Despite Masterchef having borrowed perhaps the most loathsome trick on TV, I have to admit to succumbing to its allure. The loathsome trick to which I refer is the one in which the judge or judges of a competition get the contestants to the point where there is one place between two, and proceed to say ‘And the winner is (pause even longer than Pinter at his most laconic)…’ Something like this happened when I was born, which was before fathers were mandatory attendees, meaning that my father had to phone up to find out if I was of the pink or the blue persuasion. But this was because the man who did the Caesarean on my mother had a chronic stutter, and was only able to say ‘ It’s a (pause even longer than Pinter at his most laconic)…’ several times before I was identified as being on the boyish side. And it wasn’t a contest.
What is odd about TV chef shows is that you can’t use either of the primary senses you would bring into normal operation – taste and smell. You have to go by what, in this case, Wallace and Torode have to say, after digging into whatever is served up before them. You see it. It looks okay. It looks good, for the most part, although one tragic contestant simply sprayed a pork chop with chili sauce from a plastic bottle, and then burned his offering big time. If looks could kill – and of course, looks are all you have to go by. You watch Wallace (he used to be ‘an ingredients expert’, but now he’s a ‘professional food writer’) churning and gurning, and masticating, and finally announcing that something is basically a) best thing ever, b) a bit disappointing or c) absolutely revolting, although he and Torode are usually too polite to say that.
It’s not as if I learn anything from Masterchef, or any other programme about food. They’re all over my head. Perhaps if they forced the contestants to do something simple – in TV auction terms, stop doing Antiques Roadshow, and start doing Bargain Hunt – then I might listen and learn. I like cooking too, but I am a recipe slave, running headlessly up and down the kitchen to consult the processes as written down. And besides, they are always using ingredients like scallops (which I’ve never cooked, seldom eaten, and, come on, they’re a bit over-rated, aren’t they?), and they are always obsessed with balancing one thing on top of another before drizzling or back-of-the-spooning some goo on to the plate. So the food bit of the programme is all about how things look, and the real interest is in whether the gushing contestant will get his or her come-uppance.
But Masterchef is educational in quite a different way. In between the cook-offs and the heavily edited shots of Wallace or Torode shouting ‘You have just five minutes left’, three contestants get to dress up as real live working cooks, and are let loose in a professional kitchen. What they do in there, often testing the patience of the head chef, is to put together outrageously complex dishes, ready for the hundreds of lunchtime scoffers, all of whom have crowded in at about noon to stake their wallets on a slap-up, complex sequence of dishes.
My point is this: how the hell have so many people got the time and money, in the middle of the day, to occupy a whole host of London hotels and restaurants? What is this obsession with midday eating and drinking? Didn’t they have breakfast? Don’t they know how to make sandwiches? Will they be eating later? I accept that my own, possibly eccentric regimen is not everybody’s cup of tea (not the flavour I drink, with a dash of aspartame). But is there any more evidence needed that London is crowded with too many people who spend too much on gourmet food? Are they all eating on each other’s expenses? That’s what I’d like to know. For once, just once, I would like Torode and Wallace to down tools, and ask the assembled diners, politely, ‘What the eff are you doing here? Haven’t you got jobs?’
The answers would be compulsive viewing. And they would say more about the haves (as against the have-nots) than almost anything else I can think of.