Time once more for Masterchef: The Professionals; the hardhitting juggernaut, with nary a festive cheer, especially unseasonal since it was filmed in summer. And we’ve got a new title sequence to admire, where our three presenters turn to the camera as if they’re being sent to their doom, especially Marcus Wareing, who looks up with wounded rabbit eyes, resembling a bearded Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I was asked to share some thoughts on the latest MC instalment, which gets ever harder with this iteration. I mean, the line-up is almost always 95% young, white males, with varying amounts of Ts & Ps (tattoos and piercings). Slightly less Ts & Ps than I remember from a year or so back, although the recently dispatched John had those things, which are all hole and no earlobe. Like a pair of giant hula hoops either side of one’s bonce. I’ve just looked up what they’re called: ‘flesh tunnels.’ Well, that’s appetising, isn’t it…?
I didn’t mind John though, ear decoration aside. He was, whisper it, not actually cowed and grovelling, having the temerity to look somewhat irked in an earlier episode when receiving criticism. Through pursed lips, he declared in the VT that he thought what he’d produced was good and should have got better feedback. Dear God man, that’s like telling the Daleks to calm down a bit. He wasn’t aquiver with gratification at the prospect of The Mighty Shrek bestowing one of his favourable culinary bon mots…. ‘deep and meaty’, for example. It was definitely The Big E when Marcus declared smugly that John’s unravelling at the pop-up kitchen was ‘a classic example of a chef who’s not tried and tested’, with all the delight of someone finding an unexpected fiver on the pavement. (A special moment of scorn here for their notion of the 'pop-up'; which takes place in an industrial hangar in the arse end of nowhere, with a fleet of servers with the word STAFF emblazoned on their T-shirts in the way no pop-up ever does).
So, at the time of writing, there’s six left. They mostly merge into one amiable, slightly anxious youth. Except Portuguese Daniel, who carries all the worries of the world upon his skinny shoulders. The lad is haunted. If this were the film version (dear God no, I couldn’t take Shrek in close-up), he’d be played by Steve Buscemi. You have the feeling you’d like to edge the knives away from him, just in case, but then he breaks into a smile. However, the real characters have all gone, along with the diversity. Such as Charath, who was the undeserved recipient of Marcus’ little moue that his curry should have had rice to mop up the sauce, not bread. Eh?! What’s the bread doing there then, knitting a jumper?!
Well now, onto the judges and let us consider Shrek some more, aka Gregg Wallace, which lends itself beautifully to Egg. The fact that he’s still there is a mystery, as he has neither wit nor knowledge to bring to the table. A couple of times in this series he’s held a different opinion to Marcus and Monica (the actual experts), as to the quality of what he’s eating. I did catch an irritated glance from Marcus at one of Egg’s utterances, yet it doesn’t seem to be enough to shift him. The contestants occasionally murmur that they were sorry Gregg didn’t like something they'd spent hours sweating blood over. Why are they not inwardly screaming in horror at having to pay heed to the ex-greengrocer with a failed restaurant…? Sorry, TWO failed restaurants. But the one thing he used to do right, THE ONE THING, Greggy-boy, was LOOK like an egg. Now he’s slimmed down so much he’s almost thinner than Monica. As far as I know Wife Number Four is working out ok, putting paid to the notion that people in relationships get tubbier (cf his erstwhile presenter Torode). It’s a pickle. Maybe even a pickled egg.
The most entertaining contestant by far was Nic, way back in the early rounds. My friend pondered if he’d imbibed too much coke in the dressing room (and not the stuff you drink), as the man DID NOT STOP TALKING. Certainly, the patter meant he couldn’t cook effectively, but the fact that he out-geezered Shrek by a million apples and pears is worth anyone’s licence fee. The heats had a couple of other amusing moments. In one challenge they were presented with a tin opener and told to knock something up. They looked as flummoxed as if they’d been given a monkey wrench and a couple of feather dusters and told to create a meringue with them. I know they’re all about their fine dining and/or foraging, but surely one of them has made something with a tin of tomatoes before? Another time they were exhorted to make something ‘with colour’. That’s definitely the result of someone on the production team on the happy sauce. I’m yet to think of something I’ve eaten that has entirely NO colour to it, but I’ll be sure to rush to tell the world when I do.
