Stone cold food and 63 chickens marinating in a skip. The REAL story behind…DISASTERCHEF

16 Aug

Stone cold food and 63 chickens marinating in a skip. The REAL story behind…DISASTERCHEF

The Mail on Sunday – 15th August 2010

“Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this,” declares MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace before each episode.

Having cooked for strapping sailors crashing through waves at an angle of 45 degrees in force 7 gales in my days as a yachting enthusiast – where the dangers of a violent jibe outweighed those of a collapsed souffle – I thought I might beg to differ. But that was before I’d accepted the MasterChef challenge.

MasterChef, where amateurs battle for the coveted culinary prize, is a highly popular BBC TV show and I was competing in the celebrity version. It’s easy for critics to mock the ‘celebs’ who take part. I didn’t ask to be called one, didn’t put myself forward and hesitated before agreeing. Giving culinary pleasure to others is a joy but I’m just an averagely competent housewife who enjoys cooking and entertaining.

My mother hated cooking so there was no apron-string tuition for me. Aged 12, I collapsed into tears as the sponge fingers in my first charlotte russe pudding burst outwards when I turned it out of the mould.

I began to cook in earnest when, fresh from university and working at the House of Commons for the late Sir Gerald Nabarro MP, I moved into my first flat. Over the years, I became an enthusiastic dinner-party host and have fed many famous mouths, from the Thatchers to Danny La Rue and Barbara Cartland.

But could I cope with MasterChef? A chum tried to calm me down.

‘It’s daunting, but do-able. Go on,’ she urged. ‘Clear the decks. Get rid of the distractions of daily life.’ Did she mean my husband Neil? Probably.

‘MasterChef?’ said Neil. ‘Are you sure they don’t mean DisasterChef?’

He was joking (I think) but panic set in as copious instructions and questions from the show’s producers arrived last November (it is only now being broadcast but filming began before Christmas and continued until mid-February). For example, they wanted to know if I had a criminal record (no) – in particular, drug convictions (no).

Some of the rules were clear: there was to be no veal or foie gras, for example. And then there was the list of fish banned for ecological reasons, which ran to 69 items – from alfonsinos through Patagonian toothfish to Portuguese dogfish. Bang went half my regular repertoire before we’d even started!

I was one of 20 hopefuls put through their paces in five heats. Arriving on location, a university building in East London, we lambs to the slaughter were highly apprehensive. I swear I heard Colin Jackson’s knees knocking – and he’s an Olympic medallist.

Christine's Menu

We were with tele vision presenter Jenny Powell, who seemed outwardly calm, but broadcaster Martin Roberts and actress Tricia Penrose were near terrified. The contestants may not be perfectionists but the technicians are. Just walking in, taking off your coat and putting on an apron takes a considerable time to film: ‘Sorry Christine, can you just tie the apron strings again – and please turn a shade more towards the camera. Apron strings . . . tie again?’ Whaaaat!

I felt like a five-year-old on her first day at school as we filed in under the impassive eyes of judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode. What on earth was I doing here? And why, at my age, was I under these harsh studio lights with no make-up girl on hand to iron out the crinkles?

Our first task was the ‘Invention Test’, which challenged us to whip up one course from a table of ingredients. Stupidly, I hadn’t planned ahead. So, presented with a bewildering array of ingredients, my mind blanked.

I opted for Oriental mussels with fragrant rice. Soon realising this was too quick and easy, I popped a couple of Gorgonzola toasties on the side. ‘Smelly feet,’ declared John as he and Gregg refused to touch them.

Before filming, I’d wondered how they managed to taste every dish while it was still hot. I soon realised they don’t. The cameras shoot the food when it’s still hot but it’s tepid at best by the time the judges raise their forks.

