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Show Me the Talent! (It's Masterchef Time Again.)

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

Yep, it's one of the TV highlights of the year for me... Not THE top, but up there after the Tour de France coverage, Bake Off, and the other Masterchef (I'm not talking about Celebrity MC though.) Yes, 'Masterchef, The Professionals' has started, and just like its' 1970s CI5 precursor (less the guns and Ford Capri), it's required viewing in the Avey household. However, I find myself less satisfied with the quality of the competition in every passing year, whereas the 'amateur' Masterchef seems to go from strength to strength.

Masterchef (amateur) as an institution has grown into a 'format' marketed around the world. It's a far cry from those early days when Lloyd Grossman, considered and cogitated along with a selection of food worthies, over the efforts of a few enthusiastic home cooks who never seemed to go for fame and glory, though some did achieve it. It always felt as though the show never took itself too seriously. Now Gregg (surplus 'G's) Wallace, who can rarely be accused of spending a long time cogitating, masticates, enthuses and shouts in the company of real chefs, over some genuine talent with dramatic music, a slick, reconfigurable set and foreboding voiceovers. Winners, runners-up, and indeed also-rans have gone on to create names for themselves, starting restaurants, writing, criticising, and contributing to the industry that they were so desperate to join. Simon Woods, Shelina Permalloo, Tim Anderson, amongst many others are regular contributors in print, on radio and tv, and have established genuine innovative businesses that give the establishment a run for its money. Let's not forget that Norfolk's own Dr Tim Kinnaird, has a business that employs many locals, and has notably kept a presence in the Royal Arcade long before Jamie's Italian arrived with much fanfare, and still going long after the eponymous restaurant failed ignominiously, having over-reached and over-hyped itself.

All the above and the many other Masterchef winners have shown themselves as creative and passionate to the extent that they have acquired the skills they needed to succeed in a business that values 'classical training' and has for many years been in thrall to the codifications and conventions of classic French cookery as the gold standard. Yes, there is natural talent (by which I usually mean a good palate), and often an environment where such skills have been encouraged to grow and thrive (how many have credited their Nana or Mother's kitchen as their root inspiration?) Its that passion however that has driven them to eschew well-paid careers as doctors, lawyers, bank managers and more, for the hard work, long hours and poor pay of the professional kitchen.

By contrast, Masterchef's professional entrants seem to come and go, and fade into obscurity as quickly as they arrive. Yes, they may make the national press for a bit, some of them pop-up occasionally in the industry press and at trade events. A very few of them have lent their name to a restaurant or kitchen, and fewer still to a group or chain. I'm sure they're all doing ok, I hope they're doing well, but I'm convinced the industry's traditional training routes are not throwing up the same calibre of talent and enthusiasm that has been bypassing it altogether. The reasons for this might be many fold, but you often hear the same background stories over and again: Either the contestant fell into the job, they were a high-school drop out or disillusioned student who ended up with a part-time job in a local pub (usually washing-up), got captured by the environment and never left or looked back. Or else they were introduced to food or cooking at an early age and went into the college system, got a classical education, and from there embarked on a progression through the traditional career structure of the professional kitchen (Commis, CDP, Assistant Sous, Sous, Head Chef.) Finally we've had a slew of foreign chefs who have learned some traditional cooking skills in far-off places and come to the UK to be straight-jacketed into a classical kitchen structure, their individual flair and creativity surfacing only in spite of their environment and not because of it.

Yes, there is enthusiasm, there is passion too, but the upshot of all this congruity is an absence of genuine innovation. Each week the winners are the ones who can make a slightly tastier Rack of Lamb dish, have a beefier sauce for their Brisket, have cooked their Cod correctly, or have made a prettier plate of pastry and pistachios. Scattered throughout are poor unfortunates, canon fodder, whose presence either was forecast to last just one round, or who are indicative of the lack of available talent to take the show further. Of course I may be being unfair to many young people for whom the pressure is far too great. Cooking in a competition is stressful enough, yet I've never had to do it with TV cameras or 'celebrity chefs' staring at me. Still, I can't relinquish the feeling that many of the competitors have been placed there to make the eventual winners look better than they actually are.

The problem I feel is with the selection criteria, as much with the purposeful weeding of the applicants, as with the self selection that leads to the application process itself. Firstly, why would anyone enter such a competition? There are many competitions for young and established chefs alike that bring prizes and acclaim, and don't have the disadvantage of risking a public humiliation. If you're head chef at a successful restaurant, would you want to test yourself on national TV, with the risk that the pressure might result in abject failure, and that, all your customers having seen it, give rise to a loss of reputation, business, and income? At least the amateurs have nothing to lose in this respect, they can always go back to the day job, their heads held high. If, as a professional chef, you don't yet have your own restaurant, would success on TV progress your career sufficiently to justify the risks?

Here's my guilty secret: I applied for Masterchef two years ago. My motivation? Simply frustration at the lack of vegan cookery on the show. I thought they'd be happy to take an ageing vegan chef as canon fodder, I could get one or two dishes out there (as long as I did them well enough!) And I'd have a ready-made excuse! "Well of course they were never going to let a vegan chef through!" I wasn't expecting to achieve much, nor did I think I'd have much to lose, but I didn't progress my application further than the telephone interview. Why? Because they wanted chefs who aspired to Michelin starred kitchens. The status quo was reinforced in the entry requirements; They were going to take applicants who had a grounding in fine dining, who had done stage or worked with well-known chefs, who were looking to progress in that field, be judged by Michelin starred chefs, and eventually take the finalists to an exclusive 3 starred restaurant somewhere exotic to finally learn what creativity means. They were not looking for people who wanted their food to be accessible and edible, but challenging and exclusive. That's not sour grapes, I hold no bitterness over the way the application unfolded, its just that it confirmed my suspicions that the programme panders to the establishment and would never result in genuine innovation. I am prepared to be proved wrong, but I'm not holding my breath.

I offer in evidence a glaring void at the heart of the show: There are hardly any women. Whereas the amateur Masterchef is almost 50-50, in the professional case there have at time of writing been just three females in the first sixteen. Either the industry is to blame for not recruiting, encouraging or nurturing female talent, or there is a reluctance on the part of women chefs to put themselves out there. Perhaps it is fear that drives this, maybe they're just too sensible to risk it? Or perhaps these are people who, when asked if they want a Michelin star, are just not that bothered? In any case, without half the population fairly represented, there must be a lost potential of chefs or would-be chefs who are not participating, but could surely equal and possibly surpass the abilities of those currently appearing.

The thing that is missing here, that can bring genuine talent to a faltering franchise, is that there are people now in the industry who did give up the day job, who didn't wait to be on Masterchef to achieve their dream. Really passionate people who learned to appreciate good food, then taught themselves to cook that food, and only then chose to join the industry that has failed to date, to take them seriously. These passionate people are in kitchens up and down the country cooking the food they love for people who love it too, sometimes in their own business, sometimes for other's, in restaurants, cafes and catering trailers. I know because some of them have been through my kitchen. We need for them to A: Be able to apply without the need to have qualifications, to have done stage, or fit the Michelin star cookie cutter. B: To be able to appear without the ritual humiliation that is the 'Skills Test.' Purportedly aimed at weeding out those chefs who bypassed the classics, it does no such thing, it's sensationalism, and I'd like to see how Monica and Marcus would get on if the boot were on the other foot, and the chefs brought in a test for them! It's very much luck of the draw if as a contestant, you happened to cook monkfish ten days ago or ten years ago, whether pastry is your thing, or you simply can think on your feet. By contrast, last week's third round included an ingredients challenge to create a dish from tinned or preserved food. Whilst this did not reveal the ultimate winners on the day, it certainly was more indicative of the style and calibre of contestants than their first round skills test ever was. The skills test reinforces the impression that the culture of humiliation and autocracy, so long bywords for the professional kitchen, still holds sway. And isn't that one of the things that has put women off the industry for such a long time?

I'll go on watching Masterchef, after all, it's drama, and human interest, and empathy and excitement, and there's always the slim chance that someone will actually show a genuine talent.

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