Lothians chefs can handle heat in the hottest kitchen

Masterchef contestant Ross Boyce. Picture: GARETH EASTON
Masterchef contestant Ross Boyce. Picture: GARETH EASTON
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PERHAPS he just wasn’t tough enough. Or perhaps it was because his pearl barley was too tough – even for the Masterchef judges to swallow.

Whatever the reason, as he sits in the luxurious surroundings of Mark Greenaway’s restaurant in Picardy Place, Ross Boyce is sanguine about his legume let-down.

“It was for texture,” he says. “Everything else on the plate had been cooked so it was all soft, the lamb, the pumpkin were melt-in-the-mouth, I wanted the barley to add a little crunch. Instead they said it wasn’t cooked enough and was chewy. Well, yeah, it was supposed to be.”

Everyone’s a critic these days. But when you’re on Masterchef – where “cooking doesn’t get tougher” and the tastebuds you have to impress are those of Gregg Wallace and John Torode – then the smallest seasoning error can mean a pretty sharp exit.

Masterchef is now in its eighth series of its current format – although it’s been on the go since 1990, when there were fewer water baths and cut-throat kitchen tests and more cogitating and masticating courtesy of Loyd Grossman. It pulls in around six million viewers every week, desperate to see good food, but also to bear witness to which amateur chef will crack under the relentless pressure.

The Lothians has served up its fair share of winners over the years in the contest. Sue Lawrence was the competition’s second ever title-holder – and became a respected cookery writer and author of 13 books. Three years later it was won by architect Gerry Goldwyre, who launched his own restaurant in The Water Tower near Dalkeith. And when Junior Masterchef was launched in 1994, the first title was snapped up by 14-year-old St George’s schoolgirl Katie Targett-Adams, who later abandoned cooking for the clarsach.

The current final is drawing near, and it’s expected to break viewing figure records for the show by going above the 8.6m it got last year. But what is it about the show that attracts amateurs from around the country to put their food on the line and face a pressure most would never have experienced before?

“It’s because you want to prove you can do it . . . and winning and going on to open your own restaurant would be nice too,” says Ross. “It is incredibly pressured, but if you love food and believe you can cook, then there’s no better place to show your skills. And you just don’t know were it might lead.”

Unfortunately for the Longniddry dad-of-two, his place in the culinary contest was over after the very first episode – despite the fact that the first dish he presented was declared as “exciting” by Torode, and his second dish of fish was just a “squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt off perfect”. It was that final dish with the too-tough barley which saw him hang up his apron.

However, the 34-year-old marketing man is keen to stress that even getting to the televised rounds involved a lot of sweating over hot stoves.

“To be honest I was a bit drunk when I watched last year’s final and thought ‘I could do that’,” he says. “And I would be the person shouting at the television during the invention tests wondering why they had chosen the ingredients they had and what they thought they were doing.

“The application form was huge. It went into massive detail about why you wanted to enter, what you were capable of, your cooking influences and what you wanted out of it. It really makes you think hard that this is what you want before you get anywhere near cooking.

“Then there are lots of phone calls from researchers and producers, then a screen test where you have to show something you’ve done at home and that you can plate it up. And at every stage you’ve got no idea if you’re getting any further until they call you days later. There’s a lot of stress involved.”

And if you can’t stand the heat, then the Masterchef kitchen is definitely not for you. “I’m not normally a nervous person, not someone who gets worked up, more a cold fish even,” Ross admits. “But once you’re in there, behind those units and you’ve got that pair looking at you . . . well, I’d defy anyone not to be nervous.”

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. When Sue Lawrence first appeared on Masterchef in 1991, the young mum just enjoyed cooking – and saw the competition as a possible escape from the demands of her children. “Yes it was good to get away for a while,” she jokes. “And to cook some real grown-up food. I think it was just as scary, though. We were being judged by professionals. My food was eaten by Albert Roux and Sir Terence Conran, it was terrifying.

“But I think it was slightly more light-hearted and fun then. We were amateurs who loved cooking, rather than having a plan to become restaurant chefs and go into fine dining. The whole concept has completely changed. They all take it so seriously, everyone is so emotional, and on a journey and desperate to change their lives . . . I just wanted people to like what I cooked.”

She adds: “It’s compulsive viewing, though. Some of the professional kitchens they work in are terrifying. I’d like to think that I could have handled all that, but I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it. But the programme was just as enjoyed by people then as now – people would be glued on Sunday afternoons. And eight million watched the final I was in.”

For the final Sue made smoked salmon with a blini, lamb on a rosti of home-made pasta and spinach and a dark-chocolate marquise with cloudberry sauce. “It all sounds rather commonplace now, but back then it was very different. It wasn’t easy – you really had to impress.”

Former architect and artist Gerry Goldwyre impressed Grossman, Prue Leith and Lord St John of Fawsley with his monkfish dish in the 1994 final and went on to become a professional with his own restaurant, range of chilli jams and chutneys and cook workshops. “Masterchef is such a different beast now,” he says. “There are so many new ingredients and technology. They can do amazing things. And the contestants are put under pressure and tested in a way we never were.

“What I find unbelievable is that Michelin chefs let these amateurs in their restaurants for service. It’s astounding.”

But dad-of-two Ross believes that chefs are happy to have the contestant in their kitchens because the amateur standard is so high. “Apparently the first few rounds of this season were of the calibre of the final of some previous ones,” he says. “I’ve always loved cooking. I used to ask my parents to hold dinner parties so I could cook for their friends, and it’s gone on from there. Now all I need is £75,000 to open my own restaurant. Watch this space.”

n Masterchef is on BBC One, 9pm, tonight.

Hungry for success at early age

WATCHING Masterchef one evening, Katie Targett-Adams was very interested to hear that a junior competition was about to be launched.

The 14-year-old was cooking up a storm at home and thought the show might be the place to show off her culinary skills. “It was a bit of a whim,” she says. “Going on television wasn’t really a goal, it was just about the cooking.

“I had to go to Napier University for a heat. Sun-dried tomatoes were the new thing, so I used them to stuff a chicken breast, wrapped it in aubergine and served it on a tomato coulis.

“It was only when I got home that I realised I’d been successful. They invited me down to London for a regional heat. I had to cook for Loyd Grossman, Craig Charles, Michel Roux and Claire Macdonald.

“The problem was that while I had practised my dishes for the Edinburgh heat, I hadn’t done any others, so I only had a week in which to learn something else. That was more stressful than anything. I really enjoyed it, and there was a point when I could have had a career in cookery, but music took over.”

Harpist Katie now has six albums to her name and lives in Hong Kong.