There’s a moment in the current series of MasterChef: The Professionals where the contestants are asked to make filled agnolotti pasta for their opening “skills test”, and Gregg Wallace, in his role as the man on the Clapham omnibus, declares he can’t remember what shape they should be. And then it slowly dawns on us that the chefs aren’t sure what they should look like either. And just when we’re enjoying this schadenfreude, it is compounded by a brief, glorious eruption, as one of chef Kirsty’s not-agnolotti makes a desperate leap for freedom from her pan – as if knowing its very existence is a crime against God. The chefs may well be professionals, the next big things of British fine dining, but they are also only human – such is the nuanced joy of the show.
Love it or loathe it, MasterChef: The Professionals is now in its 14th series, and it’s still the single biggest showcase for where the British restaurant industry is at right now: its latest trends, its eccentric obsessions and its frustrating limitations. The dishes that appear tell us something about the food world outside the BBC studio, even when it’s scallops and black pudding or rack of lamb with a red wine jus for the umpteenth time. Tonight the drama of “finals week” commences, as the remaining six chefs battle it out in front of an audience of millions – for the MasterChef winner’s trophy, but also the huge career boost that will follow.
It’s easy to account for the show’s longevity. I spend half my time enthralled by the magic being performed by these kitchen wizards, and the other half in hysterics at seeing people who literally cook for a living somehow messing up bog-standard weekday meals: scrappy omelettes, rock-hard “soft-boiled” eggs, burst bangers and gloopy mash. It’s this culinary whiplash that keeps me watching.
There’s also an impressive emotional range to the many and varied facial expressions that Monica Galetti and Marcus Wareing pull, and Sean Pertwee’s mesmerising voiceover: each husky word suggests he would like to get intimate with every single ingredient on every single plate. Just listen to him say “spicy, spreadable sausage” and you’ll need a cold shower, as well as some nduja.
But – and there is always a but – when people in the UK are routinely buying jerk chicken ready meals for their dinner from Tesco, laksa for their lunch from Pret, and Thai green curry in their local pub (whatever their quality might be), why does so much of the food on MasterChef: The Professionals still come across as so conservative, and so, well, French? Sole veronique, which featured in one of this year’s quarter-finals, was a dish invented by Auguste Escoffier more than a century ago.
Chocolate fondants – or fon-don’ts, as Gregg would have it – seem to have finally shuffled off the scene, but chocolate crémeux, basically just a brick of custard, have become their successor, with just as high a failure rate. Sweet and savoury tuiles still crop up everywhere, and that cliched nemesis of every cook, the soufflé, is still a regular feature – although one contestant, John, at least gave his cherry soufflé an unexpected jaunty little shortbread hat worthy of Ted Lasso.
The truth is that “professional” in cooking still means an aspiration to Michelin-quality, which inevitably means French, or at least French in spirit. The Michelin guide was first published in France in 1904, but it still holds sway as the Oscars of the restaurant world. French dishes, classical techniques and the so-called “mother” sauces (classed by Escoffier as béchamel, espagnole, tomato, velouté and hollandaise) are still considered the foundation of all fine dining. This holds true beyond western Europe: the acclaimed Indian chef Vineet Bhatia has spoken of how when he was first cooking in New Delhi, his colleagues looked askance at his devotion to the local cuisine, as they had all been trained in, and were dedicated to, classical French cookery.
All this leads to judges being wary, upset or confused by anything not meeting the Gallic ideal, such as when one contestant, Charith, made the coconut custard and jaggery dessert watalappan – and which, to add insult to injury, Pertwee even described in his voiceover as “a Sri Lankan crème brûlée”. It’s equally jarring whenever a judge’s first response to a non-western dish is to query whether it can be “refined” or “elevated”, the uncomfortable implication being that its original state is automatically clumsy or primitive.
Thankfully though, it seems there is some dissent and self-awareness about these tropes even among the chefs’ ranks – one contestant, Ollie, remarked of his mackerel and apple dish that it was still “classical, but going to be nice”.
Indeed, it’s hard not to fall a little for all of the contestants. I have a soft spot for Matt the forager, whose main skill is his mastery of ancient and pungent herbs with names like football pundits, such as “costmary” and “spignel”. As finals week begins, my money’s on Daniel Marreiros. His take on his childhood gazpacho looked utterly divine, I’m a sucker for his Portuguese accent, and he really looks as if he could do with a good nap – and after the last few years we’ve had, don’t we all?
MiMi Aye is the author of Mandalay: Recipes & Tales from a Burmese Kitchen, and host of the food & culture podcast The MSG Pod