WHO’S THE MASTER?
Behind-the-scenes meltdowns on Celebrity MasterChef Ireland
W alking through the rubble-strewn carpark of the old John Player factory on Dublin’s South Circular Road hardly whets your appetite — yet this is the new home of RTÉ’s Celebrity MasterChef set. The dilapidated stone walls encase smashed windows, and the overgrown cobble streets bear more of a resemblance to a post-apocalyptic movie set than Ireland’s premier cookery show. The magic of television only becomes apparent as I walk through a set of dusty doors onto a bright studio floor and come face to face with the iconic silver MasterChef logo.
It is week three on the two-month shoot and the six remaining contestants are huddled at their yellow and steelwork stations, busy re-creating their own versions of a childhood dessert. The air is thick with the smell of melting butter, vanilla, stewing fruit and perspiration. And if anyone thinks these celebrities aren’t serious about winning, think again; the tension in the air is palpable.
Judge Nick Munier is doing the rounds, checking on the contestants’ progress, noting slip-ups and generally adding a second pair of hands. ‘They are all so competitive,’ he tells me. ‘That’s the first thing I was surprised about because you think they are all coming in here just to get a bit of profile but, no, they are really in it to win it.’ In the corner of a couch I spot Dylan McGrath, wrapped up in a grey cardigan, his head cupped in his hands over a piping-hot cup of tea. ‘He is like a bear with a thorn in his paw today,’ Nick says with a wry grin. ‘He has a terrible cold but won’t go home. He is determined that the show won’t suffer but, still, he is a bit prickly.’
Dylan mops a trickle of sweat from his brow, takes a deep breath of the perfumed air and gathers himself before assessing the progress of each cook. His presence casts an ominous shadow, causing each worker to pick up the pace in a bid to avoid a scolding.
Of the eight celebrities who initially donned the signature white and orange MasterChef aprons, two have already been eliminated. Comic Gary Cooke went in Week One after a shambolic display in the opening cook- off, while last weekend it was the turn of former Mr Ireland and National Lottery presenter Kamal Ibrahim to be kicked out.
Today I am watching a dessert challenge, an hour-long task during which the six hopefuls must re-create a sweet that reminds them most of their childhood. In front of me, writer and broadcaster Maia Dunphy is melting some chocolate, while athlete David Gillick is wrestling with a mixer. The air conditioning is failing miserably to hide the rising heat as sweat patches begin to appear on the frazzled cooks’ clothing. Ex-model Yvonne Keating is hunched low in front of her Perspex oven, nervously peering inside at a small cake that she hopes is baking properly. Despite the inhospitable conditions, preening newscaster
Aengus Mac Grianna is the picture of calm as he lines moulds and brings the silver puddings to the blast chiller. In stark contrast, RTÉ Sports presenter Tracy Piggott is struggling with an over- ripe pear while consumer affairs journalist Conor Pope is turning the set blue as he gets into trouble with a tricky sponge mix. They may claim to be best friends off camera, but for these six contestants the competition is furious.
‘Today was by far the most intense day so far and I don’t know where it came from,’ Yvonne tells me during a break in filming. ‘I didn’t find it while I was cooking but when the line-up came and I stared looking around, it sort of overwhelmed me. I always feel like I am letting myself down when I don’t perform — as well as the loads of people who have helped me along the way, including Dylan and Nick and the team here. Even my kids, who are at home rooting for me. I just feel like, when I get home and they are asking about it, that if I haven’t done really well, then I am letting them down.’
Yvonne says her worst day was her first task and it has taken a few challenges to finally find her feet. ‘I had a bad day the first day because I was really suffering from my nerves and it went dreadfully for me, and I went blank,’ she says. ‘But yesterday was the first day that I felt really confident. I really hope I can pull it off today. I am making a sticky toffee pudding because as a kid I loved it. Then I found out there were dates in it and I wouldn’t touch it again. But I grew up and fell in love with it again. So I decided to feed it to my children — only I purée the dates.’ With that, Yvonne sprints back to her bench to check the timer on the oven. ‘You have 20 minutes left,’ bellows Nick, causing a visible ripple of activity through the kitchen.
