• MasterChef days: Cooking for the Clowns

    One thing you could never accuse the MasterChef production team of is predictability. Having experienced the surprises and excitements of our trip to Scotland, closely followed by having to select ingredients while blindfolded, the 8 of us left knew that all we could expect was the unexpected. And who could possibly have predicted that we would find ourselves cooking vegetarian food, in a tent on Peckham Rye Park, for circus riggers and performers.

    With one exception, none of us were particularly enthusiastic at the start of the vegetarian round. Jackie, of course, was in her element and excitedly determined to shine whilst the rest of us gloomily hoped to be able to muddle our way through. Our session with Yotam Ottolenghi surprised and delighted us all, opening our eyes to the variety, flavour and sheer yumminess that we had thought must be lacking from food without meat or fish. But then, away from Yotam’s inspiring and reassuring presence we were left to our own creations and for the first time I really struggled to come up with menu ideas for the next challenge. Eventually I decided to start with one of my favourite vegetables and create a celebration of its flavour and versatility in the hope that even though I was no expert in this culinary field, I could at least demonstrate a range of skills and an understanding of complimentary flavours.

    As I was developing the idea, I had in mind a professional kitchen with gleaming stainless steel surfaces and plenty of space for my ingredients and equipment. I also imagined a sophisticated dining room which would provide a fitting environment for the elegant shot glasses of beetroot and apple soup, carefully crafted quenelles of beetroot and walnut hummus and perfectly formed miniature beetroot tart tatins. Had I known that I would be cooking on a trestle table in a big round tent, for circus performers in Peckham, my beetroot dish would never have seen the light of day.

    As it turned out, I’m extremely glad I put my faith in beetroot. The extraordinary challenge of cooking that dish in such bizarre surroundings proved to John and Greg that I could work as hard as anyone and produce elegant plates of food. It was clear that they didn’t believe I was going to pull it off but once again this competition pushed me further than I thought possible and I achieved what they thought might not be possible. I was incredibly proud of my finished plates, vibrant with colour and full of vegetarian variety and flavour.

    As an avid viewer of previous series, I used to be rather cynical about the bizarre situations MasterChef contestants were thrown into. I wondered what the point was of placing them in contrived circumstances in which no self respecting professional would ever allow themselves to be found. But through this, and the other extraordinary opportunities we were given, I discovered that great cooking isn’t just about shiny kitchens and familiar ingredients; it’s about challenging your perceptions, exploring new avenues and being versatile and confident enough to work in the most unusual surroundings.

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