MasterChef: The Semi-Professionals

I often find myself daydreaming about new TV formats, as if I imagine myself as some important TV type: a Commissioning Editor, an Executive Producer or some such. The exciting new TV formats I have been thinking about recently have been all about food. I watch a lot of food TV – particularly competitive cookery – and I have many opinions on the kind of thing I would like to see out there.

These range from tweaks to existing formats, to all new iterations of old formats, to completely box fresh format ideas. An example of the latter would be some kind of cooking competition in which a variety of people cook for a variety of other people. That’s far from specific enough, isn’t it? OK.

Three cooks are battling it out to ‘Curry Favour’ – for that would be the title of the show – with three judges; the cooks could be anyone from chefs with stars from Michelin to some random bloke off the street who fancies chancing his arm; the judges would just be ordinary people in the mood for something nice to eat. At its heart, what is cookery but the desire to please other people? I mean, we’re talking TV here, so it’s not a battle to keep the bellies of our children full: that wouldn’t work.

Tweaking a format, or creating a new version within an existing product usually comes from my odd day dreams. Those daydreams usually come out of flights of fancy or long lost memories rising up to the surface. This one started off as the latter: I used to work in a pretty poor Italian chain restaurant; thankfully it no longer exists, or they’d be offended that I thought they were poor. Very poor indeed.

I used to quip at the time that I couldn’t go on MasterChef, because I was a professional chef. I used to heat packets of sauce up and add them to some badly cooked pasta, so I was hardly a chef, but I did get paid for it, so I was a professional. The thing is that I did develop some transferable skills: I can cut veg well, keep a kitchen clean and tidy while cooking, and tolerate high work temperatures.

Would that all count as some form of competitive advantage, were I to go for a place on our venerable MasterChef? Would I have to declare that as past experience, lest it come out as some form of scandal further down the line? I think it would, and it got me thinking: what about a new MasterChef for people who worked in catering while they were students? There are hordes of them.

I haven’t quite decided whether the contestants should be ordinary folk or celebrities, but the idea still holds: rather than the ordinary people going on there to radically change their lives – something which I am fundamentally opposed to, as catering is a world of pain, and I would rather work in an office any day of the week – it’s people looking for a fun and engaging challenge. It’s a better form of working holiday than jetting off to identikit Kibbutzim to dig up vegetables or repair a few old walls.

That was glib, but I’m sticking with it. Winning is a prize; changing one’s life is something which takes many years of hard labour. Expecting a silly gameshow to do that for us is all kinds of childish to me.

Celebrity versions of cookery shows accept the conceit: they’re not going on the programme to have a revelation and to change their lives; they’re going on because they’re getting paid for it and it seems like a jolly way to go about gaining more exposure. The professional version does similarly: they go on as a form of career advancement. Doing well on MasterChef: The Professionals can lead to moving up several grades in a kitchen, or being offered funding to open your very own restaurant.

So, MasterChef: The Semi-Professionals, as I would name my new MasterChef iteration. We have a few ideas of who can take part, and so that defines its likely appeal; what then? Would it still be presented by Gregg Wallace? I’d imagine so – everything else is. It’s either him or Steph McGovern. How about both of them? No one’s aspiring to be a real chef, so you don’t need a real chef judge.

One of the cookery competitions I have always loved is judged by a fictional character for goodness sake: Iron Chef. If you’re not familiar with the format, it is as close to sport as cookery can get, and it is quite exciting. Iron Chef started in Japan, which is why it is crazy: I have seen an Australian version, featuring some of their top chefs, but the big one for me was in the US. The original Japanese show was judged by The Chairman, a part played by an actor. He “sent his nephew” for the US version.

As an aside, Iron Chef America was phenomenal: a core group of some of America’s best TV chefs competed against superb chefs from different local areas. The big problem was that there was never a UK version, and the US version was very rarely shown here in the UK. And then it just vanished.

I have spent years searching the listings for Iron Chef America, only to get all maudlin and depressed when I found that it was nowhere to be seen. I have followed some of its chefs, and mostly its food mastermind, Alton Brown, for years, in the hope of a whisper. I have emailed the network it comes from to ask if it will ever be shown seriously. All I got was a wall of silence from all of it. And sadness.

As such I would love to bring Iron Chef to the UK. Our food culture has advanced so far in recent decades that such lunacy would be tolerable here now. I spend happy days daydreaming about the people who could replicate the brilliance of Alton Brown  – Andi Oliver; Stefan Gates; perhaps Simon Majumdar. There are infinite possibilities for the Iron Chefs themselves: we have so many terrific chefs in this country, so may with planetary sized egos, that there would be a queue a mile long.

Either way, I think there should be more food on TV; I have ideas for lots of it. I find such musings make the most enthralling daydreams, even if they never see the light of day. I also find that they make me rather hungry, so I had better go and see what is left in the fridge. That gives me an idea…