Tuesday, 22 February 2011

MasterChef 2011: It's a Journey

MasterChef is back! OhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGod! Few television programmes excite me more than MasterChef. Strictly Come Dancing may be the only other show I anticipate with such panting need. I'm quite partial to Aussie MasterChef. The first two series had me gripped all the way through; oohing and aahing each time Gary and George gave the contestants a wry smile to signify their cooking excellence, and allowing my jaw to drop when Matt Preston smashed a plate of food on the floor because it was JUST. TOO. GOOD. TO. SHARE. Greedy pig!

Yeah. That really happened. 

Still, there's nothing quite like MasterChef UK. Setting aside the fact that I have an inexplicable crush on John 'Cardigan' Torode (he sets my wok burner on fire, baby), the mere whisper of banter between Gregg Wallace and Torode makes me slightly giddy. What took me even closer to collapsing in swoonsville like a Victorian lady viewing moving pictures for the first time, was the promotional video seemingly showing the UK version of MC using the infinitely superior Australian set. *faint*

This first post might be a little long. They should get more concise as the series progresses. For now I need to explain the new set-up. I was expecting the series to begin as the Australian one had, a large group of eager cooks thrown in at the deep end and whittled down based on the strength of their basic kitchen skills. No such group competition on this new departure. Rather than taking part in the Invention Test with five other trembling cooks as had been the norm for seven years, the contestants now have to audition for John and Gregg as if they were hopefuls on Britian's Got Talent. MasterChef, however, does not have an audience of hyperactive schoolgirls who've mitched off school to chortle at losers playing a harmonica while hopping on one leg. Oh no. It's worse than that.

The contestants cook the majority of their dish in front of a gaggle of friends and family, who grin and ingratiate themselves with such nauseating desperation that I found watching the first leg of their cooking infuriating. Nobody I've spoken to seems to be enjoying this new element either. Still, it only lasts two episodes, so I'll survive. While the daughter, brother, wife, boyfriend, whatever, melt into a pool of panicky sweat at the cooking counter, the squad of anguished cheerleaders pontificate over "how much this meeeeans to them" and pull the kind of faces that seem to signify that their family's existence will be utterly pointless if the cook they're there to rustle their pom-poms for doesn't get onto the main show.

Once they've finished the majority of their dish, the cooks then wheel their creations through to John and Gregg, who sit on their thrones and shoot quick-fire questions at the contestants, most of which are too starstruck to concentrate on either the food or the questions. Family and friends are not permitted to watch this part. They can only give them airport departure-lounge hugs (you know the kind I mean) and stand back as their loved one trollies their food through with the finesse of the duty free dolly on an EasyJet flight.

The two Eating Kings taste their food. If they both agree it's edible, they get an apron and proceed to the arrivals lounge, where their other halves are waiting with more squeezy hugs. If John and Gregg disagree, the cooks get another change to cook the following day in the kind of competition we're more used to. If they're bloody awful? It's adios and they have to carry out the humiliating act of wheeling their offerings out to their waiting families.

There were a lot of competitors during the first two episodes. I couldn't possibly run through each one without making this a dissertation. And I suspect we'll get to know the important people as their journey trundles through each episode. There was, however, so much unintentional comedy within the first couple of programmes it would be a crime not to run through some of highlights. Let's have a look.....

I'm suddenly warmed by the fact that in amongst all this shiny newness John and Gregg still gurn and scrunch their chops up at the cooks while they're 'creating', right before going on to sing the dish's praises. We're drawn in as they indicate to us, the helpless viewer, that this person is cooking very badly and will be berated once the dish is tentatively tasted. Nice to know some things never change. Liverpool Paul fell victim to this when he wrapped bread around mackerel and fried it. It looked great. John gave him the kind of look you might give had he just professed to dipping a tuna-mayo sandwich in dog pooh before wheeling it out.

They then went on to love it in every way before giving him the first apron. One down, 19 to go.

Not so successful was Charity. And she could certainly have used a donation of some sort. Ideally some baby wipes and a jacket. She rocked up with her boobs hanging out looking like she'd just woken up next to some bin-bags in a shop doorway after a boozy hen-night. It was as if she'd just decided to wander onto the MasterChef set with some scraps she found at the side of the road.

Her dish was a deconstructed trifle. You heard right. It was a disaster. None of the elements set and, while I could see what she was trying to achieve, it ended up looking like Jackson Pollock had swallowed a mouthful of trifle and puked it back up on a plate.

Poor girl. Not even her bosoms helped her win a place in the final. It seems nothing she served up to the Eating Kings was quite good enough. What made it worse was that Gregg delivered "Thanks very much" as if he was congratulating a small child for scribbling on some craft paper with crayons and was presenting it to him as art.

Next we have American Tim, who turned up in hipster framed lady-glasses and with the kind of arrogance that immediately makes me want to see him flunk this test. He's studied Japanese Culture at University and lived there for two years. In his mind that makes him better than all of us and would happily slice our lips off if we mispronounced any Japanese words. The best thing of all was when he was asked to give the Japanese name for his dish and he said 'chips' in an authentic Japanese accent....chipsseh.

