As Celebrity Masterchef 2021 enters its second week back on the BBC, John Torode and Gregg Wallace can look back on the opening heat and be proud. Proud of both adding some new challenges and entering into the noblest cooking tradition British food TV has to offer: butchering classic Italian dishes in front of a watching nation.
Celebrity Masterchef’s first week — featuring actors Su Pollard and Rita Simons; comedian Munya Chawawa; Happy Mondays’s Bez and Blue’s Duncan James — was in some ways familiar. John Torode proclaimed the habanero the “hottest chilli in the world” five minutes in, which is a straight lie; Su Pollard made it through despite being one of the weakest cooks thanks to some outbursts of song, which befits an iteration of Masterchef most skewed towards general entertainment over cooking skill or knowledge.
It was in that spirit that Torode and Wallace offered up pasta carbonara as a skill test. As longtime viewers will recognise, a good few Masterchef challenges rely on asking contestants to figure out how to cook a dish, while giving them all the ingredients they need — and some that they don’t. Offering pork, veal, and chicken mince for meatballs that only require the first two will create some confusion. Offering two types of wine or cheese in a preparation that only needs one will surely draw errors. But putting just the actual ingredients for carbonara — cured pork, eggs, Pecorino, and Parmesan — and a massive jug of cream in front of four amateur British cooks can only be interpreted not as a canny ingredient trap, but as a deliberate incitement of culinary violence. Duly, three of the four glugged in the white stuff; only Bez abstained, making it a felice lunedì for Italians. (The show also provided bacon, ahead of pancetta or guanciale, but the contestants could not avoid this trap.)
But from Come Dine With Me to Masterchef: The Professionals to This Morning, the latter which occasioned Gino D’Acampo’s “if my grandmother had wheels, she would have been a bike,” this misrepresentation of Roman tradition is less a grand offence and more an entry into a British food TV lineage. It is the carbonara of dinner tables up and down the country, a Schrödinger-like entity that ceases to exist when anyone Italian looks or hears of it, for it is not carbonara at all, but otherwise sits ready to be twirled around waiting forks.