Stephen Jardine: Odd couple with the perfect recipe

John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Picture: Contributed
John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Picture: Contributed
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TAKE one bald, myopic, former greengrocer and add a cheerful antipodean chef. Unlikely as it sounds, that is the recipe for the most successful food show on British television.

MasterChef returned to our screens last week and sent a ripple through the schedules. The first show attracted nearly five million viewers to BBC1, leaving other channels trailing.

For a new show that would be impressive, but MasterChef is in its ninth series and has survived many presenter and format changes.

On paper, it simply shouldn’t work. Two middle-aged men grimacing and gurning their way through a conveyor belt of grim grub doesn’t sound like peak-time gold.

Yet it’s now a firm fixture of the spring schedules and the format has sold to 35 countries.

The secret of its success is undoubtedly what television people call “the chemistry”. For a start, the hosts are hugely likeable. The pair met when John Torode was head chef at Quaglinos, and Gregg Wallace supplied vegetables to the restaurant. That gives them a familiarity that cannot be faked.

That warmth clearly spills over to the contestants. MasterChef is one of the kindest reality shows on TV.

A plumber from Slough can walk into the room and proclaim they are brilliants cooks, delivering food everyone loves and with aspirations to run their own Michelin-starred restaurant.

Ten minutes, later the bravado will be stripped away as they struggle to cook a pancake and manage to confuse lamb and spam.

On other show such foolishness would provoke a tirade of tear-inducing abuse from the judges, but on Masterchef, it’s different.

Torode will wrinkle his nose; Wallace will suck in his cheeks but the pair will then go on to praise the seasoning and bold flavours before sending the hopeless hopeful home with reassurance that “pressure can get to anyone”.

Unlike Pop Idol, X-Factor and The Voice, MasterChef is also genuinely life changing.

Last year another Scot, Ross Boyce, went out early but still enjoyed the MasterChef boost.

“It allowed me to spend time training in the kitchens of amazing restaurants – a week in Simon Rogan’s two Michelin starred L’Enclume and, likewise, with Michael Smith at the amazing Three Chimneys in Skye,” he told me.

Then there are the winners. Edinburgh’s Sue Lawrence won series two and went on to build a career as a cookery writer. Tim Anderson, 2011 winner, is about to open a London restaurant, and last year’s victor, Shelina Permalloo, is to publish her first book.

So MasterChef is entertaining, life-changing and kind-hearted. When it comes to peak-time TV, I don’t think you can ask for better.