Wednesday, February 01, 2012

MasterChef: Put It In The Curry

MasterChef presenter Gregg Wallace believes that the current show is 'more about the food' than Loyd Grossman's sedate, cogitative predecessor. 'It was hugely popular - we all watched it,' says Wallace about the original show, which ran on the BBC from 1990 to 2001. 'But, as a competition I think it was flawed. If you say to people: "All right, you're coming on the television in three months' time and cooking two dishes," who couldn't do that? You could pretty much train next door's hamster to do it. A previous winner under the Loyd regime once said: "Well, in my day it was about the food,"' Wallace told Radio Times. "I thought: "How dare you? It was probably less about the food then than it is now. Would you have survived the invention test, madam? No, I don't think you would. I liked the show but all it proved was that you could host a dinner party.' Nevertheless, Wallace says MasterChef's producers took a huge chance when they completely revamped a popular format and drafted in himself and John Torode to present. 'Karen Ross was very, very brave in picking two blue collar boys for what had otherwise been a Sunday-afternoon, very Mrs-Corby-Trouser-press, doing a dish with a very long name - probably French - sort of show,' admits Wallace. But the gamble paid off – now into their eighth series together, Gregg and John are one of the most recognisable double acts on British TV. Yet despite having been friends for over twenty years, it seems they were paired together by chance. 'We've done MasterChef for eight years but we knew each other for fifteen years before that,' says Wallace. 'I've always sold fruit and veg to John. I owned the company that supplied him. When I started I was just a little bloke in a van and I used to turn up at the kitchen door when he worked in Chelsea and that's where I met him. Karen Ross interviewed us separately, liked both of us but had no idea we knew each other.' It's been a long and fruitful relationship but the two appear to be very different personalities - there things on which, Wallace notes, they don't see eye to eye. 'I'm neat, tidy and methodical,' says Gregg. 'John's a complete surfer-dude, laid-back, hairy-chested Aussie. In the dressing room, he just throws his clothes all over the place. One day I came in to find his shoes on my rack – if we were a couple, that would be grounds for divorce, but I have to soldier on under this provocation.' They're still together, though, and on tonight's edition of MasterChef they were overseeing a big test for last week's losing team. 'We take them off to a tractor factory,' Gregg noted. 'I like the big industrial catering tasks because they're always one of the hardest tests the contestants have to do. We will always finish on fine dining but we always have these mass challenges along the way, too. And I love 'em cos it's pure graft.'
'Back into the frying pan,' said the Beeb continuity announcer as the episode began. You will recall from last time dear blog reader that yer actual Big Eamonn, Big Jay, yer actual Little Andrew, Afsaneh and Ashvy were in the losing team and so, were given the chance to redeem themselves by feeding the five thousand (well, the three hundred and fifty, anyway) at a Basildon tractor factory under the watchful eye (and, frankly, nervous disposition) of the head chef, Steve. They were required to cook two main dishes and a vegetarian option (the thing which, you may remember, was a major contributing factor to them losing the challenge last time and ending up in this mess in the first place). It all started well enough with Eamonn and Jay doing what big blokie-blokes often do when they're not drinking pints and talking about the football - discussing the best recipe for Lancashire Hot Pot. Jay's from Southport. In Lancashire. Eamonn's from Lincoln. In, you know, Lincolnshire. 'nuff said, really! When asked who wanted to be the team leader, poor Andrew who'd volunteered last time and led the quintet to defeat, just looked at the floor like he wanted it to eat him alive.
Nobody else said anything till Jay, manfully, said he'd do it. Steve the chef said he thought Jay seemed 'quite a confident guy.' Jay merely noted: 'I'm used to organising a hundred men. But, they're easy, they do as they're told.' The three chosen courses were a lamb hot pot, a chicken curry and, as a vegetarian option and, after some discussion with Steve about what big rough tough tractor builders like eating, vegetarian moussaka. Ashvy took charge of the curry and John soon had her panicking over the size of the portions. Andrew seemed to have been made the fall guy for the loss in Bath and was relegated to, as Gregg noted, effectively kitchen porter, peeling the spuds and being general dogsbody for any odd job that needed doing. He did with a smile on his face and without any complaint. Unlike Ashvy who, from the editing of the episode, appeared to have made herself about a popular as a hole in a spacesuit with her demeanour in general and the thickness of her curry in particular. John queried what she was playing at. She said, the onion would thicken it. 'I've never known an onion to thicken anything in my life,' said Mr Torode with his twenty five years experience as a chef. But, Ashvy just wasn't having it, or any other critique of her dish as she got all stroppy and discombobulated (fatally recalling twisty-faced Jacqui from last year) with any and all suggestion that her curry was going to be too runny.
She used the 'I'm Indian, I know what I'm talking about' defence. Which, frankly, is a bit like me saying 'I'm English, I know how to fox hunt.' It does seem as though the producers of MasterChef enjoy each year making one contestant seem far more unlikable to the audience than all the others. It happened with Jacqui last year and it seems to have happened with Ashvy here. One images that, perhaps, several of the contestants may have had occasion to answer back when John, for instance, has told them that something they are doing is going to go wrong. But, if any of them did those bits seem to have been edited out and left on the cutting room floor. Or, maybe it was just Ashvy who'd decided to get lippy? The truth is in there somewhere. 'Authentic Indian curry' she bellowed as they got the dishes out and started serving them to lots of hungry tractor workers. She stressed that it was authentic and, therefore, 'with bones' just in case anybody was to, you know, choke on one. Interestingly, it sold very well and got, mostly, highly decent comments (although one chap thought it a bit bland for his pallet. Personally, this blogger would've probably licked the plate and gone back for seconds, and maybe thirds). John and Gregg thought it was bland too. And tasteless. In Gregg's words, imitating his old mate, 'it lacks a bit of oomph!' The moussaka didn't get many takers - tractor builders aren't vegetarians seemed to be the one concrete thing were learned from this entire malarkey - but, the judges considered it had been a pretty good effort, as was the hot pot.
Thus, it was back to MasterChef HQ where, John said, 'let the proper fight begin. Now it's the chance to see what they're really made of.' But, again, as with the end of the last episode, there was a surprise in store for the audience as Ashvy was said to be 'really unwell' and unable to take part. Immediately four million viewers wondered if it was a dodgy curry or something less food-related. Eight remaining contestants, therefore, had the chance to show John and Gregg their talents with the knowledge that 'only the best' would be remaining at the end. Afsaneh chose to make rack of lamb with toasted pine-nuts, kidney, fried liver ragù, mash, pomegranate reduction and a lamb jeux. It seemed something of a risk for Afsaneh, way out of her comfort zone of Middle-Eastern cuisine which had got her this far, especially when she confessed that she doesn't really like offal. In the end, although parts of the dish were well cooked and the balance was good, the liver and kidney were so overcooked that, according to John, 'if you put that into a gun it would kill a pheasant.' 'MasterChef isn't a time to experiment with stuff you don't like,' said Gregg. Afsaneh was clearly upset but, as usual, walked away with a smile which has helped to endear her to many viewers. Tom went for a dessert, chilli and pineapple soufflé with ginger and coconut ice cream. 'If you're not cooking on the edge then it's just repetition,' Tom said. His dish went down a storm with both judges. 'Dainty, elegant, beautiful, stunning,' said Gregg in staccato bursts between mouthfuls of tasty pud! John said that the dish reminded him of a Thai pineapple curry, 'but in dessert form.' And that was a good thing. Eamonn was advised by Gregg that he was clearly a talented chef so, 'stop getting so stressed!'
He cooked stuffed chicken with baked onion, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with goats cheese, wild mushrooms and a morel velouté. There were some small presentation issues as far as Gregg was concerned but the taste was praised to the rooftops. Then it got even better because John liked the presentation as well as the taste! Excitable Aki again bounced around the kitchen like a nervous kangaroo but managed to stay still just about long enough to make a green tea gateaux with red bean paste, plum wine jelly and warm black treacle syrup. 'I'm going to take you to Kyoto,' she promised and, so infectious was her enthusiasm that you pretty much believed her. The dish, however, proved to be something of a game of two halves, praised for its interesting mixture of flavours but criticised for some texture issues. Jay, Gregg considered, had the makings of a very good chef indeed but he needs to be a shade bolder. So, he was. He cooked fillet of beef, and asparagus crown, ceps, rock butter and an asparagus mousse. 'That'll do for me,' said Gregg going on to praise the dish, albeit feeling that Jay could've sliced his beef a bit thinner.
John didn't seem worried about that and added: 'You have an extraordinary touch.' Jay noted that he was regretful about how big a hunk of meat he'd cooked but then he himself is, after all, 'a big bloke'! Good answer, frankly. Shelina's dish was an Alfonso mango and cardamom trifle with a Mauritian spiced rum baba and mango lime sorbet. When she told Gregg what she intended to cook he said that if she did 'that mango justice' he was quite prepared to elope with her. This, after she'd just told him she was married. In the event, Gregg loved it (it could, possibly, be one of the best desserts he'd ever had anywhere, he stated). John loved it. The cameramen twenty feet away from the action loved it. Hell, even the viewers loved it and all they could do was look at it.
As, along with Jay, the most consistent of the chefs from the earlier rounds, the last couple of episodes must've been a bit of a blow to Andrew's confidence. But, as noted earlier, he'd taken the harder bits of the disastrous team tasks and done them with a smile. So, it's a possibly fair bet to assume that most viewers were willing for him to provide the greatest comeback since Lazarus. His dish was pan fried quail with potato pancake and stuffed courgette with a caper and fig jeux. 'Boom!' said John Torode as he took his first mouthful but, both he and Gregg had more than a few issue with the balance of the dish. The quail, John said, tended to get a bit lost in all the flavours. 'There's much to admire here,' Gregg noted but added that the dish was, perhaps, a shade overcomplicated. 'Next time, don't be afraid to plagiarise,' John said. Last up was Emma whose dish was a madly ambitious one: slow cooked beef with bone marrow persillade, horseradish potato purée and onion ice cream. Eh? Onion ice cream? John looked shocked, but impressed. Gregg just looked shocked. Bordering on mortified. Emma said she'd had it, once, in a restaurant and thought it was unusual and worked well.
'It's pretty left-field' said Gregg, still looking doubtful and, he added, 'if I like it, I'm going to have myself certified!' The finished dish got good comments from both - especially John. But, Gregg didn't like the onion ice cream, as you kind of knew he wasn't going to from the various facial expressions he pulled earlier! Jay, Tom, Eamonn and Shelina's places in the next round were already assured but, the other four all had a nervous wait whilst John and Gregg decided 'who has what it takes.' In the end, the pair decided that they all did, just as India Fisher's voice-over appeared again to inform viewers that Ashvy, despite her commitment to the competition, was 'unable to return to Masterchef' and, like Jonathan last week, had withdrawn. That must've been one very dodgy curry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Roughly an aeon late with this comment, but anyway: just so you know, Ash's "dodgy curry" was a miscarriage. I realise that might seem a bit convenient given how, as you note, she had been edited to be a bit of a series villain, but it's also the unfortunate truth. Pretty sad on all fronts - at the (probably least important) Masterchef level it would have been interesting to see how / if she bounced back.