I don’t normally blog on things like TV programmes, but this week marked a highlight in the Autumn TV calendar for me: The return of Masterchef: The Professionals. Maybe it’s because I love good food. But maybe it’s because it appeals to my sense of schadenfreude.
The format is different to “vanilla” Masterchef: the eager amateur cooks are replaced by earnest chefs, ready to take their cooking up a gear; and while cuddly Gregg Wallace and his sweet tooth still front up the show, co-judge John Torode is replaced by Michelin-starred Michel Roux Jr with his classical French cooking, perfectionist presentation, demanding palate and seemingly boundless enthusiasm for good food – you just watch the smile on his face as he plates up a demonstration dish.
However, if cooking for a member of the Roux kitchen dynasty isn’t enough to make you want to raise your game, Michel Jr has a (not so secret) weapon up his sleeve – his fearsome sous chef, Monica Galetti, who seems to have a reputation for perfection and ruling the kitchens of Le Gavroche with her amazing set of facial expressions. One look from Monica, and you know whether you’ve got it right, or whether you’re in serious trouble and need to start bailing.
It’s right there on Monica’s face. The expressions say it all, you know almost exactly what she’s thinking.
I’ve never seen anyone quite have the same effect on men hardened by working in a commercial kitchen. Cooking for Monica seems to reduce the most competent of people to timid, quivering, shaking wrecks quicker than you can reduce a red wine jus on full gas. They are quaking in their boots before they even pick a knife up.
One test is that they make the chefs perform a 10-15 minute technical challenge, set by Monica, to demonstrate certain basic kitchen skills and the ability to work under time pressure, e.g. make an Italian meringue, decorate these desserts with spun sugar, make a crab salad using only meat from inside the shell, make a steak tartare, that sort of thing. To increase the pressure further, Monica demonstrates to camera first and makes it look effortless, then the chefs are brought in one-by-one to complete the challenge, receiving Gregg and Monica’s undivided attention. They are often shaking so much that I’m amazed no-one has sliced their fingers off yet.
Monica surely can’t be all scary, though? The good news is that the widened eyes, cutting critique and looks of incredulity as the hapless masscare yet another innocent scallop are rapidly replaced by warm smiles and compliments all round when there are shows of genuine kitchen prowess.
But, if you want to see grown men, some with tattooed forearms, cry, look no further.
Masterchef: The Professionals is on BBC Two Monday-Thursday evenings for the next few weeks – times vary from day to day.