x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Behind the scenes at MasterChef

Arts&Life reporter Emily Shardlow gives a first-hand account of working on the reality programme MasterChef.

Ryan Clift from Singapore, arranging a Foie gras apple dish.
Ryan Clift from Singapore, arranging a Foie gras apple dish.

I worked as a home economist on MasterChef: the Professionals back in 2009 and what a different perspective being behind the scenes gives you. Although it has since moved locations, at that time the series was filmed at a college in east London. Salubrious it was not. All the studio action took place in a large shell of a canteen, meaning that before filming started, the set had to be transformed (or "dressed") in order to make it look like the kitchen you saw on television.

In the weeks before we began shooting, one of my jobs was to help come up with ideas for the much talked-about Invention Test (where contestants must concoct a dish from a limited selection of ingredients). The trick here was to maintain a balance; present people with too random a selection of goods and producing a decent dish will be nigh on impossible for even the most talented cook. But, make things too easy (provide all the necessary ingredients for a sage and butternut squash risotto, for example) and it's all a bit boring. In the end, we'd always include one or two different types of protein, some form of carbohydrate, a couple of more specialist ingredients that could, if used correctly, elevate a dish into the realms of the sensational and then throw in something rather more obscure, just for the fun of it - a knobbly bulb of leafy, green kohlrabi or a packet of dried banana chips, for example.

I was also charged with helping test the recipes for the Classic Recipe Test. This meant not only ensuring that all the measurements were correct and that the recipe worked, but that it was actually possible to cook the two dishes (for example French onion soup and iles flottantes) in the allotted time period. The nerve racking thing about this was that much like the contestants, I had to present the results to the two Michelin-starred chef, Michel Roux Jr.

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When filming began, one of the most excruciatingly painful things to watch was the Basic Skills Test. Being the professional series, the contestants were all kitchen-trained and the challenges that they were faced with should have been a breeze - shucking an oyster or jointing a chicken, for example. But, standing alone in front of the camera, watched by two stony-faced judges, not to mention a silent crew of 20 or so people, for many, prior knowledge seemed to go out of the window, hands began to shake, mistakes were made and tears flowed.

Whenever we were filming in the studio, my boss and I would arrive early to ensure that each cooking station was equipped with all the necessary utensils (peelers, pasta machines, wooden spoons etc) and that the larder was fully stocked. As the day got under way, we'd lurk in the background, ready to replenish supplies or locate equipment as and when the contestants needed it. As soon as the director shouted "cut", we would rush on to the set and attempt to tidy up as much as possible; discarding the food that had been flung in the sink or rescuing blenders that had been dumped on the floor in the panic of plating up.

I soon discovered that it was imperative to do this as speedily as possible, otherwise members of the crew would descend upon us, brandishing spoons, all desperate to sample a mouthful of the sauce au poivre or créme brûlée that the judges have just critiqued.

And speaking of eating, if you think that on screen Greg Wallace enjoys his food, then all I can say is you should see the man chow down off-camera. The terms of endearment and grunts of delight are absolutely genuine. This is a man who loves food and can eat a quite remarkable amount of it; a morning of tasting, followed by full lunch, pudding and mid-afternoon snack was not unusual. It's a good job that Michel Roux Jr is so svelte, because the dressing room that the two judges shared was minute, with barely room for two chairs and a full-length mirror (which was, funnily enough, always tilted forwards to create the illusion of slimness).

MasterChef was an intense show to work on and despite still being a fan, I can safely say that I have no desire whatsoever to be a contestant.

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