Friday, October 2, 2009

What's Cooking?

Masterchef is back on our screens, though in truth it feels as if it has never been away. The previous series seemed to run for months, quite possibly because it did, and the whole brand feels like it’s gone a bit stale or even past its sell-by date. The format has been much the same for many years with the same kitchen, the same shouty presenters, the same hyped-up drama and the same catchphrases. Millions have come to love the comforting recipe, but isn’t it just a bit too familiar and formulaic now?

Like any successful programme, the BBC has not hesitated to squeeze every last drop of juice (or jus) out of the franchise. In much the same way that The Apprentice has been flogged to death, Masterchef has produced a number of spin-offs, including Celebrity Masterchef and Masterchef: The Professionals. It may be that we have just gorged too much at the Masterchef trough over the last two years, but it’s high time that Masterchef found itself a new flavour. They have forgotten a basic kitchen rule – to use fresh ingredients. By the way, if you thing I am over-using the food puns (over-egging the cake, if you will), you should watch the show: if I had a Pound for every awful food-related pun they wheeled out, I would be the proverbial millionaire.

"Before Masterchef, my career was this big"

Celebrity Masterchef was bad enough, though at least it had a clearly defined purpose, namely to kick-start the flagging showbiz careers of a bunch of non-entities and has-beens. Seriously, how many of the “celebrities” did you recognise? This year’s winner was Jayne Middlemiss, who those with long memories may recall was once a television and radio presenter. When she was announced as the winner, the look of joy on her face was partly for the pride in her ability to wield a frying pan, but was probably more because her declining career may have been resurrected. Of course, the celebrities are given a far easier ride on the show than Joe Public with the experts generally being as sweet as pie to them, however dreadful their culinary cock-ups.

Conversely, it is difficult to see the point of Masterchef: The Professionals beyond the programme being a hefty schedule filler for the BBC. What do the contestants (who cook for a living) really stand to gain by taking part when they are likely to be ridiculed for their inability to fillet a fish to Michelin Star standards? On the vanilla Masterchef, the contestants embark on the famed reality television journey. As we’re reminded ad nauseum, “This competition is going to change somebody’s life … forever!”

"One of these men needs a good meal. One doesn't."

The show is not helped by its totally insane scheduling: on Monday we have 2/3 of heat one (30 minutes), with the final third crammed into an hour-long extravaganza on Tuesday that also include heat two; Wednesday features heat three in all its glory (45 minutes); by Thursday we are back to the epics with not one, but two 45 minute shows – heat four and the quarter-final. As the judges often put it, “It’s messy, it’s confused. There’s too much going on on the plate”. One of the virtues of Masterchef in the early days was its simple, bite-size nature, but for some reason they’ve decided to disguise the new schedule as an unwelcoming buffet.

However, this show does indeed deliver us professionals in the form of “legendary double Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Junior” (to give him his full name, as the tiresome voice-over does every five minutes) and his trusted sous-chef Monica Galetti. Despite weirdly looking like a stranger to a square meal with his spooky death mask, Michel is a TV natural, a completely impartial judge dispensing well-earned praise and justifiable criticism in equal measures. Monica is also very fair and has the rare ability (on this show, at least) to deliver her comments in a complete sentence.

"The Churchill dog"

In the presence of a culinary genius like Michel Roux Junior, regular Masterchef expert and professional baldy Gregg Wallace has become little more than his nodding dog (oh, yes). Once the great man has given his views after tasting the food, Gregg’s opinion tends to be “what he said”. The relationship is so obviously deferential that Gregg just agrees with the master, though I suppose there is some fun to be found in the way that he manages to twist the words a little in a vain attempt to avoid resembling a big fat parrot:

Roux: I can see what you were trying to do, but it lacks seasoning.

Gregg: It is going in the right direction, but you need to season it more.

Roux: Your skills are there, but you have tried to do too much with flavours.

Gregg: There is just a confusion of flavours going on. You need to tone it down.

