I love this version of the UK’s Masterchef. It follows pretty much the same pattern as the standard MC (new contestants each night, a final at week’s end, rinse, repeat until semi finals) but with more specific challenges and higher expectations Some of the contestants are way up there on the kitchen food chain, some are working in restaurants with serious reputations and others are young guys working hard in small pubs and bistros. In any case, there’s quite a bit at stake for them as far as their own self-esteem goes – imagine pitching up to work having performed abysmally in front of such a large audience.
Skills Test and Palate Test
In this MC, the first round is a knockout, literally. To “earn the right to cook for Michel Roux Jr” the four chefs face Monica Galetti1, his senior sous chef, in an elimination based on a ten minute test designed to showcase the contestants’ skills and palates. Only three go through. Skills tests have included the following: Clean and butterfly prawns, bone a trotter, bone an oxtail, fillet a fish, shuck oysters, julienne vegetables, turn vegetables, clean a squid, open scallops, joint a rabbit. Palates have been tested on how well the chefs can make a tasty pesto, omelette, scrambled eggs, bearnaise, pancake and creme anglaise, amongst other things. Usually there’s a standout contestant who romps it in; often there are two that don’t seem to have a clue in at least one of the two tests. In one episode this week, one guy didn’t get to the palate test, another made the pesto, but didn’t use the mortar and pestle (his dish apparently tasted good, but it looked beyond chunky), yet another mistook julienne for dice. Even when contenders haven’t ever tried doing what they are tested on, Monica is able to see whether a spark of potential exists – sometimes extraordinary knife skills see them through; at other times, an error such as a sliver of butter cut with a bloody knife on a bloody board makes for an easy decision. Occasionally, when there are two contestants who have performed badly on the test, it seems she would rather send neither through to her boss (in the aforementioned butter case, Monica made it clear to the other poorly performing chef that he was only there because of someone else’s more egregious error).
Monica is a natural on TV, and something of a rarity in this male-dominated arena. In her five years working with Michel, she has clearly taken on some of his characteristics – her facial expressions while the chefs tackle the challenges are one of the highlights of this section. She and regular season judge Gregg Wallace discuss and discard, calmly, with no shouting.
Two dishes, one ingredient (some sort of fish, meat or poultry), 50 mins
Michel lets us know what he’ll be looking for in the treatment of the ingredient, and then wanders around with Gregg interrogating the contestants and exercising his facial muscles to entertaining effect. Fortunately, the chefs are too hard at work to see him, otherwise some would probably withdraw from the competition prior to judging. Some chefs crumble under pressure, but I haven’t seen a contestant fail to plate up two dishes until this week (strangely, he didn’t leave himself time to sear scallops).
When tasting, Michel doesn’t stuff as much in his gob as John Torode tends to do during the regular season. Both judges provide constructive criticism and I’d imagine all contestants aim for “I’d put that on my menu” from Michel and “Phwaor!!!!” from Gregg. It’s great to see the look on a chef’s face when his (or, unfortunately rarely, her) offering is greeted with enthusiasm. I challenge you not to have a little joyous weep for contestants who reap the judges’ praise. One such beneficiary was this week’s jug-eared ranga, who had to deal with a gentle Michel Roux Jr compliment-fakeout2 and was still beaming in his post challenge interview saying “it’s not as good as when my daughter was born, but almost!”. Both judges show respect for these guys – after all, all contestants, successful or not, will be heading back into kitchens once this is done. There’s no annihilation of egos, but there’s no unearned praise: chefs are told when their food doesn’t work, but – crucially – are told why.
Classic recipe test
Two dishes, 1 hr and 20 minutes
In the final test, the chefs are given two “classic” dishes and 80 minutes to demonstrate their understanding of the fundamentals of French cooking. Some days it might be a Boeuf Bourguignon and madeleines; another day devilled kidneys and a fruit tart. One of the more subtle challenges this week called for a consomme and a roasted pineapple. I didn’t catch the name of the pineapple dish, but it looked more like something you’d get at the Island Trader than at Le Cinq (apparently it’s a classic – let me know if you’ve ever encountered it).
As with the very first test, there are often dishes the that chefs have never made; indeed, sometimes they’ve never seen or tasted what it is they are supposed to be recreating. They are given recipes, of course, but if you’ve got no clear idea of what something should be, that can be challenging (as we saw with the Paris Brest turned out by one contender).
When all’s said and done, the judges weigh up the pros and cons to come to a consensus over who should go through to the quarter finals. Unlike the regular MC, there haven’t been many knock-down disputes between the judges. Perhaps Gregg holds Michel in higher esteem than he does John?
This is not a “reality” show; it’s more like a cooking Olympics. It’s also not the kind of food show you watch for how-tos, although there are definitely some tips to pick up along the way. I think there are still a few weeks to go – if you have the food channel, and love watching people cook, check it out.
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1. I’m wondering whether there’s a “southern hemisphere judge” clause. Unlike John Torode, though, Monica’s accent hasn’t Britified.
2. These judges aren’t immune to the possibility for drama when judging, but they don’t aim for Seacrest “You’ll be disappointed to hear that… you’re back next week!” levels of fakeout. In this instance, Michel said something along the lines of “Michelin star restaurants are able to put three ingredients on a plate… and you have produced a dish of this quality”.