In television terms MasterChef is venerable. It was born in 1990, when it was shown on Sunday evenings. Contestants would mash, grind and dice their ingredients. The host was Loyd Grossman. He would mash, grind and dice his vowels. Loyd left to make tomato sauce. But MasterChef flourished.
Today, there are versions of MasterChef shown in 26 countries. In the United Kingdom there have been 38 series. There are masterchefs on every street corner. You are never more than six feet away from a masterchef, armed with a tuile and a dollop of mash to smear artfully across your plate.
MasterChef has provided us with good chefs, bad chefs, celebrity chefs, amateur chefs, baby chefs, big chefs and little chefs. The current run is MasterChef: The Professionals, featuring participants who cook for a living. It is shown four times a week, which makes it almost as rabidly prevalent as Hollyoaks.
Masterchef: The Professionals is the most formulaic talent show on the television, even more so than its brasher comrades in the primetime slots. It follows a recipe, to use the weak culinary metaphor. It probably avoids public opprobrium because it lives in the salubrious environs of BBC2, next-door to learned neighbours University Challenge and programmes about geology.
The contestants are all the same: plucky, sweaty, shaky, identically ambitious. They all want to open their own restaurant, no-one just wants to make their lunch. They package their food in smudges, humps and tiny shards strewn across the dish like they've just sneezed up some venison. They tend to avoid the customary talent-show journey, they don't compete in remembrance for a dead step-aunt, although some of them do look like they learnt to cook in prison. When disaster befalls them, they are always gutted, always blame themselves and sometimes complain ruefully that "they put themselves on the plate", which can only make you speculate what they put in their hollandaise sauce.
The first challenges are designed to end in comic failure: veering from the barbaric, cutting a pigeon's head off with a pair of scissors, to the surreal, creating something that the producer just made up, like a Ukrainian meringue. All under the erratic eye of sous-chef Monica, who appears to be the victim of some tragic palsy which compels her to unfurl a bewildering facial firework display distracting her charges. It's like Phil Cool came back.
Clamber across that barrier and chef Michel lurks. Michel is like a kindly driving instructor. He enthuses and cajoles and encourages, but every word comes with the grave subtext that if you get it wrong you will die. Once Michel has spoken, Gregg repeats what he has just said but in a more earthy vernacular. And louder. Every episode he will bark "big flavours" at the unsuspecting hopeful, like he's selling big flavours on his market stall at Covent Garden.
If there was a MasterChef: The Professionals drinking game, a sort of bingo for familiar elements in the show, it would cause a cataclysmic run on new livers. You can boil an egg by it. Or as Gregg would put it: YOU CAN BOIL A BLINKING EGG BY IT. Before shoving it down his gob with a spoon.
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