Roux: The rabbit is beautifully cooked but it is lacking a sauce. It’s screaming out for a jus or something to act as a vehicle for flavour.

Gregg: The flavour of the well-seasoned rabbit is a dream. It’s just too dry without a sauce.

Although Masterchef: The Professionals has the better qualified experts, this unfortunately means that we have lost one of TV’s funniest double acts: Gregg Wallace shoves his shiny head into each plate like a pig hunting for truffles, while John Torode shouts his head off as if he’s advertising Cillit Bang. They may be annoying in many ways, both being overweight, middle-aged men who are way too smug and condescending, but there’s no doubt that they have chemistry. There’s something about the way they keep bellowing at each other, even when they are in full agreement. When there is actually a difference of opinion over who should go through, John will always win the argument, which might be because he’s an actual chef, while Gregg is just a fat bloke who loves jam roly-poly.

"Needs to work on the presentation"

Gregg is (metaphorically) the lightweight, as he is only a greengrocer, though the BBC frequently upgrades his CV, so that at various times he is described as a “vegetable guru”, “vegetable expert” and most laughably an “ingredients expert”. I’m not sure what that means, but he’s certainly not a chef. He may well have supplied cabbage to the country’s finest restaurants, but so what? If you work in an off-licence, are you qualified to pontificate on the merits of a Brunello di Montalcino? I have been known to compile a shopping list, but that hardly makes me the next Jamie Oliver. On the other hand, looking at his girth, there’s no doubt that Gregg’s sampled more than a few dishes in his time.

One unwritten rule of Masterchef is that the presenters are only allowed one mouthful of every dish, so Gregg the Veg has become a master of piling food high on his weapon of mass ingestion. It is a little known fact that he is the proud owner of the world record for balancing the largest amount of Tiramisu on a dessert spoon. This may be why he sticks the spoon (or fork) in his mouth and keeps it in there for what seems an eternity, as if he is also tasting the utensil.

"One of the easier ingredient tests"

On the rare occasions when his mouth isn’t full, he will be barking out his tried-and-trusted comments, such as: “I just want to take my shirt off and dive in”; “I could easily lick the plate clean”; and “I’d like to stick my head in this pudding”. Whatever he says, it will be at a volume last heard when Murray Walker was putting in a shift, though to be fair to the former commentator he had to compete with the almighty sound of a Formula 1 car. Other times, Gregg eschews the spoken word completely, opting instead for his vast repertoire of grunts and gasps, or grinning manically like the village idiot, usually after scoffing something chocolaty. This is a good move, as whenever he dares to venture off piste, he will put his foot in his mouth (if there’s any room), saying something like, “there is mistakes throughout your cooking”.

His partner in crime is John Torode, who at least is a chef, running Smiths of Smithfield, though this is arguably only a posh canteen for office workers, specialising in simple food like steak, sandwiches and salads. John is an Aussie, but he’s been in the UK so long, that you don’t really notice until he says “parsta” with an incredibly irritating long “r”. Despite his jowly cheeks, he can’t have eaten for weeks before the show, as he also wolfs down the food in the manner of a starving man. He has a little more elegance than Gregg, sizing up the dish with his hooded eyes like a bird of prey, before a quick, neat manoeuvre of unrivalled accuracy. Either John is half-hamster or he does special mouth-stretching exercises, as he has an unbelievable capacity in those chubby cheeks. I swear I once saw him insert an entire pear in his mouth. His critique is usually subtler than his meat and potatoes sidekick, “And you think beetroot and mascarpone go together?”

"Enjoying the salad days"

Of course, the combustible presenters’ self-important performance is part of the relentless desire to increase the dramatic tension: “Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!” The frantic, doom-laden music suggests that the contestants are cooking for their lives, rather than the chance to be interviewed by Richard and Judy. Every night the cooks face their “toughest challenge yet”, even though it’s only 24 hours since we were told that the last challenge was (you’ve guessed it) their “toughest yet”. This is just a little bit over-the-top for a cooking competition: Gregg screaming, “You’ve got 30 minutes!”; Gregg and John melodramatically pretending to argue about something they decided hours earlier, forever making the “hardest decision they have ever had to make”; the contestants interviewed every 2 minutes for the inevitable emotional outburst; the lame, manufactured cliffhangers, when it’s obvious who’s going to win/lose. Pass the sick bag, Alice.

