Sorry, but I'm too grand to speak to you this week. Fame and the adoration of the TV-viewing public have flooded over me, and I'm now an aloof celebrity. Small children point at me in the street, as though identifying a Hollywood star. Pushy mothers send me photos of their teenage daughters, offering grotesque sexual liberties if I'll give the young minxes a leg-up into the televisual universe I currently bestride like a Colossus.
Perhaps I exaggerate a little. What happened was, I was invited to go on Masterchef Professionals, taste 12 dishes made by four competing chefs and discuss what I thought of the food with two other critics. The programme, filmed months ago, was broadcast on Thursday. And I received only three texts, genially abusing my obvious lack of knowledge, fluency or taste. But I enjoyed the experience. So many people watch the show, its odd procedures have entered the nation's consciousness. Like the emphatic, bullying music, the crazed hyperbole from Gregg Wallace ("They are COOKING for their culinary LOIVES"); the constantly repeated assertion that "Cooking doesn't get any tougher than THIS" (what, not even in the kitchen at El Bulli?); and the wonderfully theatrical, alarmed-eyebrow-raising routine that Wallace and Michel Roux Jnr employ whenever a contestant makes a balls of his onion-chopping.
Watching the programme on which I was invited was thrilling. I loved the way Michel, like a pop-eyed drill sergeant, wound up the contestants about the prospect of cooking for those legendarily scary folk, restaurant reviewers. "FOOD CRITICS know only TWO THINGS," he seethed, "GOOD. And BAD." If they find the slightest weakness in your cooking, he assured them, they will TEAR you LIMB from LIMB, then go to your home and fillet your CHILDREN.
Something like that anyway. I thought he was being hard on food reviewers as a breed. We're much nicer than that. We are capable sometimes of a nuanced response to food. My fellow critics, for instance, were Jay Rayner from The Observer, a confident foodie polymath visually reminiscent of both Captain Pugwash and a Spanish conquistador; and Andy Hayler, author of The London Transport Restaurant Guide, a man who has eaten in every three-star restaurant in the world, and can remember every detail about the Duck Beak with Pak Choi he consumed in Macao in 2007. We were three chaps who'd been asked into make remarks about nosh. But as time went on, rivalry became apparent.
When Jay spotted that contestant A's flapjack with ice cream and spun sugar was "a whole bunch of dessert garnishes without the dessert", I cursed inwardly. (Why didn't I say that?) When Andy inspected contestant B's flawless lamb dish and said, "I think Marianne should have let her sauce thicken more," I slapped my forehead. (Why hadn't I spotted that?) I tried saying, "I think contestant C might have warmed the plates" but realised that, in the annals of gastronomic evaluation, it wasn't the most sophisticated aperçu.
The quaking chefs arrived bearing plates, and announcing the contents, voices wobbling. Once or twice, a chef would come in to tell us, in a voice of the utmost tragedy, that his venison needed two minutes more, at which we set our faces in looks of politely appalled concern. The camera moved in to catch the gastro-porn "money shots" of food being forked ver-y slow-ly into our critical gobs. Then we got back to the competitive chat.
There wasn't much actual debate, because we could all tell whether a dish had been cooked well or ineptly; but it became a battle to see which of us could articulate the virtues (or otherwise) of a dish most clearly or economically. "I've never had rhubarb tatin before," said Jay suavely. "I'm wondering why. Of course you have to know what you're doing. And Marianne obviously does." I opened my mouth to speak, but the camera zoomed off. "Cardamom has an inherent spiciness," said Andy with the air of a man who knows every spice in the world intimately, "that works really well with chocolate." I indicated that I, too, had a point of view – but the camera did a body-swerve to hear Jay's next pronouncement.
Damnation. How galling to find that, in a cooking competition, whatever the actual food is like, among the judges smoothness wins the day. And I've still got this Thursday's programme to squirm through as well...Reuse content