Food is my life,” “I hope I’ve done enough to stay in the competition,” and the bingo classic, “I’m cooking outside my comfort zone.” (Every time we hear one of those phrases, I’m inside my comfort zone.) Sometimes it can feel like an endurance test, but when it catches fire like a blowtorched lettuce leaf, rarely does an edition goes by, not even in the wheat/chaff early rounds, when some magic doesn’t occur, whether it’s the crescent shape of the accompaniments to a beautiful dish, a Gregg Wallace gurn or a John Torode “lovely, lovely thing”. In most hour-long programmes, it’s all three. Masterchef done three ways, in fact.
We all have our favourite rounds. I’m not sorry to see the back of the palate test (unless it re-emerges in semifinal week), where they have to guess what’s in a dish John has cooked and copy it. The meat and potatoes of Masterchef is, for me, and has always been since the 2001 revamp, a round in which a dish is prepared, or three dishes are prepared, and evaluated by John, Gregg, past finalists, restaurant critics, or fellow chefs. (I understand the need for the professional kitchen round, which is more of an insight into how much of a git a professional chef can be, but it’s too tense for me.) This series, the visiting critic has chosen a key ingredient for the contestants to showcase – that’s new – but it all boils down to the basics: can you take some things and make them taste nice? As John and Gregg habitually put it: “food you want to eat.” As opposed to the other kind: food you want to look at, or Instagram. (In a later episode of Parks & Recreation, while everyone else tucks into a tasting menu, Tom takes photos of the food and is the only one who avoids getting food poisoning from a mini calzone.)
Of the remaining “Plateful Eight”, the favourite has got to be either Jack (above, glasses), or Liz (above, top of head), with Annie and Juanita in the running. But there’s always room for a late spurt, and the more arduous cooking tasks of the semis sometimes reveal new frontrunners. I was glad that the two early contestants who had that Apprentice-style over-confidence and outward determination to “win” didn’t survive. It’s not about winning, it’s about cooking. You don’t “win” the professional kitchen round; you survive it. You don’t “win” the blockbusting semifinal tasks, you just cook, in teams, in pairs, or individually, to the best of your preternatural ability, and with the ingredients provided, and leave it to the judges to judge. (As with the Bake Off, Masterchef contestants support one another – they all want each other to win.) Billy is the closest to a “win” contestant in the remaining quorum, but he’s a softie. I can’t think of a knockout competition with so many hugs and tears.
In The Apprentice – a Hunger Games for monkeys which I forsook many years ago – it’s “You’re fired.” In Masterchef, it’s “You’re fried.”