Masterchef - The Inside Track
I reached the final of BBC MasterChef in 2007, here's a little of what competing in BBC's Masterchef is like, for a more detailed insight have a look at the full story on the Knowledge page.
I’d originally applied for Masterchef series 2 but must have missed the deadline as I heard nothing until April of 2006. Initially, I was given a one hour telephone interview and then subsequently invited down to the auditions along with 800 others. At this stage we were asked to bring along a cold dish we could serve immediately and given a 20 minute interview on camera. I presented a coconut bavarois with passionfruit jelly and coconut tuiles. It must have been well received as 6 weeks later I got the call. I was in!
My heat in August took place just 1day after I had come back from holiday, poor planning on my behalf I think. I had practiced my dishes endlessly prior to leaving, but this didn’t settle my nerves one iota. There is nothing that can really prepare you for your first day of filming. On meeting the other five contestants I immediately tried to assess who the strongest competitors were. I think we all did. My assessments were, as it turned out, very wide of the mark.
Prior to arriving I had wondered why they needed us to be there for the whole day, after all the invention test requires you to cook a dish in 40 minutes. It soon became clear that filming this show takes a long time.
The format that follows was kept up throughout the competition: Entrance shots, one on one interviews before tasks, immediately after tasks, after eliminations and the day after (just so you’ve had time to reflect and they haven’t missed anything). After editing, the result is about 20 seconds of footage, if you are lucky!. Setting up shots, particularly food shots of the finished dishes takes time, judging each dish can take up to 15 minutes. So it all adds up to a long tense day. It must be said though that the crew work those hours as well and were always good humoured throughout.
As these shots take so long the food is, without exception, stone cold by the time it’s tasted. John and Gregg do factor this into their comments and try to taste as many elements of your dish whilst you are cooking.
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.
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.
The final challenges would be filmed continously over 3 weeks and take in 3 countries. 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.
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 the 2013 MasterChef series only 27 people in the whole country will have competed in a MasterChef final. 27 out of 62 million.
We were given a number of challenges throughout the show which never made the final cut. What you end up seeing on TV is only a tiny percentage of all the hours of footage that were shot.
The Masterchef finals and semi-finals were filmed almost continuously over 5 weeks with some days starting at 7am and not finishing until 11pm. It’s difficult to convey the pressure you are under. The initial invention test is, for many contestants, the most nerve-wracking time. This is the first time that you are competing, the first time on camera and the first time in the studio kitchens. In many cases it may also be the first time that you have ever cooked the dish you produce from the ingredients. Then you may be on your way home. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are a bad cook, sometimes the pressure just gets to you.
And in many cases you are put in situations where the pressure is inevitable. You only have to see how professional chefs fair sometimes in an unfamiliar kitchen (for example on Great British Menu) with dishes they’ve practiced to realise how difficult it can be for amateurs cooking new dishes in unfamiliar surroundings on MasterChef. As the tagline rightly says " Cooking doesn't get tougher than this".