Sunday, February 22, 2009

Masterchef: 'I’ll Stick My Face In It'


“So, Lennie, tell me about your passion for cooking...” the researcher from the Masterchef show began.

She asked me pretty much the same questions I’d filled in on the application form. I tried to remember what I’d written. The more I listened to her gushing about the programme, the more I realised it was all a con. From her voice, she genuinely seemed to think Masterchef was offering people a chance to, as both Egg and Toad liked to say, “embark on an absolute, life-changing journey”.

There were no details about the prize cooking job, of course, just lots about what sort of contestants they were looking for. She wanted to know whether I’d worked full-time as a professional chef before, if I had received an NVQ catering qualification or similar in the past ten years, and whether I had the required level of enthusiasm, drive, love of food, and desire, to change my life.

At one point, she asked if I had ever been convicted of a “serious crime”. I kept quiet about that. If it came out later, I’d bring up Egg’s conviction for football hooliganism.

I began drifting off, listening to the spiel. She had the same irritating, husky, mee-jar voice as the show’s narrator...

“After 15 years in prison, Lennie is desperate for a life in food. In his heat, he blew the judges away with his chicken vindaloo."

“I’ll quite happily stick my face in it,” says Egg.

“But sometimes he gives himself too much to do, and more often than not, it tastes better than it looks...”

The bitch, I thought.

Then I wondered whether I’d said the word out loud. But the researcher was still talking.

“So the next stage is a casting day,” she gushed. “You may get invited along for that. But we’ll be interviewing about 8,000 people across the country and only choose 100 for the show...”

I had a one in 80 chance. I needed to get a job.

I went for a walk, and passed a catering agency advertising cooking jobs for £6 an hour. They didn’t ask whether I had any experience. Once I’d filled out a few forms, a short, fat, cocky man with a goatee (think Ricky Gervais locked in a Frey Bentos factory for two weeks), threw a few questions at me. The interview was over in seconds.

“How do you make a b├ęchamel sauce?”

“First you infuse the milk…”

“Infuse?”

“Yeah, boil the milk with bay leaves, peppercorns, and you can use an onion…”

He waved me on irritably.

“Then melt some butter in a pan, stir in some flour to make a roux…then slowly whisk in…”

“Yeah, yeah fine.”

All he wanted to know was whether I knew how to make a fucking lasagne.

He phoned the next morning, but I was in bed. By the time I phoned back, the job was gone. But I didn’t want to work as a dinner lady anyway.

A week later I got an email from Masterchef, saying they were “very impressed by my application” and invited me for a casting day at the Brunei Gallery in London. It said:

“Please bring along a sample of your cooking for our judges to taste. You only need to bring one dish. The team will be tasting lots of food so it does not need to be a big portion. It can be sweet or savoury and must be cold or something that can be eaten/tasted cold. We will take into account that the food is cold and has had to travel. Please note there are NO REHEATING FACILITIES and there will be minimal preparation time/facilities but you will have to plate and serve your dish.

“The auditions will be filmed for broadcast so we want you looking and feeling your best. Please avoid wearing white or cream, any logos and steer clear of thin stripes, small spots or geometric patterns. Remember we want your personality to shine through so make sure you feel happy and comfortable as possible….

“Due to the large number of applicants we will be unable to contact unsuccessful applicants.”

I sat there thinking about what dish to go for, and whether I had any clean shirts, let alone any that weren’t striped.

It’d have to be something that could sit happily in a humid Tube carriage half-way across London. Looking back on it now, I still don’t know why I went for sushi.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Masterchef: From Office Into The Pan


I sat there looking at the questions on the Masterchef application form. I had no idea what to put down. The whole show was a farce. The prize was a job as a trainee chef at a top London restaurant. They didn’t say how much you’d get, or what the hours were, or what to do when you’re thrown out on the street because you can’t pay the rent. I couldn’t see Wallace buying the Big Issue off me when he stepped out of his Bentley. And Torode looked like he wouldn’t give a fly to a blind spider.

Maybe the prize didn’t exist at all. I mean, who the hell would take them up on it? The whole thing was about getting on the telly, and society’s mushrooming obsession with fame. I couldn’t see any of the contestants swapping their cushy day jobs for 16 hours slaving in an underground furnace on a wage just enough to keep them alive. Not if there weren’t any cameras about. They weren’t as mad as me. Nowhere near.

The recent winners and finalists seemed to be too busy churning out recipe books to spend much time learning the trade. A few had apparently done a stint here and there in a top kitchen, and Thomasina Myers had set up her own restaurant. But how long she spent there given all the book deals and TV appearances was anyone’s guess.

All I knew was that even if I did get in the finals, it was unlikely to lead to any proper paid cooking work - one winner had turned up at Le Gavroche to find it was unpaid. I needed professional training and a way to support myself if I was to do it properly - to open my restaurant by the sea.

There was also the time delay. I’d have to get myself a cooking job in the mean time. The programme was likely to be months away, and I was dying to get back in the kitchen. One hopeful had to wait eight months before the producers contacted him, then spent 40 minutes on the phone whispering about why he wanted to be a chef with his boss earwigging in the background.

What the hell. I filled in the form anyway...

:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

'Chef, Can We Have Some More Parsley?'

Chefs like to see themselves as kitchen warriors, showing off their scars and fighting each day like it’s their last. And Rick Stein’s crew were no different – with the low season in fast flow, they missed the 150-plus covers of the summer, when the air conditioning had stopped working, pushing the temperature in the kitchen past 50C, and they were left sweating like a Geordie in a maths test.

“Just 100 in tonight,” one chef moaned before service. “It’ll be a quiet night.”

Then later...

“It wasn’t a bad night, only 93, but they all came at the same time.”

“Yeah, we got hit well tonight,” agreed an Aussie.

Cooking was so different from my previous life. Offices were filled with clock-watchers, ready to grab their coats and sprint out the door the moment their shift was over. But for a chef, there was never enough time in the day. Always something that needed doing. And when it was over and the cleaning done, they basked in the glories like fighters discussing a battle.

They might have been ready to rip each other’s throats out an hour before – “Why the fuck are you asking him to sort the meat out? He’s on starters! Put the fucking veal bones in the milk yourself!” – but after service, most of the insults were forgotten. And after a couple of days toiling like a devil, I was very nearly included in that camaraderie too.

I burned a naan bread moments before the monkfish vindaloo was to be served, and tried to blame it on my eyesight, only to come under a storm of derision and threats on my life. But afterwards, they just laughed and muttered something about everyone making mistakes. Only the female Kiwi chef who’d had to make another naan in lightning speed was still pissed off.

“Jeez, I don’t know how you can fucking burn it if you’re stood there like a twat watching it under the grill!”

:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...