Masterchef - The Full Lowdown

A breakdown and insight into the challenges we encountered during the journey to the final of BBC MasterChef 2007.

 

The invention test:

I felt physically sick and thought I might freeze.  I’d never experienced nerves like it. I had no inspiration for probably 10 minutes, you can see me in one shot just standing there looking petrified, but then I realised I’d better do something.  Fortunately I got the least negative comments of the six and felt I had a good chance of making to the next day.

 

The pressure test – cooking in a professional restaurant (Tate Britain):

Most of the morning was spent trying to sort out sound and camera angles.  We were shown the dishes once before service, but only cooked our first portion when the orders came in. In truth we didn’t have the hardest of tasks, although it was a busy lunch, the dishes weren’t that complex. We all enjoyed the morning, but just wanted to get stuck into cooking our own dishes. 

 

2 Courses in an hour: I never really felt at home in the Masterchef studio kitchen until the end of the semi’s.  The time, flew by, but I felt reasonably in control. John had said he thought I had a game plan.  He was right.  I never wanted to win anything as much as this competition.  My aim was to at the very least make the quarter finals.  In order to do that I felt I had to use my best dessert early on.  In retrospect, maybe I should have saved it.  

Quarter Final:

With just 24 hours between my heat and my quarter final I’d hardly had time to take stock. I felt absolutely shattered and was hoping that a well needed dose of adrenalin would keep me going. Adrenalin, I got, by the bucket load. I don’t know if it was just the combination of the four of us, but the emotion was unbelievable. We were all highly competitive individuals, and realising this gave us a measure of respect and fear for each other.

 

Passion Test: I was comfortable with the test and knew from their reactions I said something that grabbed their interest.

Ingredients test: Oh dear oh dear, not my best hour.  The less said the better. I got some basics wrong and ended up with 6 out of 10. 

3 courses in 1hr 30

My god time was tight.  Just as the judges came round my white chocolate and lime cream split.  With 10 minutes to go I thought I wouldn’t produce 1 dish let alone 3.  I was desperately struggling to get the frozen lid off a box of ice cubes and eventually swore very loudly launching the whole thing across the studio floor.  Fortunately the cameras weren’t on me at the time.

I managed to improvise the dessert minus the split cream, although the dish looked an absolute mess.  From the judges assessment I felt I was going out. I called my girlfriend to let her know and tell her nonetheless I was happy as they gave high praise to my starter, a dish I’d invented myself.

Semi-finals:  As my quarter was the first one filmed, I had a few months before the semis to practice a repertoire of dishes.  The semis were filmed over two weeks with the occasional day’s break.

 

From 6 to 4:  My god the competition was tough.  I was so impressed with the standard of most of the food produced. I was accused of being conceited for trying to cook in the style I’d chosen.  I had a long debate with John and Gregg and defended my dish, after all the aim of the programme was to get contestants to produce “restaurant quality food.

Breakfast test

Having taken a roasting for overly pretty presentation I could not have produced a bigger mess than I did that morning. I still cringe when I think back to it. 

Volume test:  And volume we got, 4 hours to cook 500 portions of food for school kids, using little or no salt/sugar, in a kitchen we didn’t know, without recipes, and between 4 of us instead of the usual 14 staff the school employ. It was portrayed that David and I were running late.  In fact both teams got their food out ahead of time, quite and achievement in itself.  That said I didn’t enjoy the task and was feeling pretty low.

After a weekend off and pep talks from my father, stepmother and girlfriend I returned with renewed confidence and a determination to succeed.  Being in a more positive frame of mind helped my cooking immensely.  Gregg commented that happy people make better food.  He had a point.

 

Fine dining test:

Part 1: As we drove up to Whaddesdon Manor  I knew I’d be far more in my element than the previous two tests.  And so I was.  On top of what you see, we also had to create 8 canapés before moving on to cook our dishes.  I loved the experience.  The head chef was a superb teacher and remained so calm throughout.  The challenge was made even more difficult as the serving kitchen was located 3 floors above the prep kitchen.  I was just praying that nothing fell of the trolley or spilt as we made this perilous journey.  The highlight of the day though was tasting 3 vintages of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, some of which retail at over £250 a bottle. Reward enough I felt for the hard days cooking we’d undergone.  As we were driven back to London I slipped in to a deep wine-induced sleep.

 

Part 2: The following day we had a later start in the studio, which was a good job as I had a little bit of a hangover to sleep off. This challenge was almost déjà vu.  Another invention test, but this time with finer ingredients and an extra 10 minutes.  I had a reasonably clear idea of what I wanted to do. The dish got great comments.  I was back on track and had proved to the judges that I could match my presentation with the flavours it promised.  Phew, what a relief.

The critics meal: We had a day and half free beforehand.  I have never, ever felt nerves like it, I was a jittering wreck, my legs were about as firm as the half-set jelly I served up in the quarterfinal.  But somehow I found a moment of calm the night before and managed to hold onto it throughout the next day.  The cooking felt easy and controlled, I was actually enjoying it.  I knew that a good frame of mind usual meant good food.  Even the failure of the ice-cream machine to properly freeze my sorbet didn’t throw me (The machines in the studio are pants!).  As the dishes went out I felt I’d given myself every chance of getting to the final.  In retrospect this could well have been my finest moment. 

