Fine dining is only for fusspots

I'm a decent cook but my presentation tends towards the homely rather than the faux-artistic

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I took my annual holiday during a heatwave to coincide with my debut on Celebrity MasterChef, filmed earlier this year in sub-zero temperatures. For three nights in a row, BBC1 viewers have seen me rant and rage as I struggle to cook a complicated cod dish at a swanky restaurant, prepare and serve lunch to 75 members of the Cirque de Soleil at the Royal Albert Hall and turn a huge spider crab into fishcakes. My battle isn't about culinary skills: it's a clash of mindsets. Greg Wallace and John Torode are obsessed by something called "fine dining", with all the finickity presentation that involves. I'm a decent cook but my presentation tends towards the homely rather than the faux-artistic. To win MasterChef you must bow down before the god of perfect grooming.

When did food start being a substitute for architecture or interior design? Normal fare (in my house) never gets placed in pyramids, surrounded by dobs of jus, topped with propellers of fried rosti or aerodynamically positioned chives. It's all a distraction, a form of showing-off, one-upmanship on a plate. Women stack food in precipitous layers. I decided to take on the MasterChef challenge because I'm enraged by the way cooking has been hijacked and turned into a gladiatorial sport which most of us can only fail at. Now, millions watch food shows (my debut MasterChef episode peaked at more than five million), but we don't cook better or try many different recipes. All this fannying around with symmetrical bits of courgette is entertaining, but deters people from cooking from scratch. I wanted to fight back, to show that someone who didn't know one end of a chicken from the other till they were in their twenties can still concoct something delicious.

MasterChef has been difficult. Having spent most of my working life issuing orders, I had to work in a team in a kitchen and keep my mouth shut. Worse, I had written some sneery stuff about Greg and WeightWatchers. Unlike the other three female contestants (sadly, a women-only round means there's less chance of a female winning as most of us will be eliminated), I wasn't prepared to be smiley and grateful. I did learn a few things, though. Now I can fillet a fish and bone a duck better. I can make good ice-cream from scratch. (It's easy.) And I do smile (OK, it's a bit of a fixed grimace) as I serve my creations – who knows, it might help with the scoring.

The young people who worked at Le Pont de la Tour and the Michelin-starred restaurants where I slaved, were the real stars. They come from all over the world. They are dedicated to achieving their dream. They are smart. And they know how to keep their counsel. That gets you a long way in fine dining. I haven't been eliminated yet – and there are some really grisly challenges in store. Greg and I may still come to blows. You'll have to wait and see.

Edinburgh calls

Back from empty Italian mountains for a frenetic 24 hours in Edinburgh. There was a lot to take in after two weeks vegging out on Baltic detective novels. Edinburgh is the perfect way to sharpen up for the next season, to soak up a heap of input and inspiration in the shortest possible time. First stop – Omega, a hardcore truly inventive Russian cabaret at the Assembly Rooms, some bits proving too much for a few members of the public who slunk out looking queasy. It's a black, bleak mash-up of turns set to a full-on score by electronic composer Michael Begg. There's smoke and contortions, a two-headed crooner, a dancing skeleton, and a frenetic nutcase with a feather on his head. Think Tod Browning's Freaks crossed with David Lynch's Eraserhead. The compere irritates, and his narration is irrelevant, but there's plenty to marvel at. I bet Madonna will put some of these tricks into her next tour.

John's groats

Edinburgh is about gear-changing, crashing from one end of the spectrum to another. Next, John Lloyd, who created Not the Nine O'Clock News and produced Spitting Image and Blackadder. Now his series QI is a big hit all around the world. At 61, Lloyd is finally making his comedy debut at the Underbelly, in a show that is shamelessly cosy and middle class. A gentle stroll through his extraordinary career, with some good anecdotes, including one about his great friend, the late Mel Smith, visiting The Mousetrap and being confronted by a cauliflower (I won't spoil the joke). John, who isn't a natural performer, brazenly plugs the second volume of his Book of Liff (signing afterwards) and the end result seems rather like an enjoyable sermon by your local vicar. He knows his audience – intelligent Middle England – and they adore him.

Big beasts

I spent an hour being interviewed by Johnnie Walker for his nightly show from a former Freemasons' hall on George Street, but I would have preferred to ask him about working in radio during the Jimmy Savile era and the fallout at the BBC over alleged sexual harassment. Walker was suspended by the Beeb years ago after drugs and unrelated sexual shenanigans (with consenting adults) were "exposed" in a red-top. He was later reinstated. Why should we care what DJs get up to in their spare time, as long as it's legal? Steven Berkoff had also been in the chair, and his ranting about Twitter was widely reported. I once took Johnny Rotten to have dinner with Steven Berkoff, who was a huge fan. This battle of egos could only have one victor – the High Priest of Punk. Lydon should create a show in Edinburgh – a chat show where only he talks and guests can't get a word in.

Ghoulish treat

Two fabulous exhibitions at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Witches and Wicked Bodies explores how evil hags have inspired artists from Cranach to Goya since the Middle Ages. Amid the engravings of semi-naked crones, a Cindy Sherman print in which she wears a huge prosthetic nose and an array of warts on a pointy chin. Death and Other Small Tales features the work of contemporary surrealist Robert Gober. His wax torso, half male and half female, slumped on the floor and partially covered with hair, was truly creepy. Upstairs, an elegant room of his wallpaper – genitalia printed on black silk.

Gordon's secrets

Finally, The Confessions of Gordon Brown at the Pleasance, a tour de force by Ian Grieve, who bears a strong resemblance to our former PM. This monologue by Kevin Toolis reveals that Brown carried no money after 1991 and couldn't stand meeting people. Loosely based around the speech made when he took office, it explores his family background and his relationship with his parents. In spite of the moments of fun, this is a sensitive portrayal of a tragic figure. I wonder if Sarah will pay a visit?