The plateful eight


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.

Masterchef12final11 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.”



5 thoughts on “The plateful eight

  1. I’m personally pulling for actor Annie. She has a quiet confidence about her. Plus Annie exhibits what I’ve been terming an Olivia Colman-esque quality that I find engaging. And you’re very right . . . Pedro was much too self-confident and overly-assured. I’m glad to see that “quality” sifted from the field of contenders.


  2. What the hell has happened to MasterChef?

    Like watching people whip up two course meals whilst eating a Pot Noodle, it really shouldn’t be difficult, and yet the BBC have taken the gourmet and turned it into Gordon Bennett. Middle class people with too much time on their hands enter a competition where they arse around with potato ‘fucking’ fondants, cook Quail in water-baths that cost more than the average car and suck up to Egg Wallace who’s USP is that he likes pudding, and John Toad, a ‘bloke’ who comes across like a genetically modified hybrid of Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett, an unappealing prospect, much like viewing this series.

    I used to really like MasterChef. It was hardly challenging viewing, but it was competitive and entertaining. It didn’t seem to matter that viewers were judging food they couldn’t taste, it was about the journey, and Michel Roux Jr, and Monica, and for a while, even Egg. This series has been, at times, torturous to watch. Partly due to a rejig of the recipe that has worked for so long, but perhaps also thanks to an over-familiarity. I’ll explain that contradiction…

    When you are watching an old favourite, you expect certain things. When my mum does her traditional Sunday lunch, the same one I’ve had since I was teething, it is comforting. What MasterChef have done is looked at my mums Bisto, replaced it with a reduction , thus also reducing the main appeal. The producers have obviously been watching the US version where they have added invention tests and focus more on the people cooking than the dishes, and decided that is the way to go. But the US version works because Americans are nuts, have huge regional variations of cuisine and because they have Gordon Ramsey presenting. In the UK we make do with hosts with the charisma of cholera, are impressed when somebody can make thin pasta with the help of a machine specifically designed for the job, and marvel when an invention test inevitably turns into more redundant ravioli.

    You don’t learn anything new… (other than whilst too many cooks may spoil the broth they can still get out something vaguely edible), It has become a puréed farce that takes the buttery buttery biscuit. There is the interminable wankery of the contestants looking at each others dishes and cooing or fretting and giving each other simpering smiles as they desperately hope the other has seen their soufflé sink, or sorbet remain unset, and then there is the onlooking judges as they bark at the wannabes to ‘hurry up’ whilst making the kind of disapproving faces last seen in Victorian England when the gypsies turned up in town. The added frippery in truth adds nothing. The show veers between absurd bonhomie and bullying, the entrée a perverse pudding of uninspired venison dishes with inevitable chocolate garnished with tossing tuilles.

    But it is the dawning realisation that whilst seeing the format tinkered with, all the while you may have in fact living in delusion, that the gilded spun sugar cage collapses and you can see what was never once obvious. We rely on the judges to gauge the feast we are invited to but can never fully partake of. We need the subtlety of each note sung to us with poetry filling the dearth of our senses. Instead we get the dull thud of impotent empty prose. The potatoes are nice. I like the Lamb. I love the sauce… It’s deep and glossy. I taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter and smoky. It’s as creamy as you like (this cream). It’s nice. I like the Chicken, it’s perfectly cooked. The cat sat on the mat, and when you add the pineapple it doesn’t really work. It’s Shakespeare recited by a trumpet, a sumo attempting ballet. It is no wonder that contestants are so pleased to get a good review. There is not much ambiguity in a list of ingredients rattled off with minimal description only punctuated by a well done mate and the Carry On noises that emanate from Wallace’s increasingly emboldened gob.


    • And tonight the crappy, pointless relay race…

      This tarte tatin has to be a semi final tarte tatin… This lamb dish has to be restaurant quality.

      Except it doesn’t… Because it is just a pointless exercise with nothing at stake.

      Cooking doesn’t get harder (to watch) than this…


      • Agreed. Not a fan of the relay round. Although it was interesting how two teams of four great cooks could reach such different conclusions under the same conditions and using the same ingredients.


  3. I do not like myself…

    I cringe at my own squalid activities, then scowl.

    In mitigation I can only offer the cowards defence… I was led astray m’lud.

    My damning indictment of MasterChef can’t be half as savage as that which I hold for myself.

    Cos I’ve been watching the damn thing like a slum dweller ogling the baubles of the rich through their ironed net curtains, as furtive as a strangler.

    Criticism begets addiction was borne unto fanaticism, married young to celebration, to pass through the loathing with the throttle of an aneurysm…

    The show has grown beyond the carping judges, and it is now a treat to see the blossom of the courgette flowers mirror those left standing somehow.

    It is again a show about people, rather than the bloated double drag act of Horrible and Lardy.


    (Jane to win, because I know she won’t, because she is human, enthused, and polite, an elusive trait on TV)


Do leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s