Do you think you have what it takes to win MasterChef? Will you be watching the latest series thinking, “Hey, that could so easily be me, beating that egg, frying that meat, slaying John and Gregg into sobs of joy with my masterful soufflé?” Well, if you have MasterChef ambitions in your soul, then read on. And understand what you must have among the crucial battery of implements in your kitchen cupboard, if you ever want to be within a shot of hoisting that frankly rather bizarre trophy.
I’m having lunch with John Torode and Gregg Wallace, the seasoned, chatty and utterly incorruptible judges of MasterChef, who are going to give me the inside steer on how to triumph. Torode, the restaurant chef who brings more than a soupçon of Aussie bloke-ish charm to the programme, gestures across the table.
“Look at what’s on this table now. Just 12 years ago, none of these foods would have been here. Look at what we have: couscous; sushi; houmous; edamame beans! The evolution of food is amazing. Twelve years from now, who knows what it’s going to be like.”
Wallace, the former greengrocer whose business acumen has taken a bit of a battering of late, but who has a love of silly jokes (and whose new slim frame belies his lifelong love of puddings), nods his head sagely. “We love innovation in food on the programme. I love to be surprised. I used to be conservative, but bit by bit over the past decade on the show I’ve grown to love change.”
Torode agrees. “Even now, nobody in Western Europe knows anything about, say Eastern European food. Or Chinese! How many times have you eaten salted jellyfish? Last month I was in India eating salted pickled bracken, with lentils. Delicious.”
So, first point to any potential winner: be adventurous. Get going with the pickled bracken. But not too adventurous. Mad combinations of food that have no place in any recipe, and make people’s stomachs turn, are never going to work.
“You need to be able to see an ingredient, and use it to build a dish in your head,” says Torode. “Contestants who can taste food and feel it in their mouth without actually cooking it are the ones that win,” echoes Wallace.
“Give me three ingredients,” commands Torode. All right, I say. How about… ginger, apple and chicken? The two judges look at me as if I have just come bottom of the MasterChef class and don’t even deserve to wear the apron, let alone hold the prize. There is a long pause.
“Well, you would never put apple with chicken,” says Torode. “It’s not going to work. Ginger and apple go together. Ginger and chicken go together, but ginger, apple and chicken will never work together. Two of the ingredients are watery and one is just… well, it’s chicken.” Clearly I am hopeless at building a dish in my head.
Wallace shakes his head in despair. “That is such a common mistake on MasterChef. It happens over and over again. You picked three ingredients. People think that because ginger goes with each one, it will all work together, but it won’t. Someone may well put together pork, apple and custard. Because apple goes with each. But they haven’t considered pork and custard, have they? Are you following me?”
I miserably admit that no, I have never considered a dish involving pork and custard. All right, let’s leave the ingredients for a minute. What about the actual skills? Apart from building dishes in your head, what do you need to be able to do on MasterChef in order to win?
“You need to know how to make basic sauces,” says Wallace. “How to make a roux, how to make an hollandaise, how to make a decent roast and how to make a pie. If you can do all of those things, you will have a decent arsenal of skills at your disposal. But in order to win you also have to have an ability to produce something that eight out of ten people like. Lots of people can conjure up flavour and texture combinations.” He shakes his head sadly. “They are not always… lovely.”
So, second point. You have to be able to cook something that most people will want to eat. What should you avoid? Fish and fruit, according to Wallace, is a bad way to proceed. Bar mackerel and goosberries, or lemon. Everything else just makes the judges go “bluurgh”.
“Fish and fruit comes up regularly, with disastrous results,” says Wallace. “The other thing is presenting something that is raw. Especially if the outside is coloured, because then you can’t see that inside it is undercooked. It’s not until you cut into it that you see its heart is still beating.”
The judges don’t seem to go for things that look simply ghastly, either. “In this series we have one dish, a dessert, which is declared by a guest as being similar to a tumour. A thumping, humping, bleeding tumour,” says Torode, shaking his head.
“All I will say about another one,” he continues, “is… duck and banana.”
“Duck and banana,” echoes Wallace.
“Duck and banana,” says Torode again.
“Duck and banana,” choruses Wallace.
They go on in this vein for a few minutes. Eventally, Torode and Wallace weary of chanting “duck and banana”. Torode turns to me with a helpless look: “The contestant honestly thought it was a good idea.”
So, to summarise. You have to be innovative, but avoid fish and fruit. And duck and fruit. You have to be able to see a dish in your head, but it must be a nice-tasting one. Preferably an Eastern European one. And you have to be cool under pressure.
What you don’t have to be, in order to win MasterChef, is good at taking orders. You must be a leader, not a follower, say Wallace and Torode. “If you do well in the kitchen round, and the chef loves you, you probably won’t win MasterChef,” opines Torode, “because you haven’t bucked the system, you haven’t changed the mould. What you are doing is what they tell you to do. You are a great follower, but [to win] you have to be doing something individual and different and you have to push the boundaries.”
Equally, please do not view winning MasterChef as the way in to something else, such as opening your own little restaurant. You may well be on the way to something else, but that something else might not be turning into the next Gordon Ramsay.
“If you win MasterChef, it doesn’t mean you are going to be a brilliant chef,” says Torode. “The programme is a springboard for someone who wants to change their life, but not necessarily for running their own restaurant. “It’s like the difference between someone who plays the piano because they love to play the piano, and a concert pianist who does the same piece of music over and over again. That’s what you have to do when you are a chef. You have to make a crème brûlée every single day on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for three or four years. A chef has to be able to replicate the same dishes over and over again, whereas a cook on MasterChef is doing something different all the time.”
How about getting round the judges? Might that be a good strategy? I know that Torode is pretty fond of Asian food, and Wallace loves his puds. Surely a successful method might be to play to these known qualities, right? Wrong.
“People never understand there are five points to Asian food,” announces Torode. “Sweet, sour, salty, hot and pungent. And unless you grew up there and it’s your food, then few people will be able to do it. And with Gregg, if you are going to cook a dessert, well, it has to be the best dessert he has ever tasted.” Wallace smiles. “I love cranachan. It’s a Scottish dessert. But I have had nine of them so far on the series.”
Something simple might be a good way to these practised tasters’ hearts.
“One of the best dishes I have ever eaten,” says Torode dreamily, “was a bowl of pasta with some minced-up red mullet through it. It was absolutely delicious. It looked just like a bowl of pasta but it was outstanding.”
So there you have it. Be daring. Be imaginative. Don’t follow orders in the kitchen. Know how to make a roux. Avoid Scottish puds and Asian food. And never put duck with banana.
See MasterChef tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1