As one world-weary commenter said on the socials, there was so much Masterchef these days: not just the original, but professional, celebrity, kids, Christmas, couldn’t they let other shows get a look-in? I totally understand, although tend to get drawn in anyway, but ‘lo, this Christmas brought a Critics version, which made many of us sit up and rub our hands in glee.
For many a long year, we’ve bristled indignantly as William Sitwell has arched a disapproving eyebrow or Grace Dent made a little moue of displeasure as they’ve lounged in the dining room; while the poor contestants have drowned in a pool of their own sweat back in the kitchen. Now the two of them, plus Jay Rayner, Jimi Famurewa and Leyla Kazim, trotted nervously in to meet John Torode (Toady) and Gregg Wallace (Shrek), whose faces were wide with glee.
Luckily, there was only a cursory mention of it being a festive special, as we all know these things are filmed in the middle of summer anyway. Rayner commented their careers could be ruined and I did wonder why they were doing it. Exposure or money? They have that anyway and could have slugged it out on the dancefloor or the jungle (which of course Ms Dent had done recently). Why shit on your own doorstep, as it were..?
Rayner showed he meant business, wrapping a maroon bandana around his unruly locks, for all the world as if he’d just stepped off The Black Pearl. In the first challenge, tasked with making a ‘guilty pleasure’ dish, he hoofed a couple of his ribs in the plating, then as he swaggered away from the judges, asked if he could have another, barely waiting for permission before he snaffled it. Damn him. But he knew they were brilliant.
That initial round showed they could all cook, although the endearing Famurewa seemed to be trailing slightly, as he made a fishfinger sandwich in a flatbread. I know there’s not time to make a proper loaf, but something else might have been better. He didn’t help matters by deciding to cut it just before serving, so it fanned all over the plate like a Pollock. If he’d chosen his fish accordingly, then a Pollock’s pollock would have been a neat trick. Sitwell (DL, no less), who said more than once failure scared him, was most insistent that his Chicken Kiev be rounded into balls. Odd, cos I’ve always seen it much flatter, but I guess he’s got more balls than me.
Dent was particularly nervous; despite rash claims of settling disputes with a scrap in the car park; knowing every chef she’d judged would be glued to the telly, willing disaster. Her default mode being hands clasped to the sides of her overwrought face, displaying blood red nails. Nail polish in the kitchen, Gracie?! Tsk! That wouldn’t wash in any other iteration. She cried as they praised her dish of butter chicken, saying she thought this moment would be full of witty banter, but it had deserted her. Kazim also welled up at their appreciation of her childhood favourite. It seemed that the men were made of sterner stuff, but blow me, if Sitwell didn’t get all emosh in round two.
Next day the pressure was even greater, as they’d have to present a main and a pudding to three past champions. At least two of them went over time and there were several mentions of how they’d be different in future with their judging, having realised how hard it was. I bet that will last precisely no minutes at all when the time comes.
Dent sallied forth into the kitchen like a Quality Street, wrapped up in a blue velvet jumpsuit, which must have been fearfully hot. She was making a champagne risotto and insisted on offering Toady and Shrek a glass. Yes, she was trying to bribe them, she admitted, while they guffawed as if she were all the Marx Brothers rolled into one. Sitwell was wrestling with a rabbit. ‘It’s not as difficult as squirrel though,’ he remarked darkly. Which is a dilemma we all face when trudging round the supermarket.
Kazim followed up yesterday’s intriguing mint-heavy pasta with a cheesy ‘shredded wheat’ pudding. For sheer inventiveness and amount of work, she should have won. Rayner set about his seafood fregola with brio, an occasional loaded look to camera. As he placed his boozy pud down in front of the past contestants, he remarked he hoped they’d like it, as they’d all be opening restaurants in the future and wouldn’t it be nice if he could think kindly of them. They tittered nervously. Nobody messes with a pirate.
He won, of course. Not only was he the most relaxed, knowing that ‘no-one would die’ just because of this, he planned maximum impact dishes that would work best in the time. ‘I know you’re chuffed though,’ stated Shrek, as he coolly accepted his trophy, seeing as 75% of the others were emotional wrecks for much of the time. ‘Oh yes, of course’ he said. Dent, in the back room of also-rans, said she loved him, but he’d be insufferable from now on and she might just block his number immediately.
Shrek seemed particularly delighted with the golden cutlery trophy. ‘We’ve called it the Golden Cutlery Trophy,’ he pointed out helpfully, for those viewers who had trouble understanding what their eyes were for. He announced with great panache this was the Critics Champion 2023. But, after racking my brains, I could only think of Tracey Macleod who wasn’t there, so I doubt it could be repeated. They could move on to their other formats. A cook-off between Galetti, Toady and Wareing would be most entertaining. But, and not for the first time, what the dickety would we do with Shrek…?