On arrival at Celebrity MasterChef, I met my fellow competitors, Mica Paris, Syd Little, Amanda Donohoe and Sam Nixon.
Once we had all met and become acquainted, (all the time secretly trying to work out who could and could not cook – competitive, me???) we were taken through to contestant holding room where the chefs collapse into the sofa after a challenge, often head in hands from sheer exhaustion.
This was the first time we had been anywhere remotely MasterChef orientated. And this is when the nerves really started.
Our first chance to talk about our expectations for the show, and all I wanted was to survive the first test and not set fire to anything or loose a finger! I’ve chosen to work without adaptive equipment in the kitchen, and being accident prone, it’s always a possibility!
I might add at no stage had we seen the kitchens or met John and Gregg, which was adding to the suspense.
Then finally we were told it was time. Walk through those famous doors, into the MasterChef kitchen, stand behind a workstation, put on your apron and name badge.
Challenge One - The Invention Test
So in we walked, five nervous so called chefs, like it was our first day at big school. I was in trouble straight away, as I could not tie my apron. Amanda to the rescue, apron tied (very neatly I might add) and back to looking scared.
John and Gregg were stood waiting for us. They welcomed us, told us to remove the cover to our side, which revealed some ingredients. Then came those words that would put the fear into anybody, ‘You have one hour to prepare us something we can eat.. Let’s cook’.
You have to bear in mind, at this stage we had never cooked on these hobs, there was no warm up (apart from a run through with the home economist) where you cook something together, as I had been kidding myself.
I just stared at my ingredients - a white fish, maybe cod, but to be honest I did not have a clue, tomatoes, and all sorts of other things.
My first rule of MasterChef: if in doubt, just start chopping!!! Onions, garlic, tomatoes, basically anything that could be chopped, got chopped. Ten minutes in and I still had no clue what I was going to cook. Why is it in these situations every one else looks more composed than you feel?
Then it hit me. I had seen someone cook a papilotte recently, basically fish in a bag. I thought I could do one of these with a Mediterranean theme.
“Quick Dan!” I thought, and sweated the skins off some peppers, boiled up some potatoes, made a bag from parchment and added my potatoes, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and what ever else felt Mediterranean. Then placed the fish on top. Sealed the bag and wrapped it in tin foil.
My plan was to cook what I’d prepared in the oven, let it rest, remove tin foil and place bag on a plate. My idea was that when John and Gregg cut open the bag, they were treated to a beautifully cooked piece of fish, which I now knew to be cod, and the aromas of the Mediterranean. In theory it should work, but as we have all so often seen, MasterChef can be so cruel - when things go wrong they can really go wrong.
There was a slight problem; I forgot to set the timer when I put the fish in the oven, as I was too busy chatting to Gregg about rugby. Now I was in trouble! With the bag sealed I had no way of knowing whether if it was cooked or not. I lost count how many times I opened the oven and tried to feel if the fish was cooked.
In the end I had to trust my instincts. As the fish rested, in a moment of madness I thought “I know what will make this dish look nice”, so halved tomatoes and put them around the edge of the bowl. Luckily Gregg saw my attempt at presentation, and in a very polite way, told me exactly what he thought of it.. Then the one-minute warning came. I took the foil off, placed the bag on a plate, and most importantly removed the tomatoes.
Then one by one John and Gregg would judge our dishes. Now just because we are on the celeb show, they don't hold their punches when critiquing the food, as the others before me had witnessed. Now it was my turn.
John and Gregg arrived at my cooking bench. As a confident person it is amazing how terrified this programme can make you feel. They cut open the bag, nice aroma, fish cooked nicely. Good comments, RELIEF. Ok so I had left the skin on my cod, a big no no apparently, and my workstation looked like a bomb had gone off, but all in all I had survived my first challenge.
Challenge Two – The Professional Kitchen
Not knowing what was coming next, I was starting to wonder if I was cooking a breakfast at a workman’s café.
I headed to London, across Tower Bridge, all very pleasant so far, and then I saw it, and instantly guessed where I was heading. The Shard. And waiting there in their chef’s whites, looking very dapper I might add, were Mica and Amanda.
Shortly after, we were standing in the restaurant Ting and being introduced to a former Michelin starred chef.
Our task: to prepare and cook a full lunch service!
First up was me; I was on a starter of scallops with pickled carrots and a mango sauce. Now scallops are tricky little things, over cook and they are tough, under cook, and your restaurant guest will have a very unpleasant evening.
Mica had a fish dish, and Amanda by far had the toughest, a neck of lamb.
We had a chance to see and taste our dishes before service, and were shown what we had to reproduce each dish in the same way. I was stationed next to Mica, and Amanda was on the opposite side. This was our first time in a professional kitchen, and the first things that hit you are - they are not large (generally fairly small), and whilst the ambient temperature in the kitchen was comfortable, the cooking surfaces are very hot, and the knives are not like the ones in my kitchen. These are super sharp.
