Tag Archive | Masterchef

Square plates, narrow minds

An abomination. According to the dictionary, that is ‘something that causes disgust or hatred’. Are we talking about Russia’s anti-gay reign of terror? Are we talking about Syria’s use of poison gas on its own population? Was this word perhaps used to describe the ongoing practice of fracking? No. This word was used by William Sitwell to describe how he feels about food that is being served on square plates.

Really William Sitwell, can't you fuss over something more worthy?

Really William Sitwell, can’t you fuss over something more worthy?

William Sitwell is an employee of a large UK supermarket chain, and as such he writes all sorts of inoffensive and  informative articles for the in-store magazine, that are solely meant to make people buy a certain product. It has nothing to do with journalism, but everything with marketing. For some obscure reason, Sitwell was chosen years ago to become a regular food critic on Masterchef, and his bespectacled face has become a regular guest in our household since then. And it seems that the rise to tv fame has gone to Sitwell’s head.

Suddenly, he sees himself as a real food critic instead of a glorified supermarket checkout girl. Someone, who must leave his mark, someone who could be directional when it comes to steering British cuisine into the 21st century. And so, he has started to have opinions, and to value them, and to impose them on others, in short: he had become a Proper Food Critic.

If great cooking is a pure act of love -and that’s how I see it anyway- then food criticism is all about murdering that love. The food critic in general is a sad, joyless creature, who has long ago blurred the lines between being witty and being cynical, and who really only lights up when he finds fault in a certain dish, so he can then start his verbal assassination. Food critics only have few words to praise a meal, but millions of ways to say what they do not like. The more expensive the restaurant, the more absurd the scrutiny they’re under. Peas not all of the same size? Abomination! Slightly lumpy mashed puree/celeriac/swede/parsnip (oh, the UK and its enduring love of baby food!)? Abomination!

The animation film ‘Ratatouille’ was definitely not one of Pixar’s greatest, but one thing they did do well was how they portrayed the food critic Anton Ego, a self-inflated ball of bile and cynicism, always trying to find fault in whatever he eats (for free) and then of course finding it. I’m afraid real life food critics (and yes, I know a few in person) are more like Anton Ego than they would dare to admit.

Anton Ego hits closer to home than most critics would dare to admit

Anton Ego hits closer to home than most critics would dare to admit

Once, these food critics probably really loved food, and appreciated it. But they have taught themselves to suppress their enojoyment and to be ruthless killjoys, in the name of journalism. Heaven forbid, after all, the food critic gets accused of having a cushy easy job, with lovely free meals in expensive restaurants! Oh no, we mustn’t think that! No, it’s hard work to have to struggle through a slightly underseasoned saddle of venison, or to have to plough through yet another dodgy crème anglaise (custard to us commoners). And to then sit down and shoot the whole meal down in flames, that’s seriously hard work!

The joyless trio of the Great British Menu

The joyless trio of the Great British Menu

Take a programme like the Great British Menu for instance. There, three regular critics get to taste the creations of the chefs… but all they really do is try and outwit and outsmary… and outcriticize one another. If Prue Leith says she loves a certain aspect of a dish, it’s the signal for suspiciously thin (I believe people who say they love food ought to look like they do!) Oliver … to quip that it is completely awful, and then Matthew Fort chimes in with his posh accent and slightly effeminate manner that is so common in upper middle class Brits, to really destroy the entire dish just for the sake of being witty. It is as depressing as it is predictable, and I am sure that the critics in question don’t even realize how miserly they come across to a public that probably never ate venison sweatbreads or pickled grouse tongue and can only afford fish fingers.

I am sure William Sitwell used to be a kid that loved food, and that was excited to try new things and flavors. But now he too has turned into this unpleasant ogre, this food-Scrooge, who is cynical just for the sake of it, or because that is what a Serious Journalist is supposed to be. And one morning he woke up with a bright idea to carve a name out for himself in the overcrowded world of food writers. He would begin his very own crusade… against something nobody had thought of before. A crusade against square plates. Square, he reasons, goes against what is natural. An abomination!

Let me say this very clear. Nobody gives a toss about what sort of plate food gets served on as long as it’s clean and big enough. I have had great food from round, square, rectangular, oval, oblong, triangular, octagonal, parallellopippidoic plates. Plates that were made from porcelain, majolica, terracotta, glass, plastic, melamine, cardboard, slate and recycled potato peels. If William Sitwell has truly reached the stage, where he fusses more over the shape of a plate than about the food that’s on top of it, then really, he hasn’t got anything left to write or complain about.

I suggest he retires, before he starts complaining about the diabolical evil that is the three-pronged fork.


Masterchef’s guilty pleasures

Nearly choking...

Nearly choking…

Once again, the Masterchef season is upon us. John Torode and Greg Wallace preside over a crowd of aspiring chefs, who battle eachother in the brutal arena of a converted warehouse somewhere in Islington. It’s like the Game of Thrones of cuisine… An hour of clanging metal, of knives cutting through gristle and bone, of charred meat and pouring sweat… and at the end of the hour, four out of six main characters are eliminated.

