I've been watching Masterchef. It's compelling, in a sick, car-crash kind of way.
It's a cooking contest between four eager competitors from a variety of walks of life; plumbers, secretaries, builders, insurance brokers. To start with, they each have to cook a dish in about 15 minutes with ingredients selected by the judges, maybe a nice bit of steak, or scallops, or mackerel, and the best two (or three, I get confused at this point) go on to the next round.
Sometimes there is a huge disaster where the finished dish looks like something you'd knock up after a long evening at the pub, when you were drunk and adventurous. Usually there is a sauce that is far too runny, or a bit of fish that has been charred beyond redemption.
The judges taste their efforts and tell them how much better it could have been, while the competitor stands there biting their lip and trying to look pleased to have some constructive criticism. I assume the big sharp knives are removed for safety before the judging bit begins.
The next round is set in a "top restaurant", where the hapless competitors are dropped into the middle of a full service to prepare some of the signature dishes for paying customers. If I were having lunch in a "top restaurant" I'm not sure how happy I'd be at the thought that some wannabe reality TV personality* was making a lash-up of it out the back. Especially if I was paying full price for it.
There is a very serious commentator who tells us all about the progress of each competitor as the show goes along.
If the competitor doesn't have an interesting-enough job, the commentator refers to them as "mum of two" or "keen amateur cook" throughout the programme. If they are under about 28 they get referred to as "keen young cook" as well.
One of the current crop is an "interior architect". He's called Jonty. What's that short for? Jontythan?
Jonty's speciality is dicking about with huge syringes to "inject flavour" into the food he prepares. It doesn't seem terribly successful so far. The judges look at the plates of food he prepares (and they are always referred to as "plates of food", rather than, say, plates of knitting, or plates of cat litter, presumably to help we poor ignorant non-cooks watching at home to recognise them for what they are) and admire the sheer beauty and artisrty with which he presents stuff.
Jonty is an artiste.
There are usually teeny-weeny julienne of this and frilly fronds of that, all injected full of additional flavour till they squeak. He was injecting balsamic vinegar into strawberries last time I saw him. I'm guessing young Jonty didn't have many friends as a child.
The judges spend a few moments praising Jonty's skill at decorating, then they taste his creations. Jonty stands there sweating, trying not to look too smug while they praise him. You can almost see him thinking "I am an architectural genius. With FOOD."
Jonty gets on my nerves.
He sweats more as they taste his food, their faces betraying their reaction before they say anything. They almost always tell him that there is "no flavour" despite all his efforts at syringing it in. At this point I laugh uproariously, in an unkind manner.
It is interesting how the competitors try to justify their desire to win. Rather than being honest, and saying "I want to be the WINNER. Not a sad, lonely, broken loser. I want to become a TV chef, with a multimillion pound business empire, raking in the cash without me having to do much to earn it, other than knock up a tower of handcut chips and an onion marmalade a couple of nights a week, please."
They say things like "It's always been my dream to cook." The presenters look earnest, nodding and doing the strokey beard thing, as if they are sharing some deep, well-thought-out philosophical ideas.
Well come round my house one evening and make me dinner, you dissembling tiresome slackers. And don't inject anything with anything.
They say insightful things like "Well, I've been cooking for three years now, and I want to take it to the next level."
I've been cooking for about 30 years. If you don't cook, you are very limited in what you get to eat, usually. It's not rocket science. Most people I know can cook, at least a bit. Some of them are even children.
Some of them are excellent at roast dinners. Some of them make fantastic puddings. Some of them have made truly memorable pies.
None of them, as far as I know, have ever dicked about with syringes full of balsamic vinegar.
And what is the next level? Preparing the deadly fugu fish? Making the most exquisite miniature bread known to man? Cooking for endangered baby pandas?
They talk about cooking as though it is a life-changing event. They try to sound as though winning the competition will be the best thing ever to happen to them. Ever. You get the impression that if they were offered the choice of discovering a cure for cancer or winning Masterchef, they'd take the winning.
They are terribly earnest. Sometimes they have tears in their eyes, at which point I make disparaging remarks and mock them from the comfort of my sofa.
It's most refreshing.
*I use the term loosely