The ‘Skills Test’ – preparing liver with sage butter – was fine. I’d never cooked liver before but I knew what to do. The ‘Palate Test’ was less simple. The viewers, having seen us watch John prepare Thai crab with glass noodles, must have thought us complete wallies not to guess all 12 ingredients (I put pasta down instead of noodles!). But I got away with it and, along with Colin and Jenny, was through to the next round.

We were then off to work in the Fifth Floor restaurant at Harvey Nichols in London’s Knightsbridge, cooking for smart ladies who lunch. I was put on roast rump of lamb. It’s easy enough to over/underdo lamb when you are cooking for eight in your own kitchen but sending out 40 covers with accompaniments and jus (yes, I call it gravy too) at breakneck speed was tough, especially as we had been up since 6.30am to do the ‘prepping’ in the kitchen.

Exhausted, it was back to the studio to prepare two dishes in one hour. Declaring with cheerful confidence that my recipes were ‘bloomin’ brilliant’, I was on my mettle to deliver perfect ragout of fish with wild rice and samphire followed by apple and ginger tart with ruby grapefruit sabayon.

The latter caused problems, as the flex from the hand-mixer wouldn’t stretch far enough to whizz the sabayon over simmering water. My confidence took a further knock when John asked: ‘Are you really putting grapefruit with apple tart?’

Yes, I jolly well was. Having made me quake with doubt, it’s little wonder tears welled up when he tasted it and declared: ‘I love it.’ Phew. I was through to the quarter-final

Freezing weather and icy roads made travelling perilous so I stayed in London while Neil remained at home in Wiltshire. I was glad to be on my own with time to think, practise for the next round and tap girlfriends for advice.

Colin Jackson and I were joined in the quarter-final by actors Neil Stuke and Alex Fletcher. We were alarmed to find ourselves cooking for ladies from the WI, the group who had famously slow-handclapped Tony Blair. Would our food be given a similar reception? In my nervous enthusiasm, I slipped on a stray tomato as I rushed back to the kitchen. They kindly edited that out but I still had a bruise on my thigh weeks later.

I didn’t quite get away with the food. My mint and pea risotto with scallops ‘wasn’t creamy enough’ (a lifetime counting calories has made me ‘mean with cream’) and I was asked if scallops really went with peas and mint. Well, I thought so, but who was I to judge after the ‘smelly feet’ incident?

My pheasant breasts with chunky haggis mash slipped down a treat, though, especially with John, who’d never tasted haggis before. I was through to ‘Knockout Week’.

Christmas came and went. Abandoning the family at home in Wiltshire, I fled to London where, facing a ‘Skills Test’, I spent the day perfecting hollandaise sauce, pastry and mayonnaise. It was a waste of time – we had to fillet a fish. I thought I’d done OK until John declared: ‘That’s completely wrong, the most unorthodox method I’ve ever seen. But,’ he grinned, ‘it worked!’

Another high-pressure situation awaited at Asia de Cuba restaurant in London’s West End. The quantities were overwhelming, the heat intense. ‘Replate,’ commanded executive chef Franz as my first offering failed to pass the test. In the afternoon I was tasked with cooking duck breast. My first went up in flames, the next was undercooked. Franz simply couldn’t eat it. That night, alone and depressed, I drank far too much, certain in the knowledge that I’d cooked my goose if not my duck.

Instructions for the semi-final had arrived long before but I hadn’t dared think ahead. Now was the time to prepare a ‘dish to save my MasterChef life’. Collops of venison did the trick. I was stunned to find I had survived to fight another day with Neil Stuke, actress Lisa Faulkner and presenter Dick Strawbridge.

By now, we were friends with the production team and one of them let slip that my nickname was ‘Queen Mother’ – what a cheek! Inspired by my pearls? My earrings? My age? I don’t know, but it stuck.

The competition had intensified on a scale none of us had anticipated. First was a ‘warm and hearty feast’ for 40 at an outside location, using the most basic equipment.

