“We’ve deliberated, cogitated and digested.” That used to be MasterChef’s quaint catchphrase, way back when it was a 90s teatime oddity, hosted by vowel-mangling saucemonger Loyd Grossman. Few suspected the cult curio had potential as a global giga-franchise. They reckoned without the Simon Cowellification of cookery TV.
In 2005, mere months after The X Factor launched, rights to the amateur cook-off were snapped up by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine TV. Out went Bostonian brainiac Grossman and in came two shouty presenters-cum-judges: Aussie restaurateur John Torode and Sarf London greengrocer Gregg Wallace, with his job title poshed up to “ingredients expert”. Which I suppose is preferable to “Humpty Dumpty doppelganger” or “Heston’s hated big brother”.
Their catchphrase was bellowing “Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!” like a pair of Poundstretcher Gordon Ramsays. The contest became less about hobby home-cooks and more about ambitious foodies with their eyes on a Michelin-starred career switch. This was gladiatorial gastro-combat in a glinting steel kitchen against a tensely ticking clock. Sob stories were wheeled out. John’n’Gregg left long … dramatic … pauses before delivering verdicts. Group hugs happened to a Sigur Rós soundtrack.
As ratings rose like a well-whipped souffle, the show got promoted from BBC Two teatimes to primetime BBC One and exported worldwide. At its peak, it was crowned the “Most Successful TV Cookery Format” by Guinness World Records.
The rot set in around 2011, when Wallace-sampling mash-up “Buttery Biscuit Base” went viral and the pud-shoveller decided that calling out a list of ingredients was enough to be considered judging: “You get the beefiness of mushroom, then the nuttiness of butter, then the sweetness of chilli, then comes cleansing lime.” Stop reading out your Ocado substitutions and form a proper sentence.
Torode – always the more agreeable of the pair – copped off with Celebrity MasterChef winner Lisa Faulkner, like a curse-of-Strictly showmance with spatulas instead of sequins. Meanwhile, Wallace posted shirtless selfies and got arsey if anyone spelt his name “Greg”. Fatally, the judges became bigger than the show. During the 2015 series, Wallace leered lovingly at Torode: “Ten years, three wives, but only one co-judge.” Oh Christ, I’m going to hurl. Can you remember a single winner since Thomasina “Wahaca” Miers? No you can’t, despite all those “biiiiig flavours” and rollercoaster journeys™.
It’s now a self-parody on autopilot, where everyone cooks scallops with minted pea puree, followed by chocolate fondant for pud; where Instagram food bores “deconstruct” dishes that were just fine before, while Wallace and Torode yell into their faces like a wine-flushed Jeremy Clarkson in a Cotswolds carvery. On screen over half the year in various incarnations – main show, juniors, pros, celebs – its ubiquity makes Ant and Dec look reclusive. MasterChef has curdled like milk left out on a warm day. This cheese belongs on, yep, a buttery biscuit base.