John and Gregg love him and both put him through to the final. He seems genuinely thrilled and maybe I've misread his arrogance as simple American self-belief. I may warm to him, but only if breaks down and cries first. It's the British way. *Heart-grab* Tim is so happy he asks the Eating Kings if he can, like, hug you guys? They both shake his hand and leave it at that. John and Gregg are not to be touched. Like royalty. On returning to the arrivals lounge, Tim's wife squeals in delirium and runs into his arms with such force she almost knocks him to the ground. I'll allow this excessive display of joy. The guy's had three jobs since leaving university and hasn't liked any of them. He's 22. She's probably just relieved he's found something he likes so they can pay the electricity bill.

After that it goes downhill. They're turning people down left, right and centre and they break one girl's heart to such and extent that John ends up crying into his blazer sleeves. Should have worn a cardigan, John. More absorbent.

Then we had carpenter James. Ah yes. James. Take a look:

And now his 'Friends and Family'.

I couldn't be more terrified if he'd turned up with Plan B, Mike Skinner and the Mitchell Brothers circa 1998 in his entourage. John and Gregg will like his food. They will. If they don't they'll find themselves in a barrel of pig feed. I am, of course, jesting. Appearances are funny things. Not only was James a lovely boy, but he was also an excellent cook. There was something rather magical about him opening his mouth and in a broad cockney accent expressing......

James sails through to the final 20 and John reluctantly accepts a hug, mainly because he's too afraid not to.

Back on familiar territory. Four of the bods they weren't too sure of get to come back the next day and cook their own food against each other within a 50-minute time limit. This feels more like my MasterChef. It makes me want to cuddle the telly. They eventually settle on Peter, who resigned from his job to set up a GastroPub but hasn't got round to it yet, and posh mummy Polly. Polly uses the word 'golly' without any irony. Really! They're told they both have places and Polly makes noises only heard by dogs.

On to the second night where Swansea-ite Tana seems to be having a nervous breakdown. She's sweating so much she looks like she needs watering down with a garden hose and she's trembling so ferociously that she cuts her finger while carelessly chopping veg. In major flummox, Tana forgets to bring her vegetables and a decent knife to the audition room. She is allowed to retrieve them. She forgets the knife. Again. She then has to slice her chicken sausage with a table knife and while negotiating what appears to be a condom on her finger.

Judging by John and Gregg's reactions, this is the most heinous crime in all of cookery:

Tana went home apron-less.

Then there was Dan-Dan-the-Boxer-Man who as he hugged his girlfriend goodbye whispered.....

....as if he were about to ride off into the sunset on his little dessert trolley in full cowboy clobber. He'll fight for the lives of his towns-people with nothing to sustain him but wood pigeon and a potato galette. Dan gave possibly the best answer ever to the much-asked 'why are you here?' question:

It certainly beats "I'm making half a mil' a year as a barrister, but now I want to open a boutique hotel on the seafront with my wife and cook breakfast for the guests." 
You might want to sit down before I break this news to you. Dan-Dan he no can-can. They couldn't put him through. He pulled a face sadder than a grieving penguin. He doesn't want to get punched in the head any more, Gregg! Have you no heart? John? Anything?

Fine. Dan's out. I hope you can live with yourselves, gentlemen. It's true, cooking really doesn't get tougher than this. Wait. They don't say that any more. Let's get fatter! Which one was Dan again?

I needed something to lift my spirits and I found it. I found Jackie. Oh Ja-ckie. You caaaaame and you gaaaaave with-out taaaaaking, and I need you to-day, oh Jack-ie. She was ace! I love her. She knew exactly what she was cooking, she enjoyed herself, the food was genius and her husband didn't behave like he'd divorce her if she didn't get through. She's my favourite. She was also John and Gregg's favourite. Gregg even raced John back to the table to finish the food after she'd left. Let's get fatter!

I'll skip over Alice the Beauty Queen. Gorgeous AND a great cook? Bleurgh. I bet she's got a PhD in Thermodynamics and nurses orphaned hedgehogs too. The only chink in her armour was that she was wearing white jeans. Double bleurgh. I am, of course, being very harsh upon my sex. You go, girl!

*Opens another CurlyWurly*

I'm aware that this post is becoming the thesis I was determined not to make it, so I'll skip ahead to the kids who had to cook again for the final place. That last slot went to Fiona, who managed to put three lovely looking desserts on the plate in 50 minutes. This was the night I voluntarily ate a dish where Spam was the main ingredient. I will be telling about that on another day, once the counselling has kicked in.

So that's it. On Wednesday all twenty finalists head to the replica of the Australian kitchen. I am beside myself with excitement.


I hope you'll join me on my journey watching them on their journey while John and Gregg comment on the journey that they're all on and before we know it the journey will be over and I'll be craving a new journey. Maybe I'm not being clear. It's a journey.

(All images property BBC)

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