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Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this! Our man Bill takes on the Masterchef kitchen

Bill under pressure in the kitchen! (Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)
Bill under pressure in the kitchen! (Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)

Fun, that is, until I stepped into the contestants’ room at the east London studios. You know, the one with the brown leather couch they slump wearily on to.

Shaking their heads as they admit they’re not sure they’ve done enough – but they really don’t want to go home. (Why is that? What is it about MasterChef’s contestants’ home lives that is so off-putting?)

Behind the sofa are the eight shiny metal lockers where they hang up their apron for the final time, sadly slipping on their coats. And that famous logo is on the brick wall of the former mill.

Suddenly, bravado is replaced by nerves. Really big, dry-mouth, shaky hands, wobbly-legged nerves.

My fellow contestants also admit to their nervousness, which seems to be in a range between terror and absolute hysteria.

It’s not helping.

I try to take some comfort from past culinary successes. All I can think of, though, is inadvertently setting fire to pizza boxes (tried to keep the delivery warm in oven, switched on grill instead – flames, ash-covered kitchen, domestic disgrace).

This really isn’t helping.

(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)
(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)

Neither is the safety briefing we get about how sharp the knives are and how to just stick your (probably blood-soaked) hand up if you slice open a finger.

Then, heart pounding but proudly wearing a dazzlingly-white MasterChef apron, we’re ushered into THAT kitchen.

I’m shown to my bench. It’s right at the back. Ah, memories of schooldays. Safety-with-distance making it less likely you’ll be asked a question. Except it doesn’t work like that.

John Torode and Gregg Wallace will wander everywhere. And they’re standing at the front, just like every episode I’ve ever seen.

“Welcome to the MasterChef kitchen,” booms Gregg. He tells us we’ll be cooking our Calling Card dish, as will the amateurs standing in our places when the new series, the 12th, kicks off this week.

I’ve seen the duo say so often they’re expecting something special, something really extraordinary. Maybe it’s just looking round at the eight hapless hacks before him, but I’m glad Gregg seems to be tempering his hopes.

“I’m expecting something decent,” he says simply. Not hoity-toity high end, just edible.

John tells us it should be a dish we’re happy with, that might have been inspired by a decade of MasterChef. And, with a look at his watch he tells us we have one hour and 15 minutes, says “Let’s cook” and we’re off.

I’m a man with a plan.

Part of the plan is that I get my head down in a frenzy of activity that’ll leave me too busy to tremble.

Another part is that I get peace for the first frantically-busy 30 minutes. I get 30 seconds.

I feel a presence and find Gregg peering at my ingredients. He’s also looking at my carefully laminated step-by-step recipe (that’s the main bit of my plan).

“It’s my 25 steps to sure-fire
success,” I say confidently.

“Really?” he replies, raising an eyebrow as he peers at my guide to making potato gratin, chicken stuffed with cream cheese and chorizo topped with parma ham and served with green beans.

“Well, maybe it’s more my 25 steps to avoiding complete disaster,” I say, joking-but-not-really.

Minutes later it’s John. I’m in spud-peeling mania.

“Looks appealing”, he says, clocking my worried face. The joke is wasted.

I’m already obsessed by time. Time. You can’t miss it.

It’s there on a big red digital clock high on the wall right behind me. And every time I glance round more of it has gone.

(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)
(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)

The spuds are sliced, cream and herbs added, they’re in the ramekins and in the oven. I’m about five minutes behind but I feel I can make it up.

I’ve got the cream cheese mixture ready and the chicken stuffed. I’m wrestling with an over-sized sheet of baking paper when John steps in and offers a guiding hand to fold it neatly on the tray.

I’m not 100% sure it’s in the rules, but I’m grateful nonetheless.

With my main elements in the oven, a strange thing is happening.

Yes, I’m still shaky and any self-respecting chef would bounce me out of their kitchen before you could soft-boil an egg.

But, strangely, I’m starting to enjoy it.

I’ve got a mo to look around at my fellow contestants. I can’t help but notice benches fuller of fancier-looking ingredients and no sign of panic. No tears, no tantrums, just calm concentration.

Gregg’s appeared again and offered an opinion on my fare.

“It sounds rich”.

“Bad rich?”

“Well it’s not the healthiest dish I’ve ever heard of – but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be good to eat”.

(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)
(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)

I’m on to my green beans. Suddenly confidence has become rash complacency.

In my plans – OK my dreams – I had it all served minutes before the end, proudly standing and surveying my masterpiece. If only.

Why isn’t that convection hob heating up? What is a convection hob? Why can’t I have my trusty old gas one?

“You have less than 90 seconds,” bellows Gregg.

How often have you heard those words and thought come on, get a move on?

With the very last tick of the clock, everything’s on a big, square plate. A bit messier than I’d hoped for but out all the same. Done!

(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)
(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)

Now the judging.

First, an impressive-looking spun sugarwork on top of a neat pudding is criticised then chicken wraps are labelled too hefty. So, I’m not feeling the love as I make that lonely walk, plate in hand, to what I’ve learned is called Condiment Island.

All I know is that it’s where the two toughest judges in the country are peering at my dish.

There’s no reason I couldn’t have cleaned up the ramekin, insists Gregg, and my tomatoes on the vine are really just a withering vine now.

But then something gloriously unexpected happens. He says he loves the taste of the chicken and John, as my heart skips a beat, goes even further.

“You’ve shown a bit of technique, you’ve worked quite hard, you made a gratin, you made bits and pieces, you flavoured it really well.

“The chicken’s still lovely and moist with the ham protecting the outside of it and the filling is really tasty.”

(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)
(Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)

Can I really be hearing this?

“That needs a bit of tidying up,” adds Gregg. “But, as John says, that is showing decent technique and we both agree they are really good flavours. Good job.”

The Sunday Post has triumphed. We’re John’s favourite dish and his pick straight through to the next round.

Well, we would be if it was the real series.

Hmm, now where did I put that application form . . .

MasterChef, Wednesday March 23, 8pm on BBC One.

Bill’s winning recipe:

  • 4 medium-sized potatoes
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 50g chorizo
  • 6 slices Parma ham
  • 180g cream cheese
  • 500ml cream
  • 4 sundried tomatoes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 50g parmesan
  • Vine tomatoes
  • Green beans
  • Parsley
  • Thyme
  • Salt and pepper

Peel and slice potatoes, layer in greased ramekins. Add warmed cream, with grated garlic, salt and pepper. Grate parmesan over the top and cook at 180C for 40 minutes.

Roughly chop chorizo and sundried tomatoes and mix in with cream cheese, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper. Slice open chicken breasts and fill with mixture.

Wrap breasts well with ham and cook for 25 to 30 minutes. Add tomatoes on vine for last 10 minutes and boil green beans for five minutes before draining and serving drizzled with
butter and parsley.

Peel and slice potatoes, layer in greased ramekins. Add warmed cream, with grated garlic, salt and pepper. Grate parmesan over the top and cook at 180C for 40 minutes.


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