Anything that has been filmed before This Time looks odd now, as sequestered in our homes, we resemble alien life forms peering down. We observe the contestants, hugging, high-five-ing, slapping each other on the backs: Where’s your social distancing?! Thank God they make their own pasta, as there’s no ready-made stuff to be found in the whole of Christendom at the moment and the sight of it might tip someone over the edge.
So, it’s Knockout Week. Pedantic of me to say, I know, but isn’t every episode? Each week of the heats started with twelve and finished with three - I don’t think those other nine were in a holding pen waiting to spring back into action. Anyway, there’s no boxing gloves here, just an occasional blue plaster on sixteen eager beavers chomping at the bit to progress.
After the giddy excitement of Apron-geddon, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by this week, I can’t deny, but maybe Lockdown is making me grouchy. For starters they split them into two groups of eight and whittled down from there. Surely those last sixteen needed to see the whites of each other’s eyes, not least the whites of their aprons. Those aprons, my preciousssss!
First up, they had to make their showstopper dish. Again. Wouldn’t it be better to have given them something more challenging, something unexpected? If you haven’t perfected this one dish, heaven help you. Still there seemed to plenty to criticise, nonetheless. Jane’s adorable Woodland Wonder of toadstool meringues on pistachio moss. ‘It could be a fun looking plate,’ sniffed Toady beforehand, ‘I hope it doesn’t look like a novelty toy.’ No, Toads, cos that would be too much fun. In the event, it was too dry.
Shaheen went rogue with his mashed potatoes Beef Wellington, where pancake merged into potato in an unholy mess. I don’t know why contestants haven’t learned this yet. Don’t call your dish by its official name, otherwise that is what they will expect! Call it Boeuf Pomme de Terre Surprise or something. So they went, along with energetic James and his tonka bean sauce that didn’t taste of tonka bean, even though Toady had grumbled beforehand that it might and how could that possibly work in a savoury dish .
On the second night, I was mesmerised by the fact that Natasha’s colours on the plate matched her rainbow of eyeshadow. Such matching should be noted, you would have thought, but it wasn’t mentioned. Then off to the Pro Stint they went and we heard at least three times that we were in 2015 champion Simon Wood’s restaurant, thus affording us a lot of footage of him from five years back.
While Beverley in the kitchen hunched over her pasta, looking for all the world like Julie ‘Two Soups’ Walters, Toady, in his professional masseur black tunic, seemed staggered by their locale. ‘Incredible, isn’t it? We’re in former champion Simon’s restaurant and here’s five contestants who aspire to do exactly the same thing.’ Right. They’re not aspiring astronauts, man. Get a grip.
Shrek meanwhile, had come dressed as his granddad in tie and cardy combo, marvelling at how the ‘amachurs’ had followed a recipe where someone had stood over them, literally every step of the way.
So, to the last episode and the remaining ten had to produce a plate of nine canapés in order to progress - ‘the sort of thing you’d pass around at a party.’ Thanks Shrek. Next week he’ll be explaining the wheel to the hard of thinking. This also seemed an odd challenge. To produce a perfect example of something, then do eight more of it, seems to diminish it somehow.
The fellas, who’d been a bit depleted in the first two rounds, came storming back, with all four of them sailing through. Sandy was the only female exempt from criticism, as they muttered over the saltiness of Charlotte’s artichoke (not a euphemism), the blandness of Claire’s balls (again, not a euphemism) and the hardness of Beverley’s rice (again… ok you got it).
In the end, it was another unholy mess of a tiramisu type affair that saw Marla, a confident American in the way that the Brits often aren’t, take the walk of shame. Actually, I don’t think it was really the mess of it that was the problem, especially as a. it looked great and b. she’d given them an espresso martini shot alongside. It was the fact that she said it could be eaten in a couple of bites. Shrek reached out eagerly, cavernous mouth agape and managed only a third on his first attempt. That won’t do at all, Marla. You can’t pull a ‘Not even a black hole can eat three Shredded Wheat’ stunt here….
These are lean mean times in 2020, chaps. What with us going to hell in a handcart, the collective teeth-sucking at the continued existence of the BBC licence fee means some tough conversations have almost certainly taken place offscreen. ‘We need to show we’re not Oxbridge educated layabouts. We need to show we understand the value of money. We, the BBC, what hath spawned the mighty Shrek (Gregg Wallace); WE must lead the way. And verily we shall do this by making the Masterchef contestants bring their own food in.’
Where once the hopefuls glided across the approach to urban edgy Masterchef headquarters in a slow-motion Reservoir Dogs style, now they’re humping cool bags over their shoulders like demented hausfraus. From which they emptied the contents of their kitchens, literally in the case of Dev, whose bench was strewn with half empty cartons of this and that. Obviously the Beeb could have cut massive corners by painting a smiley face on a giant boiled egg, but no, here was Shrek - gurnometer turned up to the max and Toady (John Torode), perhaps too much of the good life. There used to be a vast discrepancy in their sizes. Now, not so much.
The new regime didn’t stop there. Are they wearing their nice white aprons? No they are not, in these lean, mean times, no they are NOT. There’s four aprons and six of them. Even Shrek can do the math. ‘Two of you will be going home,’ he announced, boiled egg aquivering so that his yolk nearly runneth over. The aprons sit, demurely folded, on a stool out of reach. You’ve got to earn me baby, they silently emit.
First batch of contestants also included Teddy, who is most definitely actor James Norton moonlighting. I’m going to call him James in fact, no space for cuddly teddies here in this dystopian nightmare, and smiley Glaswegian Karen. ‘Was it important to bring something from home’, Shrek patronised. Yes it was, she had some haggis. Yorkshire lass Becky DIDN’T appear to have brought something from home. Oh yes, a squeaky cheese. Like halloumi but better. She’s a cryer though. In the first challenge! No space for cryers here, love. Off you go.
Karen and Dev made the first cut and she clutched her newly won apron as if it were her firstborn: ‘No-ones taking this away from me.’ I wouldn’t be too sure, love. They’re not embroidered yet. In the next cook off they had to create a splendour from sea bream, fennel and tomatoes. Amanda told Shrek she didn’t like fennel. Too bliddy right lass. I’ve never been fond of the toothpaste taste meself. It had been all of two minutes since his last gurn and predictably enough, the mouth saucered open. James and ‘Three-sauce Pete’ got through and also worshipped at the Altar of Apron. It’s as if they were made of gold. I damn well hope previous years’ contestants realise how fricking LUCKY they were to get handed one, willy-nilly, on the way in.
Next up sees the four of them, their aprons now adorned with their names, having to cook for last year’s finalists. James announced his dishes as being, ‘simple but good-looking. Like him. No, don’t put that in’. Uhuh – it’s been noted, sunshine. They were indeed simple - these are dishes from ten years back. Perhaps he should focus less on the acting and the being good-looking and make recipes with 435 ingredients in like Dev.
‘This is Masterchef life and death for Karen,’ piped up Shrek at one point (a whisker away from calling in the Apron-Removal Squad). The excitement didn’t stop there. Adorable Delia the cop and splendid teacher/sports star Jilly came back to judge their food, along with 2019 winner Irini, who looked twenty years younger and was dressed for a cocktail party. Were THEY wearing Masterchef aprons? They were NOT! They competed in pre-Brexit days when aprons rained out of the sky like rain does.
But there’s yet another twist. The three of them got to choose their favourite. What?! Lessening the stranglehold of Toady and Shrek! Clearly the good looks had worked for James - making dishes that everyone had seen before paid off as he went through. As did Dev and Pete, at the same time, so James didn’t really have that much advantage. He’ll swagger though, you mark my words. Sad that no woman made it through having faced an all-female finalists’ panel, but there you go. Everyone’s got to man up here.
We’d like to think Karen got to keep her apron but who knows? Perhaps it was wrestled off her as she exited the premises and her embossed name whittled off with a partridge feather by an Oxbridge graduate determined to show his worth. In later episodes look carefully at those aprons to see if the segment of cloth bears the residue of disappointment.