In the new series of Celebrity Masterchef (1 July, 9pm) – never in the entire history of television has a show been so misleadingly titled – one of the contestants is “Apprentice star” Thomas Skinner. He’s a sweet man: imagine Joe Root, the blond choirboy of cricket, crossed with the kind of cabbie who asks you, with perfect sincerity, if you’ve had “a nice night out, darlin’”, and you’re almost there. But my God, the voice. It’s loud. Forget the competition itself, which has to do with turning those who struggle to make a stir-fry into those who have fancy ways with trompette foams; the real contest this time around is going to be between Skinner and Gregg Wallace, and who can shout the loudest.
Did Wallace’s co-presenter, John Torode, insert mozzarella balls into his ears, the better to protect them? Or did BBC health and safety step in and lend him some off-camera ear defenders? Of course, what one really wants to be protected from when it comes to Wallace, ever resplendent in his Snooker Loopy waistcoats, is his rictus smile, which makes him look like an egg with constipation, and does nothing whatsoever to assuage the slight feeling that he might one day come over a touch Michael Douglas in Falling Down and start chucking saucepans at people. Also, from his “feedback”. Fifteen years into his reign at the Masterchef franchise, and the man still operates in an adjectival realm in which lemons are lemony, cream is creamy and potatoes are, probably, potato-y.
But let’s get back to the celebrities! There are 20, of which I’ve heard of precisely three: John Barnes, the footballer; Matthew Pinsent, the rower; and Judy Murray, the tennis coach and notable mother. This lot have no soggy bottoms. Nevertheless, the whole thing is something of a damp squib, largely because the judges are inclined, in the presence of the almost-and-not-quite-famous, to indulgence. “I like your ambition,” announced Wallace, gazing at Skinner’s crushed potatoes.
Myles Stephenson, who was in a band that won The X Factor, was praised for having cooked chicken “all the way through”. No wonder my money is already on Judi Love, a comedian who is also “a regular on Loose Women”, and who made not one, but two kinds of mayonnaise to go with her tilapia and pickled vegetables. What a show-off.
Still, it may be that culinary mediocrity has new value this year. Celebrity Masterchef 2020 is born into a world in which all of us have been cooking all the time – or that’s how it feels. Thanks to this, watching someone cock up even basic things can be almost soothing at times. I looked at the pink pile of prawns and plantains served by Shyko Amos, “the effervescent police officer, Ruby, in Death in Paradise”, and felt suddenly proud of my shrimp and courgette linguine (made on day 86 of the lockdown, which meant that I served it with tears and bits of garments I’d been rending, but never mind). “The textures are… unusual,” said Torode on tasting it, a word he managed to imbue with a variety of feelings from mild surprise through horror and thence on into nausea. But hey, as we’re often told, Masterchef is nothing if not a journey.
Why do restaurants let contestants in their kitchens? It’s unfathomable. At Allegra, in east London, Love set about filleting that most extravagantly priced of fish, a turbot. The look on the chef’s face! “You don’t need to carve it,” he said, teeth clenched, watching her hack at the thing, as if it was an acrylic nail, or a bag of peas that had been too long in the freezer.
Okay, I’ll admit it: in these strange, unpunctuated days, when all I’ve had to look forward to has been my dinner, I’ve kept myself amused for minutes at a time by providing a Wallace-style commentary on my own pathetic activities. “Can she pull it off, John?” I bawl, at no one in particular as I chop another sodding onion. “Oh, she’s up against the clock now, John,” I roar, as I drain yet more pasta. For this, I grudgingly thank Masterchef and all who sail in her. But I can’t in all honesty say that I really give a (roasted, mascarpone-filled) fig who goes on to win this one.
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis