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Front Men: A closer look at Masterchef

MasterChef burst onto our screens in 1990 and for 10 years was presented by the bespectacled American, Loyd Grossman, before he left over a disagreement about the programme’s scheduling. (It was being moved from a Sunday to a Tuesday night.) Renamed MasterChef at Large in 2005, it was taken over by Aussie chef, John Torode and food writer Gregg Wallace.

Despite Loyd claiming the pair would be more at home in a British crime movie, the show, which has reverted to its original title, has done spectacularly well, drawing in around 3.7 million viewers an episode. Now in its fifth series, spin-offs have included Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef: The Professionals and, in the past four years, John and Gregg claim to have tried more than 5,000 dishes. Just as well, then, that cooking standards have risen. ‘At first, we just wanted to see competent cooks but now everyone is competent,’ says Gregg. Of course, there are disasters.

The pressure of the invention test can send otherwise reasonable cooks into meltdown as they have to create a dish from the ingredients placed in front of them. The worst offerings of all time, according to John and Gregg, were a combination of Feta cheese, pastry, peach, chorizo and tomatoes, and a puréed risotto with raw fish! The judges admit they don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to deciding who’s best. There is a fair amount of shouty discussion and, while John marks on technical ability, Gregg favours what he calls ‘the here and now’.

The Pro Chef
John Torode is a plain-talking Aussie with a twinkle in his eye. A professional chef, John runs Smiths of Smithfield, a four-floor space with several restaurants. He cut his presenting teeth as the resident chef on ITV1’s This Morning before co-presenting MasterChef. He has worked in some of London’s top restaurants including Pont de La Tour and Quaglino’s.

The Foodie
Gregg Wallace’s extensive food knowledge comes from supplying many of London’s large restaurants with fresh produce from his farm.

Born in Peckham, Gregg started out as a London market trader on a vegetable stand in Covent Garden. In 1989, he started his hugely successful company, George Allan’s Greengrocers. Gregg co-presented Veg Talk on Radio 4 before getting his first TV gig on Saturday Kitchen; a role which led to him co-hosting MasterChef.


THE CELEBRITY WINNERS

2009 JAYNE MIDDLEMISS
38, is a television presenter best known for fronting Top of the Pops and winning the series Celebrity Love Island in 2005 Jayne’s MasterChef experience could be summed up as stressful and tear-inducing as for most of the series she either cried or got so nervous and stressed she simply couldn’t speak. She was a surprise winner, beating Wendi Peters, a former Coronation Street actress whose home cooking wowed the judges, and Olympic athlete Iwan Thomas who was so bad at the beginning he could only get better. ‘When I began the show they kept asking me about winning and I thought it was the most absurd question in the world,’ says Jayne. ‘Even now, I have to remind myself that I won the show. It’s really weird. I just thought it was so far away and out of my league to be able to get anywhere near winning it, but I proved myself wrong, which was very nice. It was an amazing triumph for me.’

Jayne is now involved in a Sky TV chat show with the former Holby City actress Angela Griffin, called Angela and Friends, as well as a bird-watching show on the Isle of Skye also for Sky.

Jayne’ s menu

  • Seared scallops on apple purée with ground walnut sauce and fresh herbs
  • Pan-fried veal on a bed of baby red chard with true potatoes and a veal jus
  • Lavender panacotta with crystallised violets

2008 LIZ MCCLARNON
28, television persenter and former member of girl band Atomic Kitten Liverpudlian Liz proved a whizz in the kitchen – even though she claimed she’d never used an oven before entering the Celebrity MasterChef contest. ‘It was such a tough journey for someone who couldn’t cook,’ she recalls.

Gregg Wallace said Liz was the most natural cook he had seen in years. ‘She has really shown a triumph of spirit and what can be done if you link natural talent to real want.’ Liz, whose trademark statement was ‘shut oop’ whenever she won the approval of the judges, triumphed over ex-children’s television presenter Andi Peters (whose perfectionism almost became his downfall) and former Holby City actor and fellow Scouser, Mark Moraghan, who was so emotional that tears and tantrums appeared as often on the menu as his edible creations.

