ANNE GILDEA

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - REAL LIFE - anne.gildea@mailon­sun­day.ie

I had wor­ried my skills wouldn’t be up to it for MasterChef. Ha! The celebs’ first task was to present ‘you on a plate’

Iac­ci­den­tally tuned into MasterChef: The Pro­fes­sion­als on RTÉ the other evening. Nail-bit­ing stuff: three am­bi­tious young chefs com­pet­ing for the ti­tle and ku­dos. The se­ries was from 2011; pre­sum­ably it’s cheap pro­gram­ming for our cash-strapped national broad­caster, it be­ing past its sell-by date. But that fact doesn’t take away from the cook­ery, par­tic­u­larly the one I hap­pened upon, in which the three con­tenders cooked in the three-Miche­lin­star El Celler de Can Roca in Cat­alo­nia — the restau­rant that was, in April of this year, voted the best in the world by Restau­rant Mag­a­zine.

The level of per­fec­tion­ism and so­phis­ti­ca­tion in the cook­ery was stun­ning. And, to achieve it, the level of chef con­cen­tra­tion and skill was ad­mirable. Now, if it was a sur­geon at work, you’d maybe think, log­i­cal! Per­fec­tion­ism and eye-pop­ping con­cen­tra­tion are the or­der of the day, or else the life un­der your hands mightn’t make it. But for food, for some­thing that, no mat­ter how del­i­cate the senses of the eater, is still go­ing to be mas­ti­cated to mulch and di­gested as fuel... isn’t it a bit much? A ques­tion I half­won­dered, half the time, while watch­ing.

For in­stance, when six inches of fish was painstak­ingly pre­pared in two ways and served with artis­tic squirts of five dif­fer­ent dif­fi­cult sauces, fin­ished off with a gar­nish of three tiny flow­ers added with tweez­ers. Or when a dessert in­volved blow­ing caramelised sugar like glass, then ‘paint­ing’ it with pow­dered sugar to make it look like an apri­cot, then fill­ing it with apri­cot cream so that what you had was less an af­ters, more a work of art evok­ing ‘apri­cot’. One that made me think, ‘Why not just have an apri­cot in­stead — it’d be less ef­fort, and cer­tainly less calorific?’ And that be­trays my gen­eral at­ti­tude to food: I love it to bits, but it’s not some­thing I want to spend hours on, nor is it a sub­stance I like overly pro­cessed away from its nat­u­ral state. How­ever, I can ap­pre­ci­ate the sheer artistry of what fine cook­ing strives for — the re­fine­ment of taste, tex­ture, sight, sound and aroma in the eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. A com­plex cit­rus dessert was served with lemon perfume, exquisitely pre­pared baby squid was pre­sented on a bowl of pa­prikain­fused smoke; a goat’s milk pud­ding was en­wrapped in a gor­geous cloud of spun sugar.

‘Emo­tion on a plate’ is how the three Roca broth­ers who run the restau­rant de­scribe their food. I found my­self a new am­bi­tion: to dine at the restau­rant of those three ge­nius Span­ish sib­lings. Less ‘meal’, more ‘priv­i­lege’: you could imag­ine your sense of what eat­ing is be­ing changed for ever af­ter. I felt changed by the pro­gramme.

Com­pare this with an­other of the MasterChef fran­chises that has just hit Ir­ish screens: Celebrity MasterChef. I’d a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in watch­ing the first episode last Sun­day on RTÉ One be­cause I was avail­abil­ity- checked for it but wasn’t free be­cause of planned surgery. Any­way, I was wor­ried my culi­nary skills wouldn’t be up to the chal­lenge. What chal­lenge? Ha! The first task was to present ‘you on a plate’: each of the eight celebrity con­tes­tants had to rus­tle up a plate of nosh that was gas­tro­nom­i­cally in­dica­tive of who they are. ‘Go to the pantry and choose your in­gre­di­ents,’ judge Dy­lan McGrath or­dered. The pantry was a mod­est stack of crates of pro­duce — the im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that the celebs were choos­ing from a chal­leng­ingly limited range of in­gre­di­ents. Ohh, ten­sion: what were they go­ing to cook, at all? No, no ten­sion, it soon be­came ap­par­ent, be­cause it was ev­i­dent they were all pre­par­ing what they had re­hearsed.

Ro­nan Keat­ing’s ex had only re­cently be­come en­am­oured of the joys of cook­ing, we were told — pre­sum­ably since the pro­duc­ers asked her if she’d give the pro­gramme a whirl. Her re­hearsed lamb was a bit lame. En­dear­ingly fo­cused Tracy Pig­gott and Maia Dun­phy both looked like they’d been near spat­u­las be­fore, while all the lads gave off vary­ing de­grees of culi­nary in­ep­ti­tude. Many chose salmon. ‘Why did you choose salmon?’ co­me­dian Gary Cooke was asked. ‘Salmon is nice; I’m nice,’ he replied. Not liv­ing up to that sur­name, he pre­sented a lumpy, messy heap of spuds ’n’ fish with a salsa or some­thing. It had ‘I want to be the first to exit’ writ­ten all over it. I reckon he’s play­ing the short game, clever boy. The ap­pear­ance fee is the same, in or out, across the board. I would have done the same if I’d been on — call me a cyn­i­cal, lazy, non-cook, hardly celeb who’d have seen it as an op­por­tu­nity to earn a few squids while do­ing dam­age lim­i­ta­tion on the qual­ity of ‘ex­po­sure’ such a ‘re­al­ity’ show of­fers. My guid­ing prin­ci­ple in such things comes from my roots; call it work­ing-class re­al­ism.

Other than Gary get­ting away with a few grand for very lit­tle, it’s hard to see what good the show is — none of the re­main­ing seven ‘cooks’ pro­ject in­ter­est­ing culi­nary adept­ness, and as ‘celebs’ they’re not re­ally ‘celebby’ enough for the viewer to be celeb-in­vested in the jour­ney of cook­ery dis­cov­ery. So the only change it evokes in me is to switch off — and have an early night.

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