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MasterChef turns 20! The cookery competition just gets better and better
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MasterChef turns 20! The cookery competition just gets better and better

Recently, at a friend’s house, I was given the remote control and told to “put something on”. This is a big responsibility and the sweaty-palmed pressure might explain how I ended up on a channel they didn’t know they had, with no idea of what combination of buttons I pressed to get there. More importantly, it’s how we all ended up watching several episodes of a series of MasterChef from at least five years ago. Note “several episodes”: we might have arrived there by accident, but we stayed by choice.

MasterChef is about to enter its 20th season, and the BBC is, rightly, in a celebratory mood. In 2005, the format was revived, jazzed-up and modernised. The Loyd Grossman days, from 1990 to 2000, were fussier and far more formal. In 2005, Gregg Wallace and John Torode came along. Over almost two decades at the helm, they’ve made “buttery biscuit base” happen and competitive TV cooking fun again. I say fun. I’m not sure how much fun the contestants are having when they serve a sloppy collapse that was supposed to pay homage to their mother’s cherished recipe to three tight-lipped former champions, but if they aren’t having fun, at least the viewers are. The tension is palpable. Give me a scrappy, raw talent who can’t plate-up for toffee but makes exceptional-tasting food and I’m all in.

At 20, MasterChef has become that rare TV institution that shows no signs of going off the boil. If anything, it has only grown, like a mythical perfect souffle. The spin-offs are great. I love the Celebrity version because they cast people who are famous while not necessarily being competent cooks, so you get to see some real catastrophes. I don’t feel as bad about enjoying this as I do when poor old Tim from Kettering fails to produce his much-hyped “famous moussaka”. I love The Professionals for different reasons, because that is more serious and technical and the stakes are higher, though I do feel bad when a pro gets their venison confused with their veal.

Inbetweeners star James Buckley on Celebrity MasterChef.View image in fullscreen

But the original MasterChef still leads the way. It endures because it sticks to the formula. It is as familiar as a trusted recipe for a Victoria sponge. While they do occasionally add new rounds or ideas, these are usually tweaks rather than overhauls. There are two new ones promised for season 20: “Basic to Brilliant” will see cooks transform an everyday ingredient, while “Think on Their Feet” sounds like another invention test given a gentle glow-up. There is something so comforting about its familiarity. Previous winners and contestants from the rebooted Wallace and Torode show, such as Thomasina Miers (who won series one), Mat Follas (series five) and Kenny Tutt (series 14) regularly return to judge, so there is a strong sense of continuity, as well as a real indication of what winning the show can do for culinary ambitions.

That’s not to say that MasterChef is in a rut. Watch any old series and you’ll get an idea of what was in vogue at that time. There was the scallop and pea puree era, served up for practically every starter, offering the very particular peril of whether a scallop might be undercooked or overcooked. The triple-cooked chips era has all but disappeared, though the devoted pub grub pedlars still like to wheel it out on occasion. There have been foams and emulsions, gels and balls. I’m quite fond of the taco era, which I suspect is now into its dotage. And in recent times, the street food-themed rounds have come thick and fast.

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What really makes it work, though, is the reality TV staple of “The Journey”. Someone always goes from the rear of the pack to unlikely superstar, hoovering up the skills that they learn from various fancy restaurants and chefs along the way. By the time you get to the final, when three contestants have made it through what look to be a series of arduous challenges, we finally see behind their chef whites. Family and friends talk about what this means to them, and often, it means a great deal. No wonder. MasterChef is a TV titan and it still creates culinary stars. Sign me up for another 20 years of chocolate fondant high drama.

Source: theguardian.com