Masterchef 2021 is here, with Gregg Wallace and John Torode returning to the BBC series that — sometimes — turns home cooks into stars. With Masterchef’s 2021 filming affected by COVID-19, there are social distancing regulations in place and the contestants have to cook more food than normal; the
generally despised divisive professional kitchen round is on pause. But unlike its Masterchef: The Professionals sibling, the show hasn’t used the limitations to its advantage. Here’s what’s happened so far, with the third week of heats to come.
Coronavirus filming rules bring little invention and added pressure
The most striking thing about Masterchef: The Professionals 2020 — aside from its willingness to platform a chef who habitually insulted the food she cooked — was the way in which it used COVID-19 protocols to its advantage as a piece of entertainment. Two judges — either Marcus Wareing or Monica Galetti; always Gregg Wallace — sat in the studio as each chef did their first test, while one of Galetti and Wareing sat in a room away from the studio, and commentated on their efforts, invisible to the chef involved. It offered a window into what the judges were expecting, and added some satisfaction or drama when a chef either did exactly what they wanted or, as is Masterchef: The Professionals tradition, completely fluffed a task they are paid to do several times a day and countless times a year.
In this Masterchef series, there’s none of that. All that has changed is that each judge now gets their own plate. That’s always been the case in rounds when external judges, either critics or past contestants, are running the rule over the contestants. But in the first challenge — the signature dish — and the quarter final challenge — cooking to a brief set by a critic — the contestants must now cook two dishes instead of one and three dishes instead of one in the same amount of time. There’s nothing wrong with making the competition tougher, but doing so at the cost of quality seems wrongheaded.
The Masterchef bottom level is higher than ever
For the uninitiated, the concept of the “highest bottom level” comes from football. Legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel described legendary Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes as having “the highest bottom level” of any player he had every played with, meaning that his absolute worst performances were, in fact, exceptionally good.
In previous years, Masterchef’s early rounds have held the possibility of displaying truly amateur cooking — in the bad sense. While pining for total disasters and maddening ideas might seem tacky, the low bottom level also allows for genuine improvement and progress through the series, with the eventual champion ascending through the ranks as they go. When contestants are dropping foraged wild garlic capers, sous vide confit salmon, ponzu sauce made with caramelised lemons, and squid ink tuiles in the first round, it’s plain to see that the standards are higher than ever. Early front-runners include front-of-house manager Tom from heat one; jazz musician Laura from heat two; and sales executive Mike from heat four.
Masterchef dishes never die
Episode two: beef wellington; failed. Episode three: deconstructed crumble; smashed it actually, naysayers. Episode four: purple potatoes; please, can someone explain why they persist with this. Episode four: soufflé that is just egg whites and fruit; deflating. There’s a long read out there on exactly how Masterchef’s judging standards refract the public’s perception of “restaurant food,” and visa versa; for now suffice to say that the signature dish bingo of prime cut of protein cooked hot and fast; bonbon or pasta made from slow-cooked cut of same protein; French potato dish; either four different vegetables or the same vegetable four different ways; and a DEEP, RICH, LUXURIOUS sauce is still alive, and the dishes that are just asking to go wrong will always be cooked.
Masterchef judges never die
There have been some positive signs. Hearing the phrase “Hakka-inspired” instead of “Chinese” for Madeeha’s first dish is an improvement, but the judges are still talking about “Asian flavours” in another dish whose influences span at least three countries. They’re saying methi before fenugreek, but criticising a contestant cooking Lebanese food for conforming to the show’s expected presentation standards. In the third week of heats, Torode chided a contestant for misnaming their pasta, which they had said would be ravioli. “That’s agnolotti,” Torode said, grinding the contestant’s soul to dust. Sadly, they were in fact mezzelune.
The guest critics are always the same, so that’s less of an indictment of a show than newspaper restaurant media at large, but the judges are also always the same, and that is an indictment of the show. The series, like other British food TV favourites, has an endemic problem with presenting food outside of a Eurocentric perspective, and that isn’t going to be fixed until either the judges, the producers, or both change things up.