THOSE not familiar with the MasterChef phenomenon seem to think that the programme is just another Ready Steady Cook. How wrong they are. There is nothing so simple as a meagre green pepper or red tomato here. There are, however, Heirloom tomatoes and Anaheim chillis- the kind of capsicums that sit well outside the pitifully amateur box.
MasterChef’s audience follow the programme with an avid, impassioned pride. They love it with the same pride which scorns Big Brother and The X-Factor, in fact, the only other reality television programme people who watch MasterChef make time for is The Apprentice. This is middle-class televisual snobbery at the highest level.
But what is it that makes MasterChef such compelling viewing? I would argue that there are three (possibly four) factors. Firstly, the toothy grin and outlandish sayings of presenter Gregg Wallace can’t fail to raise a smile, particularly when accompanied by a growl from his bumptious, po-faced partner John Torode. One of many examples came during the Semi-Final, when the contestants were whisked off to Thailand for an authentic experience away from the sterility of the MasterChef kitchen. “What a punch round the face of chilli that was” exclaims Gregg. “For me that needs more chilli” John replies, to which Gregg says “What are you, inferno mouth”, in that way that rotund uncles do when they’re struggling for a metaphor. Gregg’s vicarious habit of describing food not as food, but as an out-of-body experience is arguably one of MasterChef’s most enjoyable features. Telling contestants that they’ll have to cook two puddings to be judged by three chefs, Gregg shouts into the camera: “this is a day for heroes”, leaving everyone in the room showered with spit but ready for action. Nuggets of linguistic genius from previous series include: “This is the bland leading the bland”, “Love an icing bag me. You know someone’s serious when they get an icing bag out”, “It’s summery, it’s fruity, I’d stick my face in it” and “I wouldn't marry your rhubarb, strawberry and ginger crumble - but I'd love to take it away for a dirty weekend”. Indeed.
That said, my second factor, the combinations of food and startling array of ingredients, leaves me wondering whether Gregg is perhaps justified. This isn’t home cooking, and the contestants producing gasto-pub fodder are sent packing in the early weeks. This is a show for those with strictly Michelin-starred aspirations. There’s a beauty in seeing bouncers who you’d cross the street to avoid tossing peashoots and pomegranate seeds onto a square piece of pristine white china with all the elegance of a sugarplum fairy. Stick me in Fortnum and Masons for a month and give me an unlimited budget and I still wouldn’t dream up dishes like Andrew’s chocolate, orange and coriander tart with chocolate-hazelnut mousse, pear and fennel ice cream and candied fennel.
Factors three and four are the humility of the contestants and the occasional appearance of Michel Roux Jnr., pastry impresario and God to whom all men should aspire. These four factors, though there are probably many more, cannot help but keep feasting eyes glued to the screen. I for one will be holding out for next series, waiting for more hilarious puns, charismatic contestants and crazy-but-it-works dishes.
This piece was published in Exeposé in March 2012