Liz recently launched a knickers range for Andrex to raise money for charity and appeared at the MasterChef Live show in London with Gregg Wallace. Still involved in music, she is pursuing a solo singing career.

Liz’s menu

  • Pancetta-wrapped scallops with lemon and parsley sauce
  • Beef Wellington teamed with an oxtail and port jus with cabbage
  • Sticky toffee crème brûlée

 

2007 NADIA SAWALHA
45, actress and television presenter best known for her role as Annie Palmer in EastEnders and more recently for hosting City Hospital, Living in the Sun and Wanted Down Under Nadia drew on her Middle-Eastern background (her actor father Nadim Sawalha is Jordanian) to infl uence her cooking and it paid off. John said she cooked food that made his heart thump and Gregg was impressed with how delicate but fl avoursome and beautifully presented her food was. Her obvious skill saw off a sweaty and not very scary Craig Revel Horwood (Strictly Come Dancing’s most scathing panel member) and legendary singer Midge Ure.

‘Winning Celebrity MasterChef was really important to me,’ said Nadia at the time. ‘I was genuinely over the moon. It was the loveliest surprise because the fi nal was so awful. I was pregnant and hadn’t told anybody, so I was very sick a lot of the time.’

Nadia has just fi nished presenting a cookery series for the BBC called Eating in the Sun. It was directed and produced by her husband, Mark Adderley. The couple has two daughters: Maddie, who is six, and two year-old Kiki.

Nadia’ s menu

  • Seabass with a tahini sauce, carrot and onion seed salad plus sa ron rice topped with onions
  • Roasted quail with a pistachio and orange water sauce
  • Rosewater ice cream with aniseed biscuits

Jayne’s seared scallops on apple purée with walnut sauce and herbs
Serves 1

You will need

  • 4 Granny Smith apples
  • 25g butter
  • Two lemons
  • Carton of apple juice – clear
  • 1 bag of halved walnuts
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 medium scallops – cleaned and corals removed
  • hervil and dill herbs

For the purée

  1. Peel three of the apples and cut into pieces. Reduce in pan with some butter. Cling film pan and let it sauté over heat.
  2. When soft, add lemon juice and a little apple juice if too dry. Put purée into squeezy bottle, secure lid with cling film.

For the walnut oil

  1. Place two handfuls of walnuts and 120g extra virgin olive oil in blender and whiz. Add some apple juice and salt to taste.
  2. Remove from blender and place into squeezy bottle (just for ease).

To prepare the scallops

  1. Remove all the corals, trim and season. Place in a hot pan with olive oil. Turn frequently for 1 minute each side until nice and firm – do not overcook.
  2. Add a knob of butter to the pan when scallops are nearly done and baste them in the melted butter. Remove from the pan and leave to rest.

To serve

Thinly slice the apple and place on top of scallops. Squeeze three round beds of purée onto the plate and circle the whole plate with walnut sauce. Place scallops on the apple sauce and garnish with herbs.


THE TALENTED AMATEURS

2009 MAT FOLLAS
42, formerly an IT engineer with IBM, had decided that if he got to the finals, he’d give up his job and open a restaurant Quietly spoken Mat, who originally hails from New Zealand, showed unprecedented technical skill when it came to cooking. And a genuine passion for his type of food combined with a willingness to learn what it takes to become a fi rst-class chef, won him many admirers. On winning the title, he said, ‘My final three courses were very personal and incorporated my love of food, foraging and catching great ingredients. I’m humbled and proud that my dishes won such an amazing competition.’

Married with three children, Mat has just opened his own restaurant, Wild Garlic, in his home town of Beaminster, Dorset and it has already attracted a rave review from food critic Matthew Norman at The Guardian. ‘All in all, this was one of the most pleasing meals I’ve eaten in years, served with warmth and expertise. Follas is an exceedingly rare talent. MasterChef should be very proud of itself indeed.’ We think so, too. Go Mat!

