We should all hate MasterChef. It should be just as difficult to stomach Gregg Wallace’s endless cliches as it is listening to him talking through a mouthful of banoffee pie. But, to quote the man, when it comes to watching MasterChef: “I want to take my shirt off and dive in!”
Can the same be said for its pretentious spin-off, MasterChef: The Professionals? Or does it need to be sent back to the kitchen?
I have lingered over every dish of the 16th series. After seven weeks of culinary challenges, with 31 other professionals eliminated, Tom Hamblet was crowned champion last Friday. Yes, it’s taken me almost a week to digest the news. But it didn’t always go down so easily.
My love/hate relationship with the programme got me into trouble a few years back, after I railed against its “smug, self-congratulatory” judges. That same day I received the nastiest piece of hate mail to ever land in my inbox, if we leave out the death threats and calls for my decapitation.
It was from one of those smug, self-congratulatory judges. They — yes, they; I’m loathe to identify this person — railed against my attempt at humour, calling me a “pretty dull, joyless, clumsy uninspired writer”, adding that they “didn’t ever have [me] marked down as yer actual nasty little shit”. Anthony Bourdain, they weren’t.
I replied, saying I was flattered that they had read enough of my writing to be able to form a nuanced and considered opinion. “You’re a thoroughly nasty, bitter, unpleasant piece of work who chooses to make enemies of people who would otherwise be on your side,” replied the judge. “So not just boring and nasty. But intensely stupid too. It’s a killer combination.” That’s when I realised that viewers are not the only ones taking MasterChef too seriously — those at the tasting table are at it as well.
When did cookery shows get this intense? And why, over the 33 years of its amateur, professional, and celebrity servings, do we keep coming back for more?
MasterChef, as it then was, used to be a very different animal. I started watching back in 1990, when it was on a Sunday afternoon, presented by Lloyd Grossman. During his decade at the serving hatch, its style was formal, well-mannered and very old-fashioned. More brasserie than burger bar.
Described as “The British Grand Prix for Amateur Chefs”, contestants from across the UK would cook for a food expert, perhaps a chef or restaurateur, or just any old celebrity — Ulrika Johnson and Imogen Stubbs were both guests on the programme. Such women would invariably make twee remarks about “death by chocolate” when tasting the dessert, or “pure evil!” if they really liked something. This was a world where contestants would compete to do the most complex thing to a potato, and a kiwi garnish would be the height of sophistication. Don’t get me started on the fruit coulis. Or the loud slurping noises that would accompany it.
By the turn of the millennium, a makeover was unquestionably called for. “Very nice” as a descriptor would no longer cut the moutarde. Chef Gary Rhodes took over for a while — but by 2008, Torode, with a mouth so wide you could reverse a Ford Cortina into it, and custard-loving Wallace had their feet under the kitchen table.
Since then, the programme has been high energy and lots of fun, peppered with an assortment of tasty characters. Once upon a time, lesbians had a reputation for making bad vegan food — but MasterChef has punctured the myth that we don’t know our way around a joint of meat. In the most recent series, for instance, I fell in love with Molly from Leeds. Not just because she’s a lesbian, of course, but because of the enthusiastic way she placed her perfectly poached haddock on a fancy potato.
There wasn’t anything tasty, though, about the finalists’ visit to a grotesquely expensive restaurant in Denmark that serves food designed to “make you think”. Calling itself the “world’s most daring restaurant”, it serves caged chicken in a bid to get customers to consider animal cruelty. Also on the menu are pigs’ windpipes and cows’ udder sacs. I half-wondered if they were going to serve up Torode’s Ford Cortina for dessert.
Why do we love to hate MasterChef? I suspect it has something to do with the way it transposes the utterly unimportant and insignificant into a context in which the stakes seem unbearably high. Contestants behave as though they are ending child poverty or curing cancer — when in fact they are only producing a perfectly set sorbet, or a jus that is to die for, or a perfectly poached haddock.
Yes, there are some bits that make me want to vomit. The pompous judges, their overzealous “tasting” faces, the toothsome language they use to describe the food. The well-rehearsed spontaneity and staged annoyance with contestants who are late plating-up gets stuck in my craw.
But I also love the highfalutin food nonsense. In the recent season, contestant Kasae offered up a gorgonzola mousse topped with nasturtium-caramelised walnut gel, caramelised batak-pepper apple, walnuts, candied walnuts and salty sea fingers, along with pear and nectarine chutney served with a ginger-and-timut-pepper bread. At least half of these ingredients were strangers to me. But they flicked every one of Wallace’s custard-loving switches.
Then there’s Monica Galeti. Fancying her just means you are breathing (at least, it does for us lesbians). And Torode and Wallace wind me up completely. The way Wallace puts on his facial expressions and phwoars, telling us in his faux cockney accent that he wants to give the dessert “a great big cuddle”. I hate it but I lap it all up.
Shortly after the latest series concluded, I contacted the judge who’d sent me those rude emails all those years ago, asking if they would do the same in response to this piece. “The short answer is no, I wouldn’t,” they replied. “Read back nine years later those emails look practically unhinged.”
But what if we were all unhinged at the time? I suppose that’s part of its winning recipe. A sprinkle of the absurd. A dash of pretence. A glug of the likes of Monica or Molly. Friday night dinner is always supposed to be chaotic — and perhaps that’s its secret ingredient.