“Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this”. MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace sprinkles his catchphrase liberally throughout each series. But for the amateur winners of the show who wish to pursue a career in the catering industry – and most do – it’s not true.
Ask any chef and there is no comparison between challenges on MasterChef, however loud the judges are barking, and doing an 18-hour shift, day after day in a windowless, high-octane restaurant kitchen.
The 1994 winner Gerald Goldwyre found out the hard way when he completed half a dozen or so stages (periods of work experience) in high-profile restaurant kitchens. “I saw how hard chefs work for 16 hours a day and the pressure they are under from customers and thought ‘no, thank you’. I admire the young guys and gals that pull it off but I didn’t want to send myself to an early grave.”
The winner of the new series of MasterChef, which started on Tuesday night, will be the 20th to lift the trophy since the original series began in 1990 and the ninth since the new format show launched in 2005. Judging by the post-show patterns of previous winners he or she will bask in the limelight of daytime TV for a few weeks where they will talk about a plan to one day own a restaurant, undertake a number of stages in top restaurants where they might do little more than peel spuds and chop onions and then begin a circuit of sponsored demonstrations at national and regional cookery festivals. After which relative obscurity beckons.
This was the case for the first 11 winners, with the exception of Sue Lawrence, who won in 1991, and carved out a healthy career on the back of her existing journalism skills as a cookery writer.
But when MasterChef was revamped in 2005 it coincided with a more optimistic mood in the country, says executive editor Karen Ross. “Things felt different. We caught a new energy and hope that people had about the possibility to change careers.” It helped that Thomasina Miers won that year and went on to star in two Channel 4 food series and ultimately to set up her own successful restaurant chain. But not everyone goes on to such dizzying heights.
Expectations, though, remain higher than ever. And millions of viewers, who invest scores of viewing hours, want to see their champion go on to make the ultimate transition from home cook to head chef.
When Dhruv Baker won MasterChef in 2010 he was inundated with offers from viewers asking him to run their restaurants.
“I’d have been foolish to have jumped in without doing my homework. I’ve seen finalists go straight in to head chef roles with disastrous consequences.”
After winning the show in 1996, Neil Haidar took a chef’s job at Pescatore restaurant in Worcester, but lasted fewer than five days following a disagreement over menu policy with the owner.
Baker adds: “You can be a good cook but have absolutely no idea how to run a working kitchen. For the first few weeks, it’s bonkers when you win – you emerge blinking and cowering in to the limelight, but it’s important to keep your head.”
There are no prizes on MasterChef, and the emphasis, according to Ross, is that it could rather than it will change your life. “Lots of contestants come in with the idea that they’d like to be chefs but it’s one thing having your partner say that your cooking is ‘fantastic’ and another having Gregg and John judging it.”
Besides, not everyone wants to be a Michelin-starred chef, according to the 2009 winner Mat Follas, who opened The Wild Garlic restaurant in Beaminster, Dorset in June of the same year. “There’s a lot to be said for amateur chefs,” insists Follas, who says he’s yet to meet a chef who’s as good as he thinks he is and now trains his own kitchen staff. On a recent visit to Copenhagen, Rene Redzepi, chef patron at Noma, “the world’s best restaurant”, told Follas that a good home cook should be able to do a single plate of food better than 90 per cent of professional chefs.
“I still borrow ideas from dishes I see on MasterChef,” adds Follas, “a lot of them are awful but some are genuinely unique.”
The show’s judge and resident chef John Torode believes MasterChef has improved year-on-year since 2005. “Some of the food was so bad in the first two series that I was quite shocked by it,” he says. The current series, which starts with 50 contestants, is packed with “extraordinary talent” and involves more technical skills such as the palate test, where contestants have to recreate a dish from just blind tasting it. “It takes them out of their comfort zone,” says Torode, “and we usually realise quickly which ones are way out of their depth.”
Claims by former contestants, such as the first winner Joan Bunting, that the show has been jazzed up to focus on a certain type of contestant who has the ingredients to make it in the media world of celebrity are inaccurate, insists Ross: “There’s no such thing as a typical MasterChef contestant, we don’t cast on sex, geography or background, just purely on their cooking skills. The show is just as unpredictable for us as it is for the viewers.”
Three years on, and life, too, is still a bit unpredictable for Baker. He has investors and the concept and menus are in place for his restaurant. But he’s still biding his time, waiting for the optimum moment to open what would be a neighbourhood eatery with a spicy, fusion theme near his home in South-West London. “It’s really just a case of finding the perfect site now. I’ve seen restaurants fail for being just 50 yards in the wrong direction so I’m treading carefully. Otherwise I’m good to go.”