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Why we love to hate MasterChef Don’t get me started on the fruit coulis

Phwoar. (BBC MasterChef)

Phwoar. (BBC MasterChef)


December 14, 2023   4 mins

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.


Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.

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Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago

Was Julia Bindel actually watching the same show ?
To start with, the main judge was Marcus Wareing. Michel Roux Junior has been the other main judge. John Torode judges on the regular MasterChef and not the professionals version.
But none of these judges are “foghorns” (though Julia Bindel might well be). They are unfilingly polite and constructive. That’s part of the appeal of this show for me – it’s about building people up and not knocking them down. It is also that rare thing on TV – a show for ordinary – even ugly – people unlike most of the airbrushed dross we’re served up in the name of “reality TV”. The whole appeal of the program for me is that it is not pretentious.
And then this: “Contestants behave as though they are ending child poverty or curing cancer”.
Really ? I’ve never seen or heard that. Contestants don’t get to say much at all. What they do do is gracefully accept the verdit of the judges and respect the other contestants.
But I still enjoyed Julie’s writing here.

Buena Vista
Buena Vista
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

The American version is kind of short on “ordinary” people, unless those with tats on their necks, fishing tackle piercing their jowls, tie-dyed hair, and proclamations of “intersectionality” are ordinary now.
Perhaps they are.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Give her a break! ‘A mouth so wide you could reverse a Cortina into it’. Hilarious. This light hearted article brightened up a boring bus journey and made me smile.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago

That’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed reading it.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

The article’s about MasterChef, only the picture is of the ‘Pro’ version, and that’s not Ms B’s fault :).

Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
7 months ago

I just hate this show so much I never watch it though I have seen it. I agree with Alphonse, it’s a dreadful work environment (like every student I was a waitress once and we had the alcoholics and crazy fly into a rage nut jobs in our modest kitchen too). I think it’s the breathless commentary I cannot bear as much as anything over something so trivial as dreaming up a dessert made from 15 different ingredients tortured and forced together for a tiny puddle of what looks like spittle on the plate with bits floating in it.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
7 months ago

The original version, presented by a pre-cooking sauce Lloyd Grossman, was indeed a far gentler affair. The prize was some kind words from Lloydie, a round of applause from the other contestants and a cut glass fruit bowl.

Setting aside bear pit judging and the twin fog-horns of Wallace and Torode, what I fail to understand about the re-boot is why people with often well paid jobs compete to win the prize of a catering career. I can only assume that they don’t appreciate that they will work from dawn till midnight six days a week in sweltering conditions, in the company of alcoholics, drug addicts and psychopaths, in an industry where many businesses fail due to the wafer thin margins. Mind you, watching the poor fools face their first service in a real kitchen is usually worth tuning in for. Perhaps they read Kitchen Confidential and, as some do, got sucked in by the adrenaline rush. This is fun when you’re 20, but the novelty soon wears off.

M Harries
M Harries
7 months ago

Curious piece. Is it somehow a slow news day?
”Why do we love to hate MasterChef?”
> Who is ‘we’? I LOVE Masterchef the Professionals and don’t know anyone who hates it. At most, I suppose there may be an indifference.

William Cameron
William Cameron
7 months ago

Why do the TV employ Wallace ? I have never met anyone who doesnt turn him off when he appears on a screen.

Tony Price
Tony Price
7 months ago

See my comment above – I agree with you; everyone I have every spoken to on the subject dislikes his presenting style. I have also heard from those in the business (so third-hand etc and only, of course allegedly) that he is Not Safe In Taxis, as one used to say, if you know what I mean.

Andrew H
Andrew H
7 months ago

He truly is completely insufferable. His own number one fan. I’ll never forget the “my hols” interview with him in the Sunday Times, when the only thing he had to say about a trip to Paris was whatever luxury tat he bought. A monumental, self-obsessed philistine.

Tony Price
Tony Price
7 months ago

I suggested to my mate, who doesn’t usually watch the show, that he should watch the one in Denmark as it must be the most pretentiously arsey ridiculous restaurant in the world and he immediately replied “the trouble is that there are only two people in the world whose face I would like to smash in”. We are both very mild, non-violent chaps so I immediately replied “would that be George Osborne and Gregg Wallace?”. Answer: “yup”!

Anne Torr
Anne Torr
7 months ago

I find Wallace’s constant gurning puts me off the food. I have no idea what he adds to either the professional or celebrity programmes.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
7 months ago
Reply to  Anne Torr

The ‘Fighty Greengrocer’ as Viz dubbed him.

Peter Jenks
Peter Jenks
7 months ago

The show is pure escapism, and there is NOTHING wrong with that. A bit like dreaming of owning a supercar..many of us would love to do that, just as many of us would love to be able to cook (and eat) food to the level of the finalists in each Master Chief!
We enjoy good food, and cooking. We don’t take ourselves seriously: the world takes far too much far too seriously…chill out and enjoy life.
We will be watching the next series…

David Ginsberg
David Ginsberg
7 months ago

I really like the Professionals version when Michel Roux was the joint presenter as he bought a real touch of class to the programme. When he fell out with the BBC over his potato endorsements and they replaced him with the dull Marcus Waering it lost me.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
7 months ago

Mrs U is friends with a MasterChef finalist from the Grossman era. In fact she’s coming to lunch on Monday. No pressure then!

Last edited 7 months ago by Dougie Undersub
Robert Ballard
Robert Ballard
7 months ago

*Loyd

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
7 months ago
Reply to  Robert Ballard

Well spotted!

Margie Murphy
Margie Murphy
7 months ago

Agree completely. Love/hate for me as well. Hard to.pull yourself away from it when you get sucked in. Was compulsive viewing during covid when we had time to watch, to.shop and to cook.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago

Oh, I didn’t know anyone did watch it. Each to his own I suppose