Mat’ s menu

  • Trio of wild rabbit
  • Spider crab with hand cut chips and sea vegetables
  • Lavender mousse with hokey pokey and a blackberry sauce

 

2008 JAMES NATHAN
35, had spent two years as a criminal barrister before heading to Spain to try his hand as a restaurateur Gritty determination and an ability to pick things up in double-quick time, made James a deserving winner. It was a close run thing, though, as 18-year-old Emily Ludolf – the youngest ever MasterChef finalist – completely blew the judges away with her unusual food combinations. ‘Winning MasterChef has completely changed the shape of my life,’ said James. ‘It was probably the most nerve-racking but exhilarating experience that I have ever had or am ever likely to have. My goal is to get a restaurant of my own. But I have to learn how to cook like a pro fi rst. It’s all very well being a talented amateur but I can’t manage 15 pans at once.’

Married with a daughter, since winning the title James has worked with Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche, Richard Corrigan at Bentleys in Mayfair, and Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park in Devon, and at The Bath Priory. His absolute passion for seafood has led him to Cornwall – he’s working at The Seafood Restaurant, owned by Rick Stein.

James’ menu

  • Mozzarella ravioli with tomato sauce and basil cream
  • Pickled red cabbage and venison infused with lapsang souchong tea and served with roast potatoes
  • Chocolate and orange pudding

2007 STEVEN WALLIS
39, graduated from Central St Martin’s College of Art in fashion design, and later became a trend analyst Steven’s timing issues almost lost him the title but he got his act together for the final and beat Ben Axford and Hannah Miles. On winning he said: ‘A whole gamut of emotions starting with disbelief. It sounds like a cliché, but it really didn’t sink in to begin with. And then it became a realisation of so many things… all these years I’ve been cooking and people have admired my food, I realised they weren’t just being nice.’

At the time of winning two years ago Steven said he’d love to own his own restaurant, showing the ‘true expression of my type of food and my style’. But he decided to do some extensive research fi rst by travelling the world, using his new found knowledge as a base to learn more about food and food culture. ‘I want to learn the basics – the classical French thing – and then develop that by sourcing wide-ranging ingredients to take dishes further,’ he said. Steven appeared on the BBC series Great British Menu in 2008.

Steven’ s menu

  • Dandelion salad with poached quail eggs, lardons and vinaigrette
  • Duck breast with smoked potatoes, baby turnips, leek crisps with buttered winter greens and jus
  • Poached pears, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce

Steven’s Dandelion salad with poached quail eggs, lardons and vinaigrette
Serves 2

For the vinaigrette

  • 100ml Ligurian olive oil
  • 50ml walnut oil
  • 25ml tarragon vinegar
  • 1tsp Dijon mustard
  • ½ unwaxed lemon, juice only
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½tsp caster sugar

For the salad

  • Small handful fine dandelion leaves
  • Small handful fine mizuna leaves
  • Pancetta, chopped into cubes, to taste
  • Pinch sweet smoked paprika
  • 100ml white wine vinegar
  • 6 quail eggs
  • Small handful chervil, chopped
  1. Make the vinaigrette by whisking the oils, tarragon vinegar, Dijon mustard and lemon juice together in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and add the sugar. Leave for 30 minutes. Taste again before serving and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
  2. Wash and clean the dandelion and mizuna leaves and dry on kitchen paper. Set aside.
  3. Fry the pancetta over a medium heat in a shallow pan until crisp – there should be enough fat in the pancetta so that frying it does not require oil.
  4. When the pancetta is crisp, drain and cut into smaller pieces.
  5. Sprinkle the pancetta with smoked paprika to coat, and keep warm.
  6. Bring a pan of water to a gentle boil and add 1tbsp white wine vinegar. Fill an espresso cup a quarter full of vinegar. Carefully crack a quail egg into the espresso cup and carefully tip the egg and vinegar into the pan. Repeat with the rest of the eggs.
  7. Poach the eggs for 90 seconds. Remove each egg with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
  8. Dress the salad leaves with the vinaigrette and toss well in a bowl, adding the chervil leaves and crisp pancetta.
  9. To serve, tower the leaves on two plates. Place three eggs on each plate. Dust the eggs lightly with paprika and drizzle the remaining vinaigrette on the salad and around the edge of the plate. Serve at once.

 


Photograph of John Torode: Jane Sebire, other photographs: Getty images
Jayne’s recipe courtesy of ITV

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