I must have eaten a bit too much cheese before bed last night because I had this bizarre dream that I was in the MasterChef kitchen and I had to cook sea urchin for Monica Galetti, and then Michel Roux Jr was there and he shouted at me because my dish wasn't ready on time and... oh no, wait, it wasn't a dream...
To be honest, it shouldn't feel all that strange to find myself in the MasterChef kitchen, as I'm now a seasoned competitor, having been there a total of two times. You'll no doubt recall the previous occasion, when I tried to drown John Torode and Gregg Wallace in butter but was nevertheless judged to be less bad at cooking than five other people who write words for a living. But that was – no offence – ordinary MasterChef. This is MasterChef: The Professionals, the cream of culinary competition.
In case you aren't aware, there are three levels of MasterChef – Celebrity, where school dinners will do, MasterChef itself, where "cooking doesn't get tougher than this", and The Professionals, where cooking gets even tougher than this.
As an online TV journalist with one of the least memorable names ever handed out, I'm well aware that however fast and loose they play it with the definition of the word "celebrity", I’m unlikely ever to qualify for Celebrity MasterChef. But that's fine. Frankly, as an alumnus of MasterChef: The Journalists Who Could Be Arsed to Trek to Wandsworth Town First Thing in the Morning, Celebrity MasterChef would have been a bit of a step down. No, I needed the toughest challenge there is. I needed the MasterChef: The Professionals skills test. I needed Monica Galetti and a sea urchin...
I don't know how familiar you are with sea urchins (possibly you tuck into them daily as a between-meal snack) but I had never prepared one before. A sea urchin is the size and shape of a squashed tangerine and entirely covered in sharp brown spines. It looks like a baby hedgehog that’s taken too long trying to cross the road. How anyone came to look at one and think “Yum!” is hard to comprehend, but thankfully they did because sea urchin is delicious. Once you get into it, that is...
Monica – who, in real life, manages to be as formidable as she seems on TV, yet really nice at the same time – shows us how to open the urchins by smacking them with the back of a spoon and then getting to work with the scissors (as if they haven't already been through enough, having been yanked out of their shady rock pools and dumped on a tray under this harsh strip lighting).
Inside the shell (once you find your way past the yucky brown bits) are the nuggets of orange urchin meat, which we remove with the end of a teaspoon (yes, it’s as fiddly as it sounds, which is probably why they give us three urchins each…)
We are then shown how to make an avocado mousse and a sort of cold cucumber soup for it to sit in (tastes better than it sounds). Monica reveals that she concocts the tests for the professional chefs herself just before the show and that, despite how it sometimes appears, is happy for them to place their own interpretation on her dishes.
Like any true artist, I embrace this. With my dollop of avocado mousse already positioned in the centre of my plate, my slivers of bright orange urchin flesh arranged on top and my cucumber and coriander soup ready to go, I realise I have some time left to experiment.
A jug of cream has been placed inexplicably on my work surface, and is asking to be used. Working on the basis that everything is better with cream in it, I decide to transform my cucumber soup into cream of cucumber soup. Monica agrees it could work but says I should whip the cream in order to prevent it from splitting. The thought of my soup splitting in front of scary-eyed culinary genius Michel Roux Jr fills me with dread so I sensibly leave the final "plating up" (as we chefs call it) to the very last minute so that I can give the soup a final whisk before pouring it on.
Then, with no warning, Michel Roux Jr is here and all my competitors are assembled in front of him, while I am at the back of the room and still have my soup to add. It immediately becomes clear that the whole thing – the seemingly casually-placed jug of cream, Monica's suggestion that we experiment and her warning about my soup splitting – have all been part of an elaborate trap.
Michel Roux Jr shouts at me from the front of the room "Hurry up! You're late! It's not fair on the others!" I shout back "Sorry, Chef!" like they do on the telly and wobble towards him with my dish – sea urchin, sunbathing on an avocado island in a creamy green sea.
Chef is not too impressed by my decision to stray from Monica's recipe (see? Trap!) but when he tastes my creation, he's clearly won over and his decision not to crown me the winner is almost certainly due to the fact that it would be unfair on the other journalists. The important thing is, I have successfully completed a MasterChef: The Professionals skills test, just like on the TV. Oh, except they get 15 minutes to do it and we had an hour. OK, it's possible cooking gets slightly tougher than this...
The new series of MasterChef: The Professionals begins tonight at 8:30pm on BBC2