I started this morning the way I always do, but haven’t been able to for the past two weeks. I awoke in the dark, pulled on something warm, walked through to the kitchen to switch on the coffee machine, then down the passage to the bathroom. I let the dogs out to do their bathroom stuff, and then made myself coffee. Later I’ll ride my mountain bike, read Sunday newspapers, and do stuff with my family, an important part of which will be the cooking of either lunch or dinner.
My family adores food. We love eating it, cooking it, talking about it, and dreaming about it. The ‘foodie’ label is so clichéd, but if all the aforementioned criteria qualify me as such, then a foodie I must be.
For the past two weeks, I haven’t been cooking with the usual simple pleasures as reward. Instead, as a contestant on Ultimate Braai Master, I’ve been cooking under the inscrutable glare of judges, with cameras and microphones recording my every move and utterance. Each moment in the kitchen has been spent with a stopwatch running. Only once have I cooked food I conceived.
The past two weeks have taken me to breathtakingly beautiful parts of Southern Africa, but the most significant journey has been one inside myself. We had many pre-dawn starts (the earliest was rising at 4.00 for a 4.45 call), which took their toll. None of this was more exhausting, though, than the vast swings in emotions that were experienced on a daily basis.
Braai is often touted as the one activity that unites South Africans across race, culture and socio-economic boundaries. It happened on Ultimate Braai Master, without anyone ever expecting it, I don’t think.
You see, we started this Reality TV lark as 30 largely disparate people. Almost immediately, we started forming bonds (in fact, the producers expressed surprise at the way we all connected). Inexorably, the emotional quotient of these bonds became deeper and deeper. When recounting some of the life stories told to me by fellow contestants, I could feel myself sliding towards tears. These are all people I may come into casual contact with on a daily basis, but it’s very unlikely that I would have connected with them on as deep a level otherwise. If there was any part of this adventure that was life changing, it was the time I spent with my fellow contestants.
More than my own success in the competition, I wanted for them to do well. For many contestants, Ultimate Braai Master is the steppingstone to a new life. For me, it was simply a can’t-miss opportunity to go on a fabulous adventure. I would never say no to greater material reward, but I already have a life, one that – in reality – I was compromising by signing out of for potentially six weeks. And, all things considered, one I’m very happy to have returned to. Being a contestant on Reality TV is an experience largely devoid of reality, which is kind of weird, but it’s true.
Apart from the adventure and spending quality time with my brother, I entered Ultimate Braai Master to cook great food. It jolted me every time the judges berated us for the mediocre offerings that were presented in the first two episodes. So, if there’s one regret I have, it’s that I messed up the first – and only – opportunity I had of cooking my own food for the judges. I have a thing about overcooked food – and on the day I was also obsessing about getting my food out, hot, before the deadline (missed by most of the other contestants, I have to add, but apparently ignored by the judges). I have never cooked snoek ‘kuite’ (roe), and I was very happy with my idea of doing it as tempura, with an Asian dipping sauce, but I was caught out by my inexperience in deep-frying (I may not have fried things more than a dozen times in my entire life), leaving the ‘kuite’ pink in the middle.
We were seriously well-organised for the main course of braaied snoek (with NoMU Provencal Rub, garlic and butter), accompanied by a lemon risotto, grilled fennel bulbs and courgettes. I have cooked risotto hundreds of times, but on the day of the challenge, my mania for not overcooking the rice caught up with me. It was left just a few minutes short of being prepared perfectly. We were on time, I think our flavours were good, but clearly the judges believed that seven other teams had done a better job (regardless of deadline).
I know I’m better than what I produced during the snoek challenge (I say “I” because I was the team leader and therefore the person with final responsibility for what we sent out).
This took us into an elimination challenge, of cooking at Mzolis. I had mixed feelings about this, because I knew how much this competition means to the other contestants. As I said earlier, for me this is an adventure. For them, it could be the start of something much greater.
The night before the elimination challenge I was feeling seriously low. I was devastated that – given the opportunity – I hadn’t shown the judges that I have the ability to produce the kind of fire food that would both surprise and delight them. By the following morning, though, I was certain that the challenge would consist of cooking a lunch service at this establishment that is a Cape Town icon. This, in itself, was not a punishment, but a reward. I don’t know anyone else who has had this opportunity, so this was actually the adventure of a lifetime.
By the time I reached Mzolis I had already made peace with the possibility that this could be my final experience of Ultimate Braai Master. But what a swan song to have!
The way Mzolis works is that customers select meat at the butcher counter, which then gets taken through to the grill area. Justin Bonello called this the Wall of Flame, and it was no understatement. Four fire-fed grills (braais) side-by-side in what is effectively a narrow passage generate a LOT of heat. I was in the corner of the L-shape, and therefore the hottest part of the cooking area. For two hours, sweat pouring off all parts of our bodies, we cooked what the customers had selected (I had a silent chuckle about the hygiene – cooked meat was put back onto the same platters that it been brought to the grills raw).
Ultimately, my fate hinged on 3 mm of pink flesh in the centre of the sausage that I cooked for the judges, as well as liver that wasn’t cooked through.
I don’t know. It was so hot in that dark and smoky Dickensian space, and the stream of anonymous meat so unending, that at some point I must have lost my sense of judgement. Perhaps my fear of overcooking food had tripped me up once again.
The Ultimate Braai Master experience leaves me with a final observation of Reality TV. Winning these things requires a laser-like focus on The Goal. It needs to be the kind of focus that deletes any emotion, especially empathy with the life situations of fellow contestants. In everything else I do, I have the ability to quickly connect with goals and objectives. I’ve always thought of it as one of my strengths. But, in this situation, I was overwhelmed by emotion.
I have one final disappointment. I never got the opportunity of showing off all the new tricks I learned in anticipation of the competition, like soufflés, and frangipani tarts, and meringue roulade. All of these are easy in a domestic kitchen, but more complex – some would say impossible – on a fire. I’ll have to save them up for another day.
I am sorry to be missing out on all the wonderful places that Justin is taking the contestants. However, I truly don’t know that I could have coped with saying goodbye to team after team after team. And, in truth, I’m not sure that I could have delivered on my real-life clients’ expectations for the entire time. Given a choice between focusing on 3 mm of pink flesh, or keeping my clients happy, the latter wins hands-down.
I can’t think of any other two-week period in my life that has been as momentous. I am enormously grateful to my brother (and teammate) for pushing me into entering, and also to the producers for giving us the opportunity. I trust they got value out of having me for four episodes (if nothing else, their cameras recorded me capsizing a canoe on the Orange River, and getting sick over the side of a fishing boat).
My brother regarded us as being winners, just for the experience of having started Ultimate Braai Master. A third of the way into what would have been the whole thing, I – too – regard myself as being a winner, but for reasons I could never have anticipated in advance.
My morning coffee will never be quite the same again.
This was written two months ago. If I wrote it again now I wouldn’t change anything, although obviously the emotions were more potent at the time. Nqobani (aka Q) and Warwick are both great guys; the way I felt about them – and still do – is that their success in Ultimate Braai Master was more important to me than my own.
I feel enormously privileged to have had the Mzoli’s experience. Before the elimination challenge started, I’d made up my mind that I was going to treat this as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, or as HD Thoreau put it, “to suck all the marrow out of life”. Towards the end of the challenge I was watching Warwick plate up the judges’ platter. He was doing it with as much care as a chef in a top restaurant. You could see how much Ultimate Braai Master meant to him.