Food as sport is nothing new. To a vicar, especially, church catering has represented the conduct of war by other means for many years. I remember in one parish a terrible row over the ideal size of mince pies, and in another two great ladies dashing trays of pancakes to the vicarage floor in a controversy over whether to roll or to fold. But the real arena for food combat is television.
In my opinion, the best of the knockout cookery series is MasterChef, which I have watched since Loyd Grossman’s day, back in the 1990s. I still find it compelling, in spite of it having been running, more or less unaltered, since John Torode and Gregg Wallace took it over in 2005. So to be asked to participate in the celebrity version proved irresistible. Even after my mother, a celebrated cook, offered the helpful comment, “You’ll be out in the first round.”
It’s true contestants on the regular MasterChef seem to deserve at least two Michelin stars, on Professional MasterChef three, and even on CBBC’s Junior MasterChef an honourable mention in Egon Ronay. At least for the celebrity version, distinction rests on other achievements – though I believe Neil Back’s tuiles are legendary on the international rugby circuit.
Obviously it isn’t all about dazzling the judges with my signature dish, Slop ’n’ Top. In between challenges I do my best to help my fellow contestants Amelle Berrabah from Sugababes and Simon Webbe from Blue to redefine popular music forms, while trying to remember not to call EastEnders’ Laila Morse “Mo”.
Like most people, I cook about a dozen dishes, over and over again, and to stretch the menu has meant stretching my competence to breaking point. I tried to compensate by adding gadgets. A whirring food processor, a fine-mesh chinois for straining limp custard and grainy gravy, and a battery of balloon whisks. I can’t say they’ve made my cooking any better, but I’ve put on half a stone trying the results.
In the end, however, it’s just you, your ingredients, a kitchen and, in MasterChef, the unforgiving minute and the critical oversight of John and Gregg. Quite how I cope this week with the pressure, the scrutiny, and the challenge of my own competitive nature remains to be seen: for in a very real sense, as we vicars say – cooking doesn’t get tougher than this.
Celebrity MasterChef is on tonight at 8pm on BBC1
Richard Coles co-presents Saturday Live, 9am Radio 4.