Then we just had to wait, and the tickets started running off the machine, and then it happened - ‘One Scallops!’ ‘Yes Chef!’ I was off; season the scallops, oil in pan and wait for the command to cook. “Get the Scallops in!” “Yes chef!” Three minutes to cook and then plate up. I cooked them, got a nice colour on both sides, placed everything on a tray and headed to the pass, where I would plate up in front of the head chef. Now, usually putting three scallops on a plate, add some carrots, garnish and a little squirt of sauce… sorry Chef, don’t mean to under play the complexity of your dish, but it should not be hard to get these things on the plate. Try adding the finest of delicate garnishes when your hand is shaking so vigorously, it all of a sudden becomes a little trickier.
Anyhow I got my order out, got a few constructive comments and I was back at my station waiting, the orders then started coming in thick and fast. At one stage I had three orders cooking at once and two being plated up on the pass. I really felt for Mica and Amanda as they were on mains, so were still waiting. As my orders started to come to an end, Mica’s really started to ramp up. I found myself being her side kick, keeping pans ready, but most importantly every time the Chef shouted an order, you could guarantee Mica was not listening. First I would nudge her, which meant she just shouted out “Yes Chef!” then I would mouth the order, and she would repeat back to the head chef, confirming she had heard the order - what a team! Soon Mica’s orders wound down and Amanda still had a few to go.
Finally it was over and three amateur cooks were ready for a sit down. But oh no, first we had to clean down, luckily I was with Mica, she is the “Queen of Clean”.
Cooking in a professional kitchen was an amazing and exciting experience, and overwhelming looking at the quality of the food we produced. If I wasn’t hooked before, I was now. I wanted to see how far I could progress in MasterChef - Mica and Amanda were no longer friends, now they were my competitors! Only kidding, when you watch the shows, it always seems like the contestants have a genuine desire for their fellow competitors to do well, it truly is the case. It is such a stressful environment that you need to support each other in order to get through it, because whilst you may be having a good day, your fellow cook may have had a nightmare. You know tomorrow could be your turn.
Sadly we knew what was coming in the next test; to cook our two-course meal in one hour. And someone would be going home….
Challenge Three - A Two Course Meal in One Hour
This was the first challenge we could prepare for. As it was our own dishes; food that is special to us.
My choice - Herb crusted rack of lamb, crushed leek potatoes, carrots and a red wine sauce. And for desert - an Apple tart with vanilla Chantilly cream.
Sounds good, right? Well my two boys did not think so, or maybe that's because they ate it almost every day for about two weeks. Albert loved the apple tart though.
Now lamb can be a risky dish. It has to be served pink, and preferably with the crust still attached.
The words came that are synonymous with MasterChef, and I am convinced John has trademarked. "You have one hour, let's cook!"
I had a cunning plan. 20 minutes of manic prep, and there was stuff flying everywhere. Gregg came over to interview me about ten minutes in, but I think he soon realised it was safer to come back later. Lamb, sealed, crust made and on. Potatoes ready. Pastry cut, apples sliced, almonds added to base. It was all going on. It's the only way I can work, total mayhem.
With 40 minutes to go, the lamb was in the oven, cook for 18 minutes, rest for another 18. I was frantically whisking the vanilla cream, when Gregg came over and reminded me there are machines that make it a lot easier. In my mind I am thinking, “Yeah, I hear you!" But I was a Paralympic champ - bit of cream, no problems for me.
As my lamb approached 18 minutes, the MasterChef uncertainty kicks in. At home you trust your timing and judgement. On MasterChef you question EVERYTHING. So the lamb was in and out of the oven, tried the meat thermometer, that wouldn't work, so back in the oven, then back out the oven. Finally I realised this was crazy and decided to remove and rest. Tart in.
Five minutes to go, and every thing is starting to go on the plate.
The crust was still on - that's one hurdle over - but was the lamb pink? I wouldn't know until John and Gregg cut into it.
Time for the judging…
Once again the nervous schoolboy approached the headmaster with his attempt at homework. They poured my rich sauce over the lamb and cut into it. I think I had my eyes shut at this point. But when I opened them I was greeted by a pinker than pink piece of lamb, nailed it. Only negative comment, sauce a little bitter, wine just needed cooking out a tiny bit longer.
All in all well chuffed. Now it was desert time.
Oh dear. First rule of a tart, leave an edge on the pastry. I had put the apples right up to the edge.
And the cream, I don't know why, but instead of a nice quenelle I went for a hearty dollop. Flavours good, apples needed to be a bit thinner, but once again not bad.
We were then sent away while John and Gregg set about deciding who was leaving. This was a really nervous time, as there is nothing left you can do. And we have all seen it on many shows, you all start saying, “I am going, you deserve to stay”. One thing was for sure, we all wanted to stay.
The contestant leaving us today is......................................................................"Amanda"
Gutted for Amanda, but I was through to day two of the heats.
Must add at this point. When you see every contestant slump into the chairs after cooking on the show, you may think it is all for show. I can assure you, it is exhausting. And that slump is 100% genuine!