Masterchef - the Professionals

Oh dear, oh dear.

But first, a rant about talent shows

Okay, let’s have a little look at these tv shows where they invite members of the public to aspire to greatness, fame, wealth, success and popularity. I’m thinking primarily of Pop Idol, Fame Academy, X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, as well as old faves such as Opportunity Knocks and New Faces – the sort of show where the format allows for two utterly different styles of exposure.

On the one hand you have the potential successes. For example, Leona Lewis, the quick-change couple, those four leggy string players who played the theme from the Old Spice advert, Will Young & Gareth Gates, and the boy in the hat who danced while Singin’ in the Rain (see how famous some of these became?) Evidently, the search for a star means that you just might find one. You might also find someone instantly forgettable (such as Michelle Wossername who controversially won a Pop Idol series).

Do you recall that delightful Cornish soft-focus girl Alex Parks who did so well in Fame Academy? If you can, it’s because you have a good memory, not because she’s since gone on to anything which could be described as fame.

Who won the first series? You can’t remember, and neither can I, and even when I looked it up on Wikipaedia, I saw his name, but I’m still none the wiser.

Crummy quality, but great to watch

Then we have what seems to me to be the whole point of these sorts of shows: the also-rans, the losers, the no-hopers and the ones who are so-bad-they’re-good. X Factor was way out in front on this, realising that they had two shows on their hands: the good-to-average performers who are selected to be subject to the zoo that is the public vote (what do they know about breath control, potential, talent, entertainment value…?); but also the far better element that is the auditions.

It would seem the attitude of the producers is that while merely average singers are boring (true) they recognise the entertainment factor in the truly awful. The bloke with the staring eyes who shouted; the bad dancers; the murmurers; the ones who couldn’t remember the words; the chap who sang along to a tape, claiming to be the reincarnation of John Lennon; the swearing girls; the ancient women; the dangerously ugly; the many with wildly misplaced confidence; the tarts; the tattooed truck drivers with no tone or tuning skills… the list goes on. So parading these desperate people in front of us is cruel but fine entertainment.

And finally, back to my main point

And then into the ring stepped the initial two series of  Masterchef Goes Large. Rescued from a deadly format of three quite good cooks, a transatlantic presenter, guest tasters whose only claim to be there was because they liked to eat nice things and a slot just before Songs of Praise, the new programme introduced the shouting judges (the fast-forked aussie Torode and the gravy-down-his-chin costermonger Wallace) and some truly desperate contestants.

Someone had recognised that in among the gap-toothed Thomasina and pretty Caroline and panicking Dakshar and cooking-against-the-calendar Peter there needed to be some dire home cooks who could be relied upon to pile a vast heap of spaghetti with a dollop of tinned tomatoes slapped on top. The judges had no option but to be intensely rude about the dish and offer basic cookery tips. ‘That looks awful.’

There were the ones whose style or reference didn’t quite line up with modern cookery methods (eg tuna steaks should look like a sandwich, with the raw bit in the middle; lamb should still be bleating; risotto isn’t an accompaniment; tiny portions are best). I recall with great delight the poor mother who ran out of time, so presented a plate onto which she had chopped up two bananas and then covered them with a chocolatey/biscuity/honey/liqueur-laced sauce. The judges sniggered and tucked in, declaring the flavours to be quite excellent.

Then came the best bit of the show; what the Keyhole-drawl bloke (Loyd Grossman) used to call the Judgely Huddle, although in his day it usually consisted of three clipboards and lots of compliments.

When Greg Wallace and John Torode sit down, having sent the contestants away for a cup of tea, they rip into the bad ones with passion. The banana/chocolate/biscuit dish was described as looking like a cow pat, which induces a snort of laughter from me even now as I type it. Efforts were swatted away as ‘horrible’, ‘torture’, hopeless. They dismiss contestants with ‘right, she’s out.’ They can be as rude as the like and they take every opportunity They assassinate character as well. Famously, Wallace dismissed someone as ‘a competent cook at this level, but put her under enough pressure and she’ll crack!’ Even Torode (not noted for compassion or pastoral-heartedness) retorted with ‘come on Greg, you’re judging a cooking competition, not being the Marquis de Sade!’

One of the most entertaining elements is the shouting, especially as the judges attempt to life their voices above the clattering and hubbub of the kitchens in the opening sequences. If they had anything worth saying, or anything different to say, then I suppose this is fair enough. But it’s the same catchphrases nearly every time (how else could you define a catchphrase?) and it gets futile.

Nevertheless, once we get beyond the elimination round and see the contestants in a pro kitchen and then preparing dishes they know inside out, the quality of the food goes up and the interest for me disappears entirely. We’re back to the dull parts of X Factor. It’s like Stars in their Eyes – the standard is already too high, even at the start.

Another brief aside

Eating with the Enemy seems to have the right idea. Get two average cooks in, put them under a tiny bit of time pressure, and the let golden-tongue wordsmith critics tear their efforts to shreds with choice turns of phrase and well-rehearsed put-downs. To my taste, the hour-long format and the pretty-boy presenter James Martin water down the key moments and sometimes make the viewer feel that ‘we know they tried their best and the equipment was a surprise or let them down’, which turns the critics into the bad guys. But surely they are the food police we all need to protect us, the food-buying public, from being hoodwinked by Little Chef or the Elizabethan Cottage Tandoori or Brewers’ Fayre. Have you ever been in a Harvester before? Sadly, yes.

Celebrity Masterchef might work if the agents didn’t seem to have got there first, protecting the true disasters from being exposed as fools or serial poisoners before the public gaze.

Finally, my point

And now they’ve gone the whole hog, utterly in the wrong direction. ‘I know,’ they said at a planning meeting, ‘let’s learn a lesson from the repeats of Masterchef Goes Large on UKFood, where they edit out all the criticism and the judgly huddle and the dark remarks and try to take the cooking more seriously. Let’s start not with ordinary people who have a dream, but with professional chefs who already have a job (quite a nice job, earning sensible money and kudos), having nothing to lose except a little dignity and give them a chance to cook for Wallace and – ooh yes, let’s get the charmless, staring skinny perfectionist Michel Roux Jnr. He’ll put the wind up them and then swat their efforts into the bin.’

Great idea, except the quality of the contestants is way too high. Some of them are pretenders to the Michelin star level already.

I’ve only seen the first week’s worth, but already one of the cooks was so convinced that his food was of a low quality that he threw it away and presented nothing. He was dismissed, but not to his face, which would have been much more entertaining.

Leave reality tv alone, and let’s see the no-hopers and the time wasters. We want entertainment, not just training or to watch other people cook ingredients we’ll never see in a shop, let alone buy.

Oysters with Black truffle anyone? No thanks, I’d rather have a Bounty.