It’s long been a bone of contention on MasterChef – should contestants be rewarded for consistency or are you only as good as your last plate of food?
It can seem really unfair that someone who has performed well week after week gets kicked out after one bad day at the office, or that a cook who has been surviving by the skin of their teeth goes through because they pull something impressive out of the bag at the last minute.
I must admit, before Friday’s final, I thought DJ Steve Kielty was the most likely to take home the MasterChef 2017 crown, with theatre teacher Giovanna Ryan also well in contention. Both had turned out consistently impressive dishes over the course of the series and in the previous round Steve in particular seemed to be operating a level above, serving up a refined, technical and, so we’re told, delicious rabbit dish. Proper fine dining.
After feeling she’d had a lucky escape in the previous round, I thought eventual winner Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed was out of the picture, and I clearly wasn’t alone. Since judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace handed Saliha the trophy on Friday night, lots of people have been complaining that consistent Steve was robbed – but despite my initial expectations I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
MasterChef has always been about the contestant’s journey. Yes, that word kind of makes me cringe too – we’ve heard it so many times on every kind of talent show, often accompanied by tears and an emotional backstory – but I do think it’s relevant here.
The series is about amateur cooks with talent improving, reaching a new level. Skills developed over the years, at home in their own kitchens, get them through the MasterChef doors, but if it was just about how good they were when they arrived in the competition, it would be a pretty short series.
I suspect that one of the difficulties lies in the contrast between the way the competition plays out for the contestants and the judges and the way we viewers experience it. On TV, 64 hopefuls are whittled down to three in six weeks but for the most successful it’s actually up to four months between their first and last stints in the MasterChef kitchen. And while we had to wait just 24 hours between Friday’s final and the previous episode, for the cooks and the judges it was a matter of weeks.
That not only makes it harder for John and Gregg to look back on someone’s supposed consistency but also means it’s less relevant anyway, as the contestants have potentially put in so much hard work improving their skills in the intervening time between episodes that, by sheer determination, they may have massively upped their game. In that case, looking back at where they were weeks ago seems like something you’d do to chart their improvement rather than their consistency, and judging each new performance on its own merits therefore makes a lot more sense.
Some viewers will still think John and Gregg made the wrong decision – Steve’s dishes in particular looked fantastic on the night – but of course until someone hurries up and invents taste-o-vision, they are always going to have an advantage over us armchair judges.
Whatever the case, one thing there should be no debate over is that some of the comments about Saliha’s food seen on social media on Friday night were pretty tasteless – at best ignorant, at worst with a distinct whiff of racial prejudice. Yes, much of Saliha’s style was injecting the flavours of her Pakistani and Kashmiri heritage into classic dishes – just like Giovanna drew on her Italian background – but it’s hard to understand why those complaining that all Saliha did throughout the series was “cook curries” were even bothering to watch MasterChef, since culinary subtleties are clearly not their strong suit.
On Friday night Saliha mixed British and Pakistani influences to make a venison kebab, drew on classic French cooking to create a dish of sous-vide duck breast with a cherry sauce and then added her own twist to the Italian dessert of pannacotta.
You couldn’t get much more international than that and she shouldn’t have to make excuses for adding the flavours she knows and loves to those dishes, just as numerous MasterChef winners have done in the past.
It’s also worth mentioning that, while all the finalists have day jobs, and all of them must have worked very hard to be in contention on Friday night, Saliha is not only a mum but a junior doctor, who is aiming to help combat childhood obesity in the UK, and worked 13-hour shifts before coming home to practice for MasterChef.
In the final she told us “I have been waking up at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning to cook kumquats or set jellies and people would think that that’s insane… but if you don’t work hard you’re not gonna get anywhere, so push yourself to the maximum.”
Saliha should be a role model, not a target.