I have been watching Masterchef for many years, through its various incarnations, and was staggered to find out that it has been on television in the UK since 1990. The basic idea of the programme in which people cook increasingly complex dishes in order to compete for the overall accolade of being the overall winner, has become incredibly popular and has led to various different formats including “professional”, “celebrity” and “junior” versions.
As I write this, we are nearly at the end of the latest ‘professional’ version, with the final being held tomorrow. I am not going to comment on the current three finalists, who all seem to be staggeringly good chefs, or who I think should win (I probably couldn’t put a parmesan shaving between them to be honest), but have been musing to myself about the popularity of the programme and how it has changed since its Loyd Grossman days.
My memory may fail me, but I seem to recall that back in the LG days, the contestants seemed far more amateur than they are now, and the dishes they produced far simpler. The programme was on once a week, whereas now with this current series it is on for an hour three nights a week, which requires a considerable viewing commitment. Perhaps it is for this reason that I have been less engaged with this series – there is just so much of it! It really seems to be spun out with endless invention tests, chefs visiting other chefs’ restaurants to cook the lunchtime menu, and so on.
Aside from the many hours required to watch the entire series, this series seems a bit stuck in a rut as the format has become almost clichéd. After every test there is the ubiquitous shot of the chef slumped exhausted onto a sofa, sighing loudly and wondering if they’ve “done enough” or “let themselves down”. And every contestant who doesn’t make it through and has to leave the kitchen is always “gutted”. Never disheartened, upset, realistic, disconsolate or even plain sad – the first thing EVERY single evicted chef says is that they are “gutted”. And not once has anyone added “no pun intended” after saying this on a cooking show! Aside from the g word, the language becomes increasingly sycophantic and overblown as the series progresses, with dishes being declared “astonishing” and “works of genius”.
As well as the clichéd language, other elements of the format remain the same year in year out. The raised eyebrow and withering looks of the deadly duo of Monica Galetti and Marcus Wareing when they realise the professional chefs can’t make a brandy snap, fillet a fish or even make a burger. Gregg Wallace’s pudding face and his excited jumping up and down like a little boy in a sweetshop (so greedy, he even has an extra ‘g’ in his name). And the long, long, ever-so-drawn-out pause before the winners/losers of each episode is announced. And the fact that the Professional series, unlike the other series, is so very male-dominated.
As the series progresses, the food gets every more complex and fancy. Now I can’t afford to go to a 1, 2 or 3 Michelin-starred restaurant, so find it fascinating to see what food is in fashion in a fancy-dan restaurant, and interesting to note how much this does change from year to year. Some of these changes can only be for the better in my book, such as how they seem to have reverted to calling a sauce a sauce, rather than the “jus” of previous years. There also seem to be far fewer “foams” and “airs” this year; instead we have ingredients that are dehydrated and then crumbled over the top of the dish. Presentation has changed as well; last year almost every dish seemed to start with a smear of some sauce being painted across the centre of the plate with a paintbrush. This year the smear is more like a puddle that is smeared away with the back of a spoon. But the overriding feature this year is that it is the year of the blob. Every plate MUST feature several blobs, of differing sizes, put on the plate via a squeezie container that looks like the sort of thing you find ketchup in at a greasy spoon, or paint at a toddler’s nursery. Some dishes have a few artfully placed blobs, others are blobtastic with blobs of all sizes and colours being squeezed onto the plate.
Once the blobs have been put on the plate, the remaining ingredients are “plated” (who knew that plate could be turned into a verb?) by placing them individually – sometimes using tweezers – so that they look as though they’ve fallen onto the plate in a random muddle, all jumbled up. And often featuring edible flowers which are also clearly in fashion.
One of the trends of previous years that seems to have stuck is the ever present “sous vide” technique – or boil in a bag as I like to call it. But a new trend seems to be the desire to burn everything this year – or to present it as “charred”. A few episodes ago, the chefs were going into raptures about a dish whose key feature was that it was hidden under a “blanket” of a lettuce leaf which was then “charred” using a blow torch. Good grief.
Tonight’s episode saw the three finalists cooking a taster menu in a very poncey restaurant in Italy. There was a certain element of the Emperor’s New Clothes about it which set twitter alight, so much so that #masterchefprofessionals was trending hours after the episode had aired. At one point the Italian chef made a salad that was called something like “Salad No 41” and appeared to consist of some salad leaves stuck into a bit of oasis with the ever present edible flowers, and looked like a floral centrepiece, which the contestants then tucked into using tweezers rather than a knife and fork!
But I guess its this pretentiousness that actually makes the programme so popular – we just love to both admire and ridicule at the same time. Although it does make me want to go completely the other way and I find that when deciding what to cook for my evening meal to have in front of the television watching Masterchef, I only want to eat something like beans on toast in contrast!
Whatever the attraction, with over 3 million people watching it each day that it is broadcast, they must be doing something right, even though I can’t help feeling it needs a few new ingredients for the next series. I wish the remaining three finalists all the best, and hope that the losing two chefs aren’t too gutted.