The high testosterone levels are part of a general trend among television chefs to portray cooking as a dangerous sport, just in case anyone watching should confuse an interest with balsamic vinegar with being a wuss, but, frankly, what’s macho about a couple of fat gourmands piling food into their puffy faces? Monty Python did this much better with Mr. Creosote, but he hardly looked as if he was trying out for the SAS.

"The Cheeky Boys"

Despite the misguided efforts to make the programme more exciting, the actual evaluation of the dishes is somewhat predictable. For every, “that packs in the flavours, but you need to work on the presentation”, there will be a “great technique, but needs to deliver more on the flavours”. Sometimes, the level of criticism is exceptionally banal, “Mmmm … salad, tuna, broad beans, sweet cherry tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olives and anchovies. That’s absolutely lovely.” Well done, Gregg, you’ve just successfully listed all the ingredients of a Salade Niçoise, which is indeed the dish we can see on the plate. Or John’s trademark, “Your sauce need more oomph” – helpful and constructive to the aspiring chef.

The quality that Masterchef most admires is passion, but the flagrant over-use of the word strips it of any meaning, beyond possibly shorthand for enthusiastic incompetence. In the quarter-final, there’s even a “passion test”, where the contestants have to demonstrate how much they want this, removing any shred of remaining dignity. If you’re wondering, they all want it an awful, awful lot, though the reason they want it appears to be mainly because they “want it”. Yes, I know, but there’s no requirement that chefs have to be articulate. This is presumably why whenever the competitors are asked a question, any question at all, they will blather incoherently, randomly inserting all of the following words: passionate, honest, rustic, local, hearty, simple ingredients; culminating in the universal, “my dream is to run my own restaurant”.

"Runner-up in Bryan Ferry lookalike contest"

For that reason, Masterchef is a programme best viewed on fast forward. In that way, you can skip past the absurdly long intro, when they show tantalising clips of what will be broadcast just minutes later, and the mid-show recap for the mentally deficient. You will also avoid the earnest voice-over, which again repeats what John and Gregg have said seconds earlier, though you absolutely have to watch the tasting sessions, just in case you miss an unintentional comedy gem like, “It’s a lovely dish, it’s being true to the crab”.

Although Masterchef has on the face of it a compelling format, there are many annoying aspects:

  • The irrelevance of cooking in a “top London restaurant”, where the most embarrassing performance does not make the slightest difference to the final decision. It’s almost as if this section is just a plug for the eateries.
  • The inconsistency of the judging, particularly where salads are concerned. One moment, it’s fresh and bursting with flavour, the next it’s a cop out.
  • The ubiquitous scallop. How many of these little buggers are left in the sea, given that almost every starter dish will feature a (yawn) scallop?
  • The foolish determination to make a chocolate fondant, which invariably ends up looking as if Gregg has sat on the dish. Learn from others’ mistakes, people.
  • The ingredients test, where contestants have to identify spices, cuts of meat, etc. In other words, they can be eliminated without getting a chance to cook.
  • The lack of a hairnet for female celebrities. How would you like your eggs, sir? Liberally dusted with long blonde hairs, please.
  • The inevitable foreign trip, usually to somewhere hot and uncomfortable like Mozambique. On the one hand, this is a huge waste of licence payers’ money, but on the other hand, we may see Gregg sporting his safari suit like an extra from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
  • The sudden transformation of the chefs. Having been ruthlessly mocked for weeks, out of the blue they become miraculously brilliant (à la X Factor) once they reach the final, “I don’t want to go overboard, my friend, but that’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten”.

Masterchef was always something of an acquired taste, but now they’re really making a meal of it. No matter how much they pump up the volume, cooking doesn’t get duller than this.

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