If ever my near-neighbour William Sitwell is killed in a bizarre shooting accident and I end up taking his place as one of the guest critics on MasterChef: the Professionals (not likely, I admit, but you never know), here are some tips for competitors who wish to avoid a stinking review.
1. Don’t serve me salmon. Salmon is the fish of the devil, which is why Satan coloured it that particularly vile shade of pink. It is evil because it is almost certainly farmed and therefore pumped full of antibiotics to destroy all the parasites with which it would otherwise be pullulating. If it’s not farmed, well, it still tastes of salmon, doesn’t it?
2. Don’t serve me anything cooked sous-vide. Yeah, maybe to you chefs it looks all cutting-edge and technical. But to me it looks like food half-cooked in a plastic bag. Anyway, like hipster facial hair, it’s so three years ago,
3. Serve me foie gras.
So that’s me sorted. Now all you need to think about is Monica, Marcus and Gregg. Gregg is the easy one. If in doubt, just make him an enormous portion of sticky toffee spotted dick with lashings of custard, honey, treacle and lard, on a buttery biscuit base dotted with whelks and jellied eel that will take him right back to his luvly jubbly honest cockney roots. Then see him smile.
Monica is trickier, especially her infamous skills test. So here’s my advice: take a year out and dedicate each day to cleaning and butchering different animals — snails, frogs, pugs (they haven’t come up yet, so you could be on to a winner there), wildebeests (ditto) and perhaps most especially the deadly pufferfish they call fugu. You’ve got to think clever here: with MasterChef and its variations in their gazillionth series, the makers are going to resort to increasingly desperate ways to keep the viewing figures up. A couple of competitors dropping dead of fugu poisoning might be just the ticket. Forewarned is forearmed.
Oh, three more important things about Monica. She loves knife skills. She totally hates it when you don’t clean the grit out of your shellfish or your wild mushrooms. And she is not a lesbian: she’s married to the head sommelier at the Gavroche and has two lovely daughters — so if you’re a female contestant and you think you can flirt your way in, no dice.
Now Marcus. In the old days, when lovely Michel Roux Jr was the main chef judge, Marcus Wareing used to be brought on much as you would introduce Mr Nasty in the course of a long interrogation. (What makes him extra-disturbing is that he looks so angelic, like a more close-shaven Jesus.) But age and promotion have mellowed him, slightly, so that occasionally he shows unsettling glimmers of warmth and tenderness.
These moments are quite hard to spot, though. One of the things we MasterChef junkies do when contestants bring up their plates of food is to try to gauge the judges’ verdict before they deliver it — first from the subtle visual clues (Monica rolling her eyes; Gregg beaming, putting on a Pearly King outfit and dancing the Lambeth Walk; etc.), then from their tone of voice (in much the same way that, as a child, you used to try to guess what the football results were from a sportscaster’s intonation as he named the team). But Marcus is so deadpan you can’t. His tone for ‘that was a masterpiece, I really couldn’t have done better myself’ is virtually inextinguishable from that for ‘you’ve let yourself down. Fatally.’ This is why even the chefs he has complimented look so puzzled afterwards.
(Did I say I love Marcus? Well I do. I kind of worship him. Monica too. If they were the officer and NCO of my crack commando unit I’d follow them anywhere.)
Despite his sphinx-like, hard-to-read act, though, Marcus has weaknesses. I’ve been studying him closely and here are my tips. 1. Be an eager young sous-chef, preferably at a two star kitchen. He likes that. 2. Don’t cook red wine sauce, especially not with lamb. He hates that. 3. He likes seeing your life story on the plate. But I’m afraid it’s not enough to go, ‘That sausage is where I was born. That beetroot purée is my primary school...’ He’s a man of few words is Marcus and he’ll allow you one cheeky moment per competition and then that’s it.
My final tip to contestants: please don’t tell us about your ‘passion’. Either you’ve got it or you haven’t and it’s pretty obvious from the way you cook. Telling us about your passion is like going into a job interview and saying how proactive you are and how you love working with people in a high-pressure environment. It just makes us hate you and hope you get kicked out of the competition in the next round.
Merry Christmas, everyone. And I promise, now, not to write about MasterChef for a whole year.