Maia is making a semifreddo viennetta, her take on the classic Wall’s Viennetta. ‘I made three baskets but two didn’t work and the third broke,’ she tells Nick, shaking her head. ‘I infused them with cassis but that seems to have made it heavier.’ The TV presenter and writer says she is taking every day as it comes. ‘The presentation is half the battle,’ she admits, wiping down a plate. ‘And when you walk up to the pass, if it looks amazing, then [the judges’] eyes light up. Even if it tastes c**p, you are streets ahead. But by the same token if the presentation is poor and it tastes great, they are still disappointed. Dylan and Nick have been great. As long as they know that you are trying your best and you are not just here to get a bit of profile, they are on your side.’
Racing legend Tracy is not feeling the same love for Dylan and Nick as Maia is, as she struggles with her custom-made pudding. The daughter of jockey Lester Piggott, Tracy says there weren’t too many desserts in her child- hood due to his tough training regime. ‘My father was always dieting so we never really had sweet things,’ she admits. ‘I’m doing a Roquefort and honey ice-cream, caramelised pears and a Parmesan shortbread biscuit with an apple glaze. I was getting quite emotional when Dylan and Nick arrived over wanting to taste the components. I almost started crying.’ If Tracy feels at a disadvantage having a father as a dedicated sportsman, athlete David Gillick is practically hamstrung. As a professional runner, he admits his relationship with food is somewhat different from the rest of the cast’s. ‘My view of food is that it is fuel, plain and simple,’ he says, ‘so this was a bit of an education for me. Because of what I do, we train six days a week and my only relationship with food is about getting as much fuel into the engine as is needed. I look for nutritious food that can help my body perform better. So to be sitting here replicating a dessert is as far from my comfort zone as I could have imagined. Today I’m making stuffed pear and ricotta cheesecake with a strawberry coulis and pistachio...’ Then Nick announces there are only five minutes left and David vanishes like Speedy Gonzalez.
One man who looks like he cannot be fazed is Aengus; the newsreader whose onscreen gaffes went viral earlier this year is calmly laying out his plate. His dessert is a take on his favourite ice lolly, the Wibbly Wobbly Wonder, and consists of a rhubarb panna cotta. ‘If I was lucky enough to make it into the final three, I would be content just to have made it that far,’ he says. ‘But yes, of course, if that were the case, I would definitely pull out all the stops to give it one final push. I mean, who wouldn’t want to win it? We have just finished the third week and the change in tension is palpable. It is rising all the time. At first it was gradual but suddenly we have jumped up a huge notch and you can really feel the difference.’
Journalist Conor Pope is definitely feeling the heat. For the last 10 minutes the only thing coming from his work bench has been a string of obscenities. ‘I was supposed to be serving you an Angel Delight but I ended up serving you a dog’s dinner,’ he laments. ‘The desserts are definitely the worst. If a savoury dish goes wrong, you can kind of tart it up a bit. But if a dessert goes pear-shaped five minutes before the time is up, you can do nothing.’
As time is called, all six finalists bring their dishes to the pass to present to Nick and Dylan. They are joined by three-Michelin-star pastry chef Claire Clark, who is guest judge on the day. To keep the results secret, we are led out of the judging chamber... But with three contestants close to tears and another on the verge of a chocolate meltdown, you know tonight’s show is going to be compulsive viewing.
Celebrity MasterChef Ireland is on tonight at 9.30pm on RTÉ One
Sticky-palms time Left to right: Contestants Tracy Piggott, Yvonne Keating and Maia Dunphy. Inset, top to bottom: Conor Pope; Nick Munier and Dylan McGrath, and Yvonne making her toffee