The MasterChef studio in Wandsworth is a lovely, light, airy place to cook. There are no TV cameras being shoved in my face. Every time I need a spare saucepan, I shout over to one of the production staff and they fetch it for me. And – with all due respect to my five fellow competitors – they’re journalists. Yet the nerves are there, the pressure is there.
We’re through the looking glass here, people. On the other side of the TV screen. Actually in the MasterChef kitchen, cooking against the clock for the actual John Torode and Gregg Wallace.
As we get started on our “signature dishes” (I invented mine yesterday), John and Gregg circle the workstations, from time to time bursting into song and, in Gregg’s case, bellowing out Jimmy Tarbuck-style jokes.
John glides over and starts peering into my pan, messing about with my leeks. He thinks there’s too much butter. I panic to myself. “Add some water,” says John. “It will evaporate and the leeks will absorb the flavour of the butter without burning.” I do. He’s right.
Then it’s time for some light relief. Gregg saunters over and places his glasses on my head of celeriac. I have to admit, the resemblance is uncanny.
The MasterChef clock appears to have been wired incorrectly so that the minute hand is moving at the speed of a second hand. Time is running out. I abandon an optimistic first attempt to make a beurre blanc (whatever that is) in favour of anchovy butter. It’s never let me down.
As I prepare to “plate up” (as we chefs call it), John takes my discarded pan, does something with some cream and a whisk, then strolls nonchalantly off. He has turned my discarded ingredients into a sauce. I’m too proud to use it, of course.
I layer my buttery potato and celeriac mash with my buttered leeks and spinach, before dousing my fish fillets with anchovy butter.
The presentation isn’t up to much, but if the quality of a dish is measured by the amount of butter you manage to cram into it, I reckon I’ve done a pretty good job. I don’t know how Gregg and John will feel but James Martin would love it.
I approach the judging bench, holding my plate delicately in front of me. This is my (slightly grubby) soul on a plate. Well actually it’s bream, but you get the idea.
I lay it gingerly in front of John and Gregg. There is no getting away from the fact that my fish is swimming in butter, but after draining off a couple of pints the judges have a taste and both seem genuinely impressed. Remember, they’ve had seven series’ practice trying to find positives in amateur chefs’ food.
“You can cook a bit,” says John, and that would have been enough for me. As it turns out, he and Gregg decide my dish is the best!
That’s right, I’ve outcooked five other people who write words for a living… and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a buzz out of the experience (or daydream briefly about being crowned MasterChef (The Professionals?) 2012 for real).
So if, in the past, I’ve made fun of contestants who get earnest and emotional too early in the process, maybe now I understand them a bit better.
Back in the green room, still wearing my official MasterChef apron, I feel moved to share my incredible journey. For the first time today, I kind of wish there were some TV cameras around…
MasterChef returns tonight at 9pm on BBC1