MasterChef is the BBC cooking contest program to find the "best amateur chef in the UK", ended last Friday. The winner was Peter Bayless, a 60 year old former advertising executive. His selection was quite a surprise to a lot of people, and the discussion about this on the BBC Food message boards has been quite heated, to put it mildly. He wasn't my pick: I was rooting for either Daksha, a very excitable 44 year old mother of 2 whose speciality is food from the Gujarati region of India; or Dean, a very sincere 28 year old who showed the most cool under pressure. Peter did produce some delicious looking French food along the way and did the best in the final 3-course cooking test. But I don't know, his food did not excite me at all - it was actually sort of yawn-inducing. On the other hand some of Daksha's Gujarati dishes had me flipping through through my Madhur Jaffrey books to see if she had a similar recipe, and her attempts to meld her own flavors with European cooking techniques and ingredients were truly impressive. And Dean probably has the most potential of the three. He is also very cute. He's the overwhelming favorite on the message boards.
I watched almost every show, and did the Invention test, so needless to say I really liked it. I can sort of understand why many people are upset at the choice of winner, but neverthless I think this was the finest cooking contest type program in recent memory. Here's why.
- Plenty of time was given for the show - 40 half-hour episodes, broadcast every weekday over 8 weeks. Compare this to the U.S.'s Top Chef, which will have 10 45 minute episodes. This meant that the four finalists, Dean, Daksha, Peter and Becky got really tested repeatedly. (Becky, an American girl who specialized in a sort of Cajun/Creole/Southern type cooking, was eliminated at the end of the penultimate week.)
- There were 30 preliminary round contestants, plus 6 more that were callbacks from the previous season (Daksha, my favorite finalist, was one of those callbacks). You really got to see the difference between the people who thought they were good cooks, to the ones who really were.
- There was a focus on food and cooking, with a refreshing lack of soap opera elements. You did see some personality clashes, especially in the final 2 weeks when the finalists had to work closely together, but they weren't played up more than necessary.
- A variety of challenges for the finalists, from straightforward cooking assignments to those that tested their ability to cope with stress (cooking in a field kitchen for a ravenous RAF troop in frozen northern Norway, doing made-to-order eggs for the breakfast buffet on the QEII).
- It gave a peek into the amazing variety of fine restaurants operating in England, and the great selection of fresh produce available.
- The variety of contestants was great - you had young and old, male and female, posh-sounding and not-so posh. It wasn't even limited to British people - it seems that the requirement is that you are a UK resident. An American, Becky, was even in the finals. I found this very refreshing. Best of all, most of the contestants seemed really passionate and dedicated, in a non-fake kind of way.
- Lots and lots of delicious looking food!
I really hope that the Food Network can license the MasterChef format, because a similar contest in the U.S. should be really exciting. It would give great exposure to various restaurants that agreed to participate in various challenges, highlight lots of ingredients, engage the audience in furious debate over the results, and just be tons of fun. And I think only the Food Network can do justice to the hard core foodiness of it all. Let's hope some execs are reading!
Residents of the U.K. can apply for upcoming MasterChef series here.