Clutching our recipes, we piled into a coach and drove up the motorway in the rain to Nantwich in Cheshire. Why so far? It was the anniversary of the Battle of Nantwich in January 1644, so we were cooking for the Sealed Knot, the Civil War re-enactment group. I’d been an enthusiastic member at university and recalled happy days camping out, being ravished by handsome cavaliers.

We shivered in the icy cold until the action started. I had chosen to cook Moroccan lamb, wild rice with toasted almonds, followed by panettone. Lisa and I worked in harmony but we could hear stress mounting in the boys’ tent as they haggled over pots and pans. Cooking wholesome, hearty food with the sound of cannon fire resounding through the air was exhilarating.

We made our weary way home, where a fresh challenge awaited in North-West London: cooking for the boys of Harrow School. Dick Strawbridge had been taken ill (the clot had eaten oysters) so we were only three against 812 hungry schoolboys.

‘Lunch has only ever been late during the Second World War,’ intoned the headmaster ominously.

I was on ‘herby orange chicken with jacket wedges and broccoli’ – multiplied by 200! The recipe began: ‘Take 63 chickens.’

Well, I’d never seen 63 dead chickens before let alone cooked them; even stirring them in the marinade with an oversized paddle in a vast skip brought me out in a sweat. And I couldn’t believe I was stripping fresh thyme stalks for children.

They swarmed into the dining hall like locusts and soon after there was nothing left of the food . . . or the cooks – we were all exhausted. But there was no respite – we then had to prepare dinner for the headmaster and his guests. It was a long day.

Next came ‘the biggest-ever MasterChef invention test’ – lunch for 400 labourers at the Olympic Stadium in East London. Only 400? A doddle! With no guidance or recipes, we were shown fridges and a larder full of ingredients and told to work it out for ourselves. Neil bagged chicken for curry, Lisa opted to make shepherd’s pie, Dick was clearly born to cook steak so I was left with fatty lamb chops. It didn’t appeal but there was no time to argue. I was not in my element – and it probably showed – but the chaps declared ours the best canteen food they’d ever had.

There seemed no end to the challenges we faced. The ‘Best of British’ involved cooking for former Olympic champions Sebastian Coe, Kelly Holmes and Paralympic star Tanni Grey-Thompson. When I saw my cheese and leek souffles collapsing in the industrial oven I thought my chances would go down with them. Then I wasn’t allowed to ask how they liked their beef. It was undercooked for most and one was sent back. Who on earth did that? Dame Kelly – she hates blood on her plate.

Returning to the studio kitchen, we were asked if we could deliver salade niçoise and lemon meringue pie. Probably not, I thought, but let’s try not to look foolish. Did I say foolish?

I forgot the lemon juice in my pie! It was too late for silly mistakes; we had one more chance to survive.

We were facing ‘Critics Table’, whatever that was. At the 11th hour we received an email: ‘Hope not a problem guys but “critics” have following allergies: vodka, oysters, sea urchin, capers and anchovies.’ My masterpiece bit the dust – braised sea-urchin in oyster and vodka sauce with anchovy and caper panache. Swift change of tack to halibut in a chervil cream sauce, minted crushed peas, fennel and sauteed salad potatoes, followed by Beaumes de Venise ice cream with brandy snaps and salted caramel sauce.

Between them these critics had cooked for George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Beyoncé and overseen massive state banquets, catering for the likes of Barack Obama. Here was I trying sauce with a herb I’d used for the first time the night before.

You could slice the tension as we filed in to hear our fate from John and Gregg. Neil and Dick are better cooks than I will ever be and Lisa just improved by the minute. It had to be over for me. But, when they delivered their verdict, Neil was out.

We didn’t know then what tough but exciting challenges lay ahead. Waiting to be fed by us were dancing girls at the Moulin Rouge, Michelin-starred chefs, guests at the Taittinger champagne chateau and passengers on the Orient Express. Nearly ten weeks after nervously filing into the kitchen, the three musketeers would fight to the finish!

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