Any new helping of MasterChef has me salivating – not that I could keep up with the recent celebrity version, thanks to the BBC schedulers’ inexplicable decision to bury it in an afternoon slot - but I relish MasterChef: the Professionals most of all.
And last night’s final (no spoilers here) was the climax of what has been a truly astounding series, full of drama, passion, determination and, above all, phenomenal cookery skills. But what are the ingredients that make The Professionals not only stand out from its MasterChef siblings, but also all TV food programmes?
The thing that always strikes me about the plucky souls who enter this competition is what a risk they’re taking. It’s not called MasterChef: the Professionals for nothing – these are people who are already working in the food industry, be it for a catering company, in a pub, bistro or top-end restaurant.
How brave, then, to enter a contest televised before millions, potentially be exposed for not being able to fillet a sea bream in under five minutes, and then have to go back and face your customers.
The stakes are high, of course – previous MasterChef winners have gone on to be employed by the best chefs in the world or realise dreams of opening their own restaurant – but you’d have to want it bad to consider national humiliation as a career hazard.
The producers might as well just tie the contestants to a rack; that would be kinder. Before even catching a glimpse of Michel Roux Jr, the hopefuls must first attempt to get past his formidable senior sous chef, Monica Galetti, who makes Gordon Ramsay look like a drugged Andrex puppy.
So protective is she of “my boss”, Michel’s gurning gatekeeper permits access via her gruelling skills test only to the few who have managed to meet her exacting standards - and even then they’re often sent away with a flea in their ear.
If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen, so the saying goes. But the Professional competitors don’t have a choice, as they are sent out to toil in the restaurants of the world’s most celebrated chefs. Placements have included Denmark’s Noma, widely recognised as the top restaurant on earth, Catalonia's triple Michelin-starred El Celler and London’s L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
And that’s not to mention the fierce critics who turn up to the MasterChef studio year after year to assess the culinary creations of the contestants, or the roomful of Michelin-starred chefs who gather near the end of the series to experience a meal cooked by the finalists. Such is the pedigree of this series, the best in the business seem only too happy to take part.
You want a Michelin-starred TV series, you need a Michelin-starred chef.
For me, Michel Roux Jr is the highlight of the MasterChef menu. I can’t help but wonder what’s going through his mind when he slowly samples each dish laid before him, savouring the flavours and preparing his feedback. Gentle but firm, incisive but fair, his comments are never belittling and always constructive; if my driving instructor had had his manner, I might have passed first time.
(Also, a propos of nothing, I’m a little embarrassed to admit to experiencing a frisson of excitement when Michel introduces his dishes in his native tongue – “oeufs pochés meurette”, anyone? Sounds more delicious than "eggs poached in red wine", that's for sure.)
It would be wrong not to mention that MasterChef constant, Gregg Wallace. His relationship with Michel works perfectly; while the chef analyses technique, texture and taste, everyone’s favourite greengrocer sticks a dessert spoon in his gob, grins and utters such gems as "It’s the closest to a cuddle you will ever get in a plate of food!” Gregg represents you and me, the regular punter, and his appreciation of good, honest food is undeniable.
So that, I’m sorry to say, is MasterChef: the Professionals over for another year; I’ll just have to snack on the other MasterChef variants until I can dine out in style again.