Dish One: Calling Card - “Pan Fried Sea Bass with Crushed New Potatoes and a Chorizo and Mussel Sauce”
Multitasking is of course key to cooking. Cooking is the ability to spin proverbial plates on sticks, ensuring none of the crash to the floor. Well, maybe something falling to the floor is less of a worry than it burning or over boiling. This ability is something that even a moderately capable home will feel comfortable with and something that you should definitely have mastered before contemplating cooking on a programme that will air in front of millions of people. That’s because, as I entered the studio from the sparse corridor outside I was blinded by the lighting rigs and struck by the reality of my situation with a thump so tremendous that it was difficult to remember simultaneously where and what I was supposed to be cooking. The studio was abuzz with camera men, directors and producers like ants that would feast upon the copious amounts of food waste the programme generates. With all my attention now focussed on where I was walking and my recipe left at the door I reached my work bench, all the while having my back to the front of the room. I turned around and for the first time was stood in front of John and Gregg. There they are, in the flesh, physically smaller than one would imagine, I guess that’s the wonder of telly. But if their size doesn’t intimidate their reputations certainly do. This is it i remember thinking: I was going to be on MasterChef, on the BBC, cooking, in front of millions of people. That’s fine I told myself, let’s have some fun doing what you love to do, and that was the last point I was overwhelmed by the experience.
Having worked as a waiter for about four months and being one of only two full time members of staff in the front of house team I had assumed a fair amount of responsibility. So when the manageress took two weeks off to go on holiday the responsibility fell to me to pick up the slack. The consequence of this was two 50 hour weeks, so when a package arrived in the post from MasterChef I quickly perused it before putting it down and deciding that it could wait until the end of the week. It was only after my tiresome week had finished that I reopened the package to learn to my horror that I had to submit five menus in five days time. I was, well let’s say a little FUCKING CONCERNED, to put it mildly. I mean, you’d probably want to have practiced a recipe that, to all intents and purposes would be cooked in front of five million people before you submit it for ridicule. So I was relieved to see that the first recipe was a calling card. I’d seen the formula in the previous series, in fact I can’t hear the term ‘calling card’ without it being followed by John Torode enthusiastically saying, “it’s supposed to represent youuuuuuuuuuu as a cook, show us youuur skills, show what you LAAAAAAVE to cook!!!!” in that Aussie accent of his that seems to lessen with every passing series. All the while Gregg beams and occasionally squeaks in excitement. A signature dish for me required little thought.
When I think of food I think of moments, it’s about more than just what’s on the plate after all. Environment, company, place and time, for me are almost as important as the raw ingredients and I believe all of these things culminate in a moment. Food is about memories, moments in time where sensual pleasures cast a stamp upon one’s life, right down to the simple omelette one might knock up after work and enjoy with the last dregs of Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge. That in itself affects you, it IS relaxation on a plate. At the time my repertoire was remarkably limited, I mean I was a student for the entirety of my cooking life. So the dish had to capture my university life in some way and Sea Bass was the most obvious. Please note that I know this sounds ridiculous because Sea Bass was the last thing that would usually be associated with student life, but I sacrificed many pints to eat the food I did, which in itself proves how important food is to me. My parents took this view of my cooking as well and so when I travelled back from London and cooked a nice meal at home for my then girlfriend (Pan Fried Sea Bass with Crushed New Potatoes, Chorizo and Squid) the name Mr. Sea Bass was christened. Had I had my time again I would never have let my parents know about my casual attitude to money when it comes to food. When I say casual attitude to food I really mean it. This is exemplified by the fact that this Sea Bass was from Borough Market, a place where my money is frequently robbed right before my eyes, in broad daylight. After this moment any subsequent moaning to my parents about lack of funds in my account fell on deaf ears and was often met with “no more Sea Bass for you then” or “that’s too bad Mr. Sea Bass”. Then again, had it not been for this I guess I would never have arrived at my signature dish. The final signature dish isn’t too much of a departure from its first incarnation; the Sea Bass remains Pan Fried, as do the new potatoes remain crushed. Thinking back upon the original dish is recall thinking it a little dry and this is where the white wine and tomato sauce came in. Sweetness of tomatoes balancing acidity from the wine and just balanced by a touch of cream at the end for richness. Rather than squid, which had a tendency to toughen up when put through a hot sauce I opted for mussels which would also give it a real taste of the sea. This is how it worked in my head and initially worked in my practices at home. It was simple; the whole thing from start to finish takes no longer than 50 minutes. Time was not the issue.
As I said above, one of the key components in good food is a good environment and the MasterChef studio the first time round was not that. So when I heavy-handedly added more wine to my sauce than I intended and was unable to cook out the acid I was faced with a dilemma: serve a sauce so sour it’d leave your face screwed up in a scowl or try to rectify the situation in any way possible. When I say the sauce was sour I underestimate in no way. Fish and wine is good Fish in a glass of wine is not, so I went for the latter option. How am I going to rectify this? Well, cream of course I thought, it made sense at the time. So I added and added and added and added until I was happy with the level of acidity, all the while not noticing the luminous orange stodge I was amassing in the saucepan. Well this is fucked I thought and waited to cook again.
Sidenotes: There were in this challenge a couple of things i wasn't anticipating. The first of which was the brilliance of the man who worked across the studio from me. Tony, or as he is now known, the one with the moustache. As i said above i had timed my dish to allow myself plenty of leeway with the 75 minutes we had been allocated, so had Tony. The difference being the exquisite looking plate of food he produced in that time. Whereas on the programme tense music builds to a frantic crescendo as time runs out, truth be told Tony and I spent the majority of the final 15 minutes looking at one another and smiling not really ever expecting to have this much time, i this moment bore a friendship that will last some time.
Whilst I was enjoying this serene moment of calm in what i had expected to be completely mental, what i didn't notice was Olivia, my fellow competitor and youngest person in the competition (aged 19), struggling to get food on her plate. I won't linger on her Teriyaki Meatball disaster too long partly because she is really lovely and i'm sure a far better cook than was ever translated onto the programme and also in part because i reckon she'll probably be reading this.
But that was it round one over and i knew having seen the calibre of the competition thus far that i would have something to prove in whatever mystery challenge awaited James, Olivia and myself