I Love Greg Wallace!

Well actually, he’s not really my type, but I do love  his greedy antics on BBC’s MasterChef programme!

I’ve never been much of a follower of ‘serial TV’ partly because I’m rarely sat on the couch week after week on the same night, but also because I am easily bored and  irritated by TV Shenanigans.  As a general rule, I dislike the new breed of cheap production reality TV. However, I   think MasterChef is genuinely different, and I would like to examine why I think this.

For a start the show, in varying formats, has been around for many years, with a variety of presenters.  Resurrected in 2006, I believe, as MasterChef goes large, it raised itself in the consciousness of a new audience, but it wasn’t really until the forerunner of the current show in 2008 that viewer numbers started to pick up and rise  to the meteoric 5 million of today’s show.

There are now 3 variants of the show: MasterChef the professionals, Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef amateurs, the original show.  I have to confess that I  watch all 3!  The celebrity show is my least favourite, mostly because I have never been into the cult of celebrity, but also because I have rarely heard of the  people who enter, and feel they do it to revive flagging careers rather than for any real love of, or talent with, cooking.  There are exceptions and  I felt Phil Vickery  was a worthy celebrity winner (or perhaps I just have more of a penchant for sportsmen than  other  ‘celebrities’!)

MasterChef has clearly launched itself as a brand, and all the machinations of marketing and pimping that brings with it.  There are TV clones in 25 countries as well as various live shows throughout the UK.  This is one of our successful UK exports, and perhaps I don’t need to be too  purist about it.  Most people will watch it because it’s nail-biting and riveting, rather than because they want to enter the competition of quit their jobs to become a chef, it is entertainment after all, but the reality is that there has been a surge of interest and new blood, in a profession that has to date not had the best of reputations.  When I was at college training, courses were invariably undersubscribed.

Ash Mair, the winner of the last MasterChef The professionals competition may be 34, but the other finalists were under 25, and it is refreshing to see new young blood entering the bastions of stuffy haute cuisine.  It was also refreshing to see someone like Ash, who cooks true to his influences and passions, winning out.

As a previous entrant -of the old style competition- and a trained chef, I have more than a passing interest in the show, but it is I believe, the journey of the contestants that draws people who have no particular interest in the foodie world; that transformation from ordinary cook to inspired talent; the building up of culinary confidence and self belief, along with the experience itself; the reality that with hard work and effort, dreams can come true.  I think this is the crux of the matter for me.  The show doesn’t support fools and shirkers, it doesn’t offer fantastic prizes for doing daft things, or pots of money for exhibiting knowledge, or having a bit of luck, it is based on good old fashioned hard work and enthusiasm, and I think this shines through in most of the competitors, professional and amateur alike.

The hosts and judges are inspired choices for this new format  show.  I think it’s important to have a non-cook like Greg on board.  Mr Wallace know his veg, and his puddings of course, but he also know what he likes, and what he’d be prepared to eat out, and is not afraid to say so.  John Torode, as a restaurateur and chef, has direct experience of fine dining, but offers a fair critique of any honest grub.  Flavour can still win the day.  Michel Roux Junior is a consummate professional, but demonstrates genuine interest in and concern for his fledgling protégés.

I have eaten ‘posh nosh’ at some first class restaurants, including a couple with Michelin stars, and it’s interesting to see the behind scenes thought and work that goes into some of the creations.   I genuinely believe that most of us don’t want fancy food that has been deliberated over, most of the time, but  I don’t think it does any harm to raise the bar, to educate the punter and the professional that there is more to dining out than steak and chips.  In the UK we have suffered for too long with a reputation for some of the poorest, and most expensive food in Europe, indeed the world, and it is not a record to be proud of.  It is still eminently possible to go out to eat and pay a reasonable amount of money for something that you could turn out at home, actually in a lot of cases, something far below the standard of what you can produce at home!  As someone who eats mostly vegetarian I am regularly disappointed at the lack of imagination, and fresh ingredients, employed  in making vegetable dishes.  Seeing our aspiring chefs cooking Japanese, Thai, Indian, Mauritian, and an eclectic range of vegetarian food is both interesting and encouraging, and for me personally quite motivating too.

Not everyone who gets to the finals of MasterChef will go on to be a successful chef, but it is interesting to note that out of the seven amateur winners, all  but one is working in the food industry in some capacity, some in their own restaurants.  The runners-up appear to be similarly successful, and all 3 finalists from 2010 and 2011 are working in food.

Most of us I suspect,  would not want to spend 12 to 16 hour days in hot kitchens being shouted at by head chefs, under pressure to perform and produce near-perfect results time after time.  You have to be a certain type of person to want to do that for a living.   We can all aspire to be better cooks, to try new things and be bothered about how something looks as well as how it tastes.  Who was it who said ‘you eat first with your eyes’?

I think MasterChef appeals to a range of people – those who like to cook for sure, but also those who like to eat, who enjoy food, and revel in the colours and flavours of something well made.  It will also I feel sure appeal to those sadistic souls who enjoy seeing people suffer, put through their paces in the most gruelling of challenges.  Let’s face it, competing in MasterChef is no stroll down chef row!

We have our favourite competitors, and we follow them, we ‘put money’ on the person we think should win, and we’re elated or disappointed, respectively, when they do/don’t.  The programme has a reality, a passion and drama to it that is missing from a lot of programming, reality or otherwise, and for this reason I think it tugs at something elemental in us.  It has proved life-changing for many of the contestants, and it genuinely shows us what we believe, but are rarely brave enough to follow, that if you have a dream and you’re prepared to devote yourself to that dream, then it can become a reality.  MasterChef is definitely the stuff that dreams are made of, and that’s rare today, never mind for a TV show!

Photo Credit BBC Worldwide

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