‘Cooking does not get tougher than this’, Greg growls, and every few minutes or so we hear another rousing oneliner -probably from the same bunch of writers- from either John or Greg. The message behind it all: cooking is not for pussies. It’s a blood sport.

The contestants do their best to fit in, and say tough things like: ‘I am hugely competitive’ or ‘I’ll be gutted if I don’t make the next round’. If an alien from a distant planet visited Earth and watched tv for a week, he’d be forgiven if he thought Masterchef is a spectator sport.

What always saddens me, is how Masterchef tries to squeeze all these individual amateur chefs into pretty much the same mold. Good presentation, for instance, in Masterchef-world, invariably means placing items of food (with tweezers preferably) on a vast expanse of slate or white porcelain, accompanied by a rustic smear of a reduction of some kind, and one or two types of baby-food. (Those English and their mashes, purees and emulsions!). Preferably with a bit of height added, and a few random leaves chucked in for good measure. Oh, and make sure to add something sweet, because Greg has a childish palate and will give you extra points for that. And do, by all means, overcook your steak.

Of course, lots of candidates make mistakes of the ‘what were they thinking’-type. Like a chef who made a Vietnamese pho-soup, completely disregarding the fact that the thing that makes pho so delicious and unforgettable is a really strong stock, that has simmered for days. Not minutes. The resulting dish had all the exciting flavour of hot water, so consequently the guy got the boot.

But sometimes Masterchef has its moments of true genius. And it’s those moments, however rare and fleeting, that make me watch it every year. Yesterday, a candidate went out on not one, but two heroic failures. A main course that consisted of beans and bangers on soggy toast, covered under a mound of greasy onions. And a dessert that involved potato-dough and plums that looked utterly grotesque. Judging from the faces of the jury, it tasted even worse than it looked. Maybe it was mean of me but I really enjoyed watching John and Greg chew through those two absolutely vile dishes.


Why I hate Masterchef

Suddenly, Masterchef is everywhere. In Holland we have the original Masterchef on the BBC, plus Junior Masterchef, Celebrity Masterchef and Professional Masterchef. Basically, hardly a week goes by without some sort of Masterchef, and that’s just the Beeb. Then there is obviously Dutch Masterchef, and our Dutch commercial tv channels have scoured the globe to bring us Australian Masterchef as well, plus reruns of the UK Masterchef, USA Masterchef… bloody Papua New Guinea Masterchef! In short: it’s all too much and I am not even sure if it’s a good thing in the first place.

I love cooking, and I could probably do quite well on Masterchef because I have a good palate and I have the weird ability to know what something will taste like before actually tasting it. And most of all, because to me food and love and inextricably mixed. I love to cook and I love to cook for people I love. I express my love through my cooking. And some of the most precious memories of my life -anyone’s life!- involve sharing food with loved ones. It’s a spiritual, emotional thing for me. And so much more than just some shrill competition.

To then have to watch Masterchef, and see how such an act of loving is turned into yet another competition and another means for annoying egotistical immature people to self-inflate and assert themselves is absolute torture. I hate competitive people and I love to see them fail. They always do on Masterchef because good food is never about trying to be better than others. But tell that to those smug sociopaths.

The worst is Australian Masterchef, with three presenters/judges/divas that are incredibly annoying. Especially a little stubbly Greek who apparently secretly thinks cooking is for women and sissies, so who as compensation tries to be this huge overstated testosterone clump all the time. I would smash his skull in with a Le Creuset skillet if he talked like that to me. Cooking is not the same as racing a Ferrari, George Kalombaris! Even the -far better- BBC version is guilty of souping things up to a ridiculous level. John and Gregg excel in stupid oneliners like ‘Cooking does not get tougher than this’. I could just slap them. Whenever a contestant is stressed out and clearly struggling to serve his food on time, they just stand on the side and yell at him or her, as if that makes the work go any faster or better. Intensely annoying. Get out of the way, or help. But don’t stand there stating the obvious.

I also hate the way every chef is pushed into some sort of cookie cutter, and taught to produce fashionable pretty looking food. The obsession with pureeing everything into some sort of baby-food on the BBC version is simply ridiculous. The same goes for the reductions that end up as a nasty smear, and the obsession with using snobbish jargon. Crème Anglaise instead of custard? May we charge you 5 pounds extra?

My biggest hate is the insane trend of deconstructing tried and tested dishes. There is a reason why a tarte tatin works the way it does. There is an age old method behind a perfect Boeuf Stroganoff. Any other combination leads to something that takes hours more work to produce and yet never quite reaches the same quality and flavour as the original dish did. So why so it? Showing off skill is great, but the purpose should always be to improve the favour of the dish. Yesterday I witnessed how a three-star chef devised a menu where basically 80% of all ingredients was reduced to the point of irrecognizability. The wastage, in a time of austerity, was simply staggering. Turning rhubarb into snow, by juicing two kilos and then whisking it through liquid nitrogen, so a mere handful was left of it? Whoever thinks this is the way cooking should go needs his head examined.

So there you have it, the reason why I will never succumb to Masterchef. I will not allow anyone -least of all judges from a tv show- to stand between me and my love for food, and my need to share that with people that matter to me.231450