Cooking just got tougher – a guide to the MasterChef series nine format changes

The opening rounds of the new series are harder than they've ever been before, says Paul Jones. Here's how it all works...

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When John Torode told us recently that the new series of MasterChef gets tough on contestants right from the start, he wasn’t kidding. The opening round of the new series is surely the hardest it’s ever been, with the amateur chefs facing an invention test, a hugely demanding palate test, a stint in a professional kitchen and finally a two-course meal, all before the first episode is over.

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The first five weeks of the series are when the heats and quarter-finals play out. Hour-long heats shows – generally featuring five contestants each – take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The half-hour quarter-finals follow on Fridays and will see the four remaining cooks from the two heats cooking for critics and, in the opening week, past MasterChef champions.

Here’s how those heats shows are structured, with a flavour of how tonight’s contenders fared…


MasterChef series nine heats


The invention test

The cooks are asked to create a dish of their choice from a selection of the ingredients provided. In this first week there are some successes and some failures…

Judging by her brutal knife work, one amateur chef appears to have a strong personal grudge against John Dory (don’t worry, it’s a fish, not a person) but nevertheless manages to turn out a dish that impresses Gregg and John with the amount of flavour it packs in. At the other end of the spectrum, an attempt at a “pear tower” turns out to be more of a puddle, and achieves the seemingly impossible feat of being too sweet even for pudding enthusiast Gregg Wallace to stomach…

The palate test

This is where things suddenly get astoundingly tough. On MasterChef: The Professionals, Michel Roux Jr asks contestants (all pro chefs, remember) to create a previously unseen classic dish using the recipe and ingredients provided. Here, there’s no recipe and the contestants’ only guide to the ingredients is their own sense of taste…

John Torode creates a dish (in the first heat, it’s courgette flowers filled with vanilla and saffron creme patissiere in a pomegranate, raspberry and rosewater sauce) and serves it to the contestants. First they must taste it, identifying and noting down as many flavours as possible in each element of the dish. Next, they’re asked to make it themselves from a selection of ingredients which include all the correct ones, plus plenty of red herrings (but no actual fish). I’d like to see Michel’s professional chefs tackle this task…

Two cooks leave

When I spoke to Gregg, he pointed out that under the new format, chefs who are suffering from first-day nerves get two chances to prove themselves. He didn’t mention just how tough those chances are. Here’s where time runs out for two of the contestants…

The professional kitchen

Talk about out of the frying pan… The three remaining cooks are now thrown straight into the firey crucible of a professional kitchen during a busy lunchtime service. Busier for some than others in heat one, as one chef is asked to cook eight steaks at once  ranging from blue to medium well-done  while another must construct a guinea fowl dish that includes a pan-fried breast, a deep-fried “lollipop” and four different sauces.

Contestants’ two-course meal

Back in the MasterChef kitchen, the cooks finally get the chance to demonstrate their own cuisine. Two hours later…

One cook leaves

Just a single episode in and only two of the original five from each heat survive. They’ll appear again in the last episode of the week (or, in week one, tagged on to the end of Wednesday’s programme) for the quarter-finals, where they’ll cook for the critics.


MasterChef is on BBC1 on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm and Fridays at 8:30pm


The new cookbook, MasterChef Cookery Course, is out now, priced £18.20 (RRP £26) from DK

Get 20% off tickets to the BBC Good Food Show Summer

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John Torode, Gregg Wallace and MasterChef 2012 champion Shelina Permalloo will be cooking with this year’s winner on stage at the NEC Birmingham (12–16 June). To book, visit bbcgoodfoodshow.com or call 0844 581 1341, quoting “PRESS20” (offer ends 30 April)