I’m approaching my keyboard hesitantly. I have a little story to tell, but it strikes me as being one that will paint me as something of a chancer (the 10-year-old me can still remember the sneer with which my father referred to some people as chancers).
It goes like this. My family – like many others in South Africa – was glued to both series of Masterchef Australia that have aired here. I do most of the cooking at home, and what’s an 11-year-old boy who looks up to his father going to do, except say: “Come on, Dad, you must enter Masterchef!”
So, with my son’s entreaties growing louder by the day, I logged on and started the entry. The first question, I will admit, did worry me a little: “Have you cooked in a professional kitchen?”
Well, yes and no. Yes (which is how I answered), in that I have on occasion assisted Dish Food & Social when they’ve been very busy. And, yes, I did spend many nights running the kitchen at Vaudeville, but this was more an act of traffic management than cooking. In my opinion, I remain a culinary amateur, without any formal training, and skills to match.
The questionnaire went on a little, and is probably more aimed at people in their 20s than their mid-40s. So, when they asked: “What would you like to be in five years time?” my answer was a simple and straightforward “Alive”.
They phoned me a couple of weeks later with some probing questions about the extent of my professional kitchen experience. I was completely candid with them, and thought this would be the end of the road for my Masterchef aspirations.
Imagine my surprise, when a couple of weeks later, I received an email inviting me to the Cape Town audition. I spent a great deal of time deliberating over my choice of dish, which has to be served at a temperature of between 0 and 4 °C. It was all quite exciting, I must admit, and without getting ahead of myself, I was thinking about how I was going to cope with being out of the loop for the 10 weeks of production (assuming I didn’t get eliminated early, of course).
What I finally decided upon was a little platter of cured salmon – one piece hot-smoked with dill, one cold-smoked, and one cured gravadlax-style with Szechuan pepper and Scotch. This would be accompanied by homemade mayonnaise, my sourdough bread, and a couple of other sauces or accompaniments. Of course, all three different fish treatments would be done by me, giving the judges a little demonstration of my culinary range.
The only part that was worrying me was finishing everything off with a mini-hangover early on the Saturday morning in question (we have a friend’s 50th birthday the night before).
But all my planning came to nothing, because this morning I received an email advising me that I’d been disqualified from the competition, which must break a world record for the fastest elimination – ever – from Masterchef!
If, by some miracle, I had remained in the competition until near the end, I’m guessing the producers would have copped some flak for the grey area around my professional status. So, I get where they’re coming from, but couldn’t they have made their minds up about this before they invited me to the audition?
OK, so now we get to second part of the ‘chancer’ label. In 1999, I entered the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year with a wine I had blended from wines made in two different cellars. I was delighted to be told that I was one of the ten finalists. A few days later I received a phone call from Bill Cooper-Williams, the convenor, who was very alarmed that I was potentially going to get a winemaker’s award for a wine that was not fermented under my supervision (ironically, in professional kitchens, the real work is mostly done by the juniors, rather than the one doing the supervision).
My explanation to him was that, in Champagne, the person who is credited as the winemaker is the one who has assembled the blend, which could have components from dozens of cellars. I believe I may also have got a little philosophical with him, posing questions about what made the wine what it was – the components, or the sum of them? And, without in any way intending to get ahead of myself, had the example been available to me at the time, I was as much the maker of that wine as Steve Jobs was the inventor of the mouse and graphical user interface (which he discovered at Xerox’s Palo Alto facility).
Ultimately, they left me in the top ten, which was far as I got. They must have taken the view that the wine’s quality was more important than philosophical debates about who should get the credit for its deliciousness.
There are people who will get onto Masterchef who are passionate about spending their lives cooking professionally, and the show will open doors for them. I love food, I love cooking, but in all honesty I don’t have the same ambitions. I entered because I was badgered into it, and because the competition would have been an interesting challenge. I may even have lasted an episode or two – assuming, of course, that I made it through the audition. But for me to deprive a young person of a life-changing opportunity would not be fair.
May the best (non-professional) chef win!