Undercover on MasterChef NZ

OOPS: Adam Dudding tries his luck on MasterChef New Zealand.
OOPS: Adam Dudding tries his luck on MasterChef New Zealand.

Adam Dudding finds out why so many reality TV contestants seem so stupid when he goes undercover to compete on Masterchef New Zealