Masterchef Rules The Waves Part One

I’ve been putting off this post, and now Celebrity Masterchef starts tonight. So not late, but timely …

It also got very long – Part One will look at the UK, and Part Two will explore Masterchef International – a whole different beast.

Twenty-odd years ago, when I first started watching Masterchef, it was nice. In every sense of the word.  Middle-class people cooked middle-class three-course dinner-party meals, which were tasted and discussed in a judgely huddle by permanent host Loyd Grossman (TM), along with a showbiz celebrity and a guest chef or food writer. Winners went through to the next round, which was exactly the same. Except the chefs got more famous as time went on. It was broadcast weekly in a comfy Sunday tea-time slot on BBC1, and at the end there was a cookbook of the best recipes. People were fans of this competitor or that, and there were a few scandals along the way. You could cook whatever you wanted – there was a vague nominal budget – within a time limit, bringing a few pre-prepared ingredients and/or pieces of kit. There were jams, herbs from the garden, and marinaded meats, and, oh, the horror, one contestant brought her trusty microwave. Eventually it spawned a Junior version, and a career for Mr Grossman (TM) in cook-in sauces. And died a nice discreet middle-class death around the turn of the century.

I suspect it introduced a lot of viewers to new foods and techniques. It was fun to watch a competition that featured skills I knew about, and also to hear a professional chef critique dishes. That was new. But ultimately it was by and for people who shopped at Waitrose, and all too twee for words.

Boom, and 5 years later we get Masterchef GOES LARGE, which is pretty much the format we know now in the UK. It’s dropped the GOES LARGE bit, as people have started to realised Mr Grossman (TM) isn’t hosting a nice little studio show anymore. The judges are John Torode (transplanted Ozzie mid-level restaurant owner / TV chef) and Gregg Wallace (former greengrocer and restaurant supplier). Torode wears casual clothes and often neglects to shave – he promotes classic knowledge and technique. Wallace, despite running a multi-£million business and owning a new restaurant for his cronies to party in, is presented as the down-to-earth East End Barrow Boy who knows his veg and loves his puddings. He’ll forgive a lot in technique if you’ve put enough chocolate in it. He’s also perceived a lot as the Nice Cop to Torode’s Nasty, and he does tend to act as a bit of a Yes Man. India Fisher provides a voice-over narration – a lot of which seems to be pre-recorded and comes out at every episode. “The contestants have spent hours on their feet in the professional kitchen …”

Although the show doesn’t have the class limitations of the original, it can be stunningly and mindlessly racist and sexist. Torode in particular assumes that anyone with an “ethnic” background will be expert in a related branch of cookery, will be tempted to put “too many spices” in their food, and won’t be able to compete in more classical European challenges. If people DO put in “too many spices”, he’s amazed at how lovely and subtle it tastes. They’re obviously trying not to stir offense (to the extent of referring to a pediatrician throughout as a “child doctor” just in case some idiot got it wrong), but they still refer to women as Mother-of-(number), as if identity rested in fertility.

On the positive side, there is now an element of development and mentoring for the competitors. Many are aiming at taking up a foodie career, as chefs, suppliers, writers. Some are already dipping their toes in the water – vide Alex Rushmer, whose blog Just Cook It already had a good reputation. As you progress in the show, you spend more time in a variety of professional situations, and are expected to learn from all of them.

How it Works

Go Large started as an early evening show on BBC2. One competition a day Monday to Thursday, with the daily winners battling it out on Friday. After 6 weeks, the weekly winners go on to the semi-finals and then the finals, usually over 2 more weeks.

With the change from the dinner party format, contestants get more of an opportunity to showcase their knowledge of ingredients and techniques. Although there is a chance for them to produce their own menus, they have to win that chance. First is the ingredients challenge (or the Mystery Box), where they have a bench full of food and just under an hour to turn it into a plate of food. Starter, main, dessert – whatever. There will usually be some meat, fish, herbs, fresh fruit and veg, dairy, tinned things like coconut milk. Often there are two or even three clear recognised matches – mackerel and gooseberries, arborio rice and parmesan, oranges and plain chocolate – which should give even a panicking chef a good nudge towards a staple dish. It’s a tougher round than you might think, and three of the original six competitors are knocked out at this stage.

The remaining three go on to the pressure test. This is usually a lunchtime service stint at a reasonably well-known real restaurant, with each competitor being given a regular menu dish to prepare to order. Some cope, some don’t, and for many it’s their first taste of life in a pro kitchen. There’s a chance here to learn an amazing amount – not just about the logistics of restaurant ordering and service, but about mise en place and preparation, pro equipment, presentation, timing.

Returning from that, they get to cook their own food for the judges, two courses in one hour. The judges may take the performance in the pro kitchen into account, but in reality the winner is decided on this meal.

For the further stages, different challenges are introduced. We’ve had Ingredients Knowledge – name these beans / nuts / spices / herbs / vegetables etc.,  varied Pressure Tests – cater lunch from a location van for a film crew, cook a field kitchen lunch for half the army and regimental dinner for the officers in the evening, prepare a gourmet dinner for a VIP group and serve it on site at a medieval castle or similar. One particularly nasty one emerged this year, the Choice Test. You get to cook one of two dishes in a very short timeframe (usually about 15 minutes).  Ingredients and kit provided, but no recipe. Really simple things, but incredibly easy to get wrong. There was a huge row on Twitter one night – one of the choices was mussels in white wine sauce, which Torode later insisted had been Moules Mariniere. There was cream out on the bench for the other dish, and several contestants used it. Not in Moules Mariniere, officially, at least according to Torode, but no harm in putting it in mussels in white wine sauce. He got quite snitty.

As they go through the stages, contestants are given more opportunities for working one on one with pro chefs, as they are sent to restaurants chosen with them in mind. Technical discipline, presentation, ingredient knowledge. If you use too many ingredients, you’ll be sent to a chef who only uses three or four but chooses and combines them with skill and expertise. If you clomp stuff on a plate, you’ll go somewhere elegant, or Japanese, where you’ll have to place each tiny flower with tweezers. You’ll be expected to bring techniques and knowledge back to the Masterchef kitchen, and incorporate them in your next cook-off.  Judges will expect to see you progress and improve.

Where’s it Going?

The new format was very popular, which resulted in a typical fwit decision by the BBC – to move it from 6:30 on BBC2 to evening prime-time on BBC1. This immediately put it into competition with strong commercial programming, in danger of being moved around for special events and sport, and subject to stronger marketing. Instead of a pleasant after-work half-hour, it became a whole evening commitment.

It’s also spawned more versions. Now we’ve got Masterchef: The Professionals and Celebrity Masterchef. Professional is wonderful. Torode’s place is taken by Michel Roux Jr, with the initial tests being handled by his amazing dominatrix sous-chef. Competitors are already working in the industry, and Roux expects a certain standard from them which SO OFTEN isn’t there. He also insists on a classical French approach as the basis for everything in the known universe, and heaven help you if you think differently. It has a much greater car-crash TV quotient than the regular show.

Celebrity is a bit of fun, with mostly G-list celebrities. Rumour has it that the new Celebrity season, which starts tonight, is incorporating elements from the International version, including The Pantry store of ingredients.

Some of the competitors in Celebrity end up taking it quite seriously. Nadia Sawalha, who won a few years ago, has since written cookery books, presented foodie TV shows, and is a co-presenter with John Torode on the new Junior Masterchef.

That, I was very impressed with. It went out on CBeebies as a kids’ show. Torode shows them how to prepare a dish which they then do themselves – summer pudding, for example. Then they get to show off their own menu. The finalists were stunning – confident, enthusiastic, excellent palates and skills. Contestants were in general articulate about why this was important to them. Family traditions, good health, relaxation. One was quite clear that with her dyslexia she wasn’t good at reading and writing, but she knew damn well that she could do this. All very empowering. Although the presenters could be a tad patronising in spots, and seemed quite shocked when a child proved itself perfectly capable of filleting a fish.

Relationship Management

With the move to a higher profile came a more sophisticated marketing approach. The programme has its own BBC website. During the last series run, there was a magazine, but that doesn’t seem to have lasted. The whole concept is promoted heavily by the BBC Good Food brand. The finalists from the last series, along with the Junior finalists, take part in Masterchef Live at the BBC Good Food Shows, appear on daytime cooking shows, feature in magazines.

The format doesn’t lend itself easily to developing a fan base for each individual contestant. Once they’ve got through their initial week, you might not see them again for up to a month. The website doesn’t give details on each of them a la Big Brother. They do try to get viewers interested – one of the rounds is a Passion Test which is an interview format around What Food Means To You. And there are the obligatory at home / work introductory film segments. Some contestant personalities stand out right from the start. This year there were several, including Stacie Stewart, with her wonderful beehive hair and scooter – helped by her passionate down-to-earth approach to good old British food.

Some you just want to smack – if this is your dream and passion, and always has been, why didn’t you go to catering college? Why aren’t you working nights in a pro kitchen, even if that means washing up or delivering takeaways? Why haven’t you heard of this chef, or that technique? Don’t you watch foodie telly, or read magazines, or blogs?

It really all kicks in for the final few weeks. The same contestants over and over in different situations, revealing hidden talents and stress points. Making them work as teams and showing more of their characters. Local radio and TV stations pick up on regional heroes, interview and promote them.

This year several of the contestants, including the three finalists, made an appearance on Twitter. Information on the contest itself is embargoed, of course, but they were out there building networks, starting businesses, having fun.

The Twitter bit

This is where the most recent series really started to get interesting. Torode isn’t on Twitter, but Gregg Wallace (puddingface) is. There is an official masterchef tweet, which was very proactive. Each programme got some advance tweeting, there were Mystery Box challenges for readers (what would you do with x, y, and z?), and prompts to discuss the results after the show.  Not that tweeting viewers needed it. The #masterchef hashtag got a real pounding, with people arguing about ingredients, techniques, contestants, the presenters, the guest chefs, restaurants – everything, in fact.

Twitter represents the kind of promotion that the BBC can’t control. There is a spoof Gregg. And then there’s the Masterchef Reject, from Janie Spanner who hosts her own version of Masterchef, complete with pressure tests and celebrity guests. The trendy dish this year, that everyone seemed to want to cook, was scallops with black pudding. Cries of derision greeted its third or fourth appearance, mounting rapidly to screams of anguish as it came out over and over again. Traditionally on Masterchef Chocolate Fondants Do Not Work, so attempts at that were also shouted down. Towards the end of the competition, tweeters were playing Masterchef Bingo, spotting repeating ingredients (sea bass, rack of lamb, chorizo), host phrases (it doesn’t get any tougher than this, plate of food, earthy) with a cry of  SCALLOPS announcing a winning line. There was constant discussion of competitor favourites – some of which degenerated into personal abuse. Not as bad as the Australian one, which featured Facebook Hate Pages and death threats.

I’ll talk about the Australian version later, which has become the template for a spreading international trend. If you watch tonight’s Celebrity programme and tweet using the #masterchef hashtag, you may well find yourself caught up in some of it, as it is Finals Week down under. It’s so popular, that they have rescheduled the live main national election debate so that it doesn’t clash with the Masterchef Final. Loyd Grossman (TM) could never have made it up.

I’m using brandy and crushed green peppercorns, but we’ve also had pernod and dried tarragon, prunes and calvados, or any plumped-up dried fruit left over after making flavoured vodkas

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