MasterChef Live

January 2011

Can’t find it but pretty sure I expressed my cynicism about this show in this column last year. Well,  something happened to make me change my mind. A pastry chef I was working with got a job at the St Mary’s Leagues Club – “pretty brave of them hiring a pastry chef” she said, “must be the MasterChef effect.” Guess it must.

So when I was asked to MC one of the stalls at MasterChef Live in December I said yes. And to those cynics out there it wasn’t just the money. I wanted to see the phenomenon up close.

I ran the How To stand. My job was to introduce and question a series of chefs who were given half an hour to demonstrate some aspect of their craft. The chefs were terrific – over the three days I worked with Somer Sivrioglu (Efendy), Kylie Kwong (Billy Kwong), Neil Perry (everywhere), Justin North (Becasse, Etch), Tony Bilson (Bilson’s)  and pastry chef du jour Adriano Zumbo among many others.

Adriano popped out macaroons, Kylie showed us how to make your Chinese larder more sustainable, Bilson made a tarte tatin in an electric pan, and Somer made a wonderful Turkish salsa – and sowed us what a Turkish  mezzaluna looks like: a scimitar.

Main impressions. First. MasterChef has turned chefs into rock stars. Kids queued up to have their photographs taken with and their books signed by Neil, Adriano, Justin – all of them. Second. Is this a good thing? I took it upon myself to remind the fans that being a chef is, on the whole, hard, repetitive, boring work – and the chefs were only too willing to go along. Me to Adriano: “How many macaroons have you made?” Adriano: “Jees I dunno, 50,000?” Faces fall in audience. That sounds boring.

But the best expression of what it means to be a truly great chef came from Mr Perry. “When you have to do the same thing a thousand times, the trick is to make the thousandth one a thousand times better than the first.” Bingo.

Watching the starry-eyed kids watching the chefs I was reminded of a story told me by Scottish chef nick Nairn, who had one of the first popular cooking shows on telly. He told me that while he was away doing the show, this young kid turned up in his kitchen. “This kid couldn’t cuke (how they say ‘cook’ up there in Scotland), he was hopeless. And I said to him, what are you doing in a kitchen? And he said I want to be on television like you.”

Has MasterChef increased food awareness? Yes. Will it last? Who knows? My one criticism – and one shared by a lot of the chefs – is that it does concentrate on restaurant food – which is not what we eat at home. But I did enjoy the three days. Great fun.

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