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.