 

The Finals

The critics day was long.  We got to bed very late and had taxis picking us up at 5.am the following morning to fly to Cyprus.  The final would be filmed over 3 weeks.  During both the semi-and the final I rarely slept for more than 5 hours a night due to worry, adrenalin and a bloody awful sofabed in the studio flat provided by the production company!  Cyprus was to be the exception.  We’d been allocated a 5 star hotel.

 

The Army – The “remote” training area was serviced by an immaculate tarmac road just of the main coastal highway.  As you can probably gather I’m not the most enthusiastic when it comes to volume tasks and I can’t bring myself to cook with awful ingredients.  You can’t get much more awful than ration packs. 

 

Ok. So the Sergeant Major and I weren’t the best of friends in the morning.  We were put under a lot of pressure, and my leadership was called into question, as was our organisation as a team.  I found it incredibly hard to cook with the field kitchen equipment, not least a certain tin-opener.  It was all quite comical in retrospect, but on the day, we felt far from jovial. In the end we produced the food on time (just) and beat the army team on flavours. 

 

That evening I was determined to prove myself to the SM.  I chose the smallest workspace in the kitchen, kept it immaculate throughout and got my dishes out on time. I felt that throughout the day we had all worked well as a team, stepping in to help each other when necessary.  That evening the crew, John and Gregg indulged themselves in the bar.  I unfortunately missed Gregg’s 30 minute stand-up impressions of the contestants and crew. Apparently no one was spared.

 

Casualty – This show was actually filmed after our trip to Cyprus.  Hannah had burnt and cut herself quite badly in previous challenges.  She must have developed an infection in the wounds and had become very ill.  It was a chance the crew couldn’t miss, carting poor old Hannah off in a blanket through the set of Casualty. 

 

Casualty has been going for twenty years and is filmed in a warehouse in Bristol.  The set is permanent, but due to planning restrictions they have never built a permanent kitchen.  So everyday the cast traipses outside in all weathers to queue for their lunch.  The van we cooked in is something else.  Due to its size you have to be incredibly organised, work very tidily and clean as you go.  I think the crew were expecting something out of the ordinary as we were Masterchef contestants.  But this wasn’t the day for elaborate dishes, even if we’d had the time to do them.

All the cast remained in costume for lunch.  It’s quite disconcerting to have someone come up to you in full make-up looking like they’ve been in a car crash and ask for more custard on their pud. 

 

No.10: We knew something big was brewing days before.  The crew were on edge and forever whispering things just out of earshot.  We’d wrongly concluded the night before that we’d be cooking for Charles and Camilla at the Royal Variety performance which was taking place that day. Then Gregg and John announced our task we were surprised to find ourselves in the privileged position to be cooking for two prime ministers at number 10

We were given a recipe each along with pictures of how it should look and an equipment list.  No10 kitchen has no equipment in it at all, not a can opener, not a teaspoon, not one single pot or pan.  We had to pack everything we needed that day.  There was a lot of waiting around when we arrived as the press were waiting outside the door for the P.M.  We had to use the back entrance so we weren’t spotted. All very clandestine, the arrival shots were filmed the following day when neither the PM nor the press were around.

The cooking went by in a blur. At that stage of the competition we were all feeling the stress.  Hannah and I had been living away from home and loved ones for 4 weeks and we all had work to worry about.  Having been judged everyday during this period, you start to analyse your own every little mistake and think….have I just blown it.  The pressure is immense!  We left No.10 quite late that evening.  Food hadn’t been provided we had to make our own arrangements.  The only place open was a Burger King.  Oh the shame of it!

 

The Savoy – cooking for 8 Michelin Star Chefs (incl: Michel Roux, Raymond Blanc & Marcus Wareing:  This was a dream come true for me, to meet and make an impression on these chefs at the top of their game.  It was without doubt the longest continuous stint we have ever cooked for, 12 hours non-stop (like real pro chefs!).  We ate our lunch standing up.  Could you imagine cooking for a more intimidating dinner party?. We were cooking someone else’s dishes, which we’d never practised, in an unfamiliar kitchen.  To produce anything worthy of credit would be a major victory..

We were each given incredibly complex and challenging dishes to produce.  I had 8 lobsters, 40 langoustine and 50 crayfish had to be cooked and shelled before I could even embark on the rest of the recipe.  The processes were complicated and many.  I made steady progress and I was delighted that I was able to get my dishes out on time.  As I walked into the room I wasn’t sure what to expect, I didn’t know whether what I’d sent out was up to scratch or not.  At the time all I could hear ringing through my ears were the words of Michel Roux, but in retrospect I had ignored all of the positive feedback from the other chefs, especially how much they had praised my technical skills.  I should have been pleased that I’d got even one positive out of them but I am my own harshest critic!  I left downhearted for the post analysis interview where I expressed how much I just wanted to cook my own dishes, I would have loved the opportunity to be able to serve one of my own creations to the chefs.

The Final 3 courses – For anyone competing in a Masterchef final, it is the pinnacle of an amateur chef’s aspirations.  You are cooking in the most hotly and widely contested amateur cookery competition anywhere, whilst under the scrutiny of not only the judges, but the nation.  One last challenge. For us, 3 courses in 2hrs. One mistake and you’ve blown it.  Too much seasoning on your starter, undercooked meat on your main, 30 seconds too long on your fish, an over-reduced sauce. Fine margins. It is ridiculously tough. The pressure is overwhelming at times. The disappointment when you don’t win, after months of hard work, can be devastating. By the end of this series only 27 people in the whole country will have competed in a MasterChef final. 27 out of 62 million.