The man next to me in the MasterChef contestants’ line is brashly confident. “I have a plan,” he says. “Chicken fajitas. I’ve bought the fajitas and the grated cheese already. I’ll just have to fry the pepper and chicken at the last minute.”
“Which oil do you use for that?” I ask. “Sunflower? Groundnut?”
“Oil?” His face whitens. Too late, the double doors to the studio open. We’re on. ￼
Cooking doesn’t get tougher than the pre-season MasterChef challenge for food and television writers. Although you’re supposed to cook a family favourite, a dish you’ve lived with and loved at home for many years, cheating is rife. The man with the fajitas isn’t Mexican, and even I, Radio Times’s representative, will be following a recipe I’ve torn from a cookbook and camouflaged with parsley. There may be a national and global television audience of zilch, but this is one of life’s rare chances to be a champion. A journalist from a Scottish newspaper has caught the pre-dawn flight from Glasgow to be here.
The real MasterChef regularly attracts audiences of more than 5 million and winning a series can be life-changing. The 2005 champion, Thomasina Miers, went on to open the Wahaca chain of restaurants and at least three winners have recently published cookbooks. Although the only prize on offer today is a monogrammed MasterChef apron, judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace are in full broadcast mode when we file, blinking, into the unforgiving brightness of the MasterChef studio.
Torode, austere and imperious, is squeezed slightly too tightly into a tailored dark-blue suit. A jolly Wallace wears a three-piece tweed ensemble that shouts cockney barrow-boy-made-good. Which, when he claps his hands together and shouts, “Start cooking!”, is exactly what he sounds like.
Immediately we set to. The Scotsman is attempting an ambitious coq en croûte – essentially a chicken wellington – around which he plans to gather various vegetables in sauces.
According to the tattered page, my dish – cod provençal, if I had to name it – simply requires roasting onions, tomatoes and olives, putting a piece of cod on top for the last ten minutes and boiling some rice. The recipe – apart from the rice, which was my idea – is lifted from My Kind of Food: Recipes I Love to Cook at Home by John Torode, published last year, but now I’m in the kitchen with the author, I wonder if it was wise to offer such a flagrant challenge to his dignity.
Torode and Wallace have fronted MasterChef since 2005, but the series was created in 1990 by Franc Roddam, the man who thought up Auf Wiedersehen Pet and had the idea of making a film of The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia. The first version of the show was good enough to kick-start Lloyd Grossman’s unlikely second career as a cook-in sauce mogul, but following two revamps since the millennium, a super-pressurised version of MasterChef emerged to conquer the world. There are now 51 versions of the show around the world, including in Indonesia, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There is even an Albanian MasterChef.
British MasterChef – which possibly features less grilled lamb offal than Albanian MasterChef – has a simple judging set-up: Torode represents a chef’s point of view, Wallace a punter’s.
“I have a famously sweet tooth,” says Wallace as he walks among the dicing and chopping contestants. Until now, Lucy, representing a popular tabloid and offering a sponge pudding alongside a jug of reduced chocolate jus, had been an outsider. This announcement makes her a hot favourite, but for how long? On MasterChef, as in life, hubris is fatal. Soufflés can fail to rise, pans can burn dry.
There is also the chance that a celebrity chef will object to his own recipe being offered to him masquerading as someone else’s. As Wallace and Torode watch the olives, tomato and onion going into the oven, a flash of recognition crosses Torode’s face. “That’s quite like a dish that I do,” he says before the anguished cry close by of a man dropping a bag of pre-grated mature cheddar distracts them.
The Australian chef and London greengrocer are said to lead entirely separate lives outside the studio. Though both deny this when we speak later. “We have lunch with each other once a year,” Torode tells me. “And it’s not cold at all.”
“I phoned John up when I was having a tough time on Strictly,” says Wallace, referring to his saying, ‘Are you all right?’ and 15 minutes later the phone rang and you said, ‘No, I’m not all right at all. It’s s***’.”
Torode isn’t actively sniffy about Wallace, but there are hints he doesn’t entirely approve of his colleague. Torode says he has “a little coffee machine” in his dressing room. Wallace, it seems, doesn’t. “He only drinks instant coffee.”
They have different styles on the studio floor, too. As I put the rice on the hob, Wallace goes between contestants, dipping a finger here, patting a back there. Torode is a cooler operator, stopping to rescue fajita man from a potentially lethal attempt to chop a green pepper on a cheese-scattered board, before moving on to show Lucy how to make a spun-sugar crown for her sponge.
They are, in their different ways, benevolent masters of the MasterChef floor. And they need to be. MasterChef is a programme that obliges contestants to confront their deepest existential doubts in public, and with a spatula in their hands. “People want their food to be absolutely brilliant, the first time they ever cook it,” says Torode. “And that search for perfection can be a strange thing.”
Emotions could easily boil over, yet, in all their time together, they have never had a distraught contestant turn on them. “It’s remarkable,” says Wallace. “No one has ever thrown a punch at one of us.” Torode is also bemused. “I find it quite amazing that people don’t walk away.”
Time, though, does walk away. Somehow there are only 20 minutes to go. We have entered the zone where dishes should be coming to fruition, and right on cue I hear the angry sizzle of raw chicken encountering a very hot and very dry frying pan. I put the cod in the oven. Then, as Torode’s recipe insists, I take it out again after ten minutes. As I do this, Torode arrives and peers at the fish. “How long did you give it?” he says, poking the side. “Ten minutes,” I say, pushing the parsley over his recipe. “No, no,” he says, “it needs longer than that. Put it back in for five minutes.”
Before I can fully appreciate this irony, I’m engulfed in steam. The unattended rice has boiled itself into a seething mush that is now leaving the pan and I have to struggle with a sieve and tea towel to get it onto the plate with the fish just as our cooking time runs out. If I say so myself, it looks pretty good. Actually, I might have a chance of winning this.
Torode and Wallace take their place at the MasterChef plinth and the judging begins. First up: the frazzled chicken fajitas. Disaster would be an over-generous description of this as a plate of food. Although Wallace does manage a heartfelt, “Nice cheese”, it’s clearly one competitor down for my cod.
Then a setback – they both like the chicken wellington. However, the Scotsman’s plate is smeared with gravy. This bothers Torode. “Presentation matters,” he says. “You should have wiped it.” I look down at my own plate and notice the rice is releasing a little water.
Now Lucy steps up to the plinth and Torode and Wallace fall upon the pudding. I have noticed by now that Wallace takes more than Torode – often two man-size bites to each of Torode’s dainty forkfuls. But even Wallace is taken aback by the next dish. A lady from a woman’s magazine has made a sausage casserole, alongside which she serves poached egg on a bed of spinach and a plate of lardons, which she has smeared with mustard. She has baked her own bread as well. “I like your sausage,” says Wallace. “Over-embellished,” says Torode, severely.
Then it’s my turn. By now the rice has given up a good half-pint of water and, should my cod want to, it could swim back to Provence. I place the dish on the plinth, in front of the man who came up with it. “Interesting,” says Torode. “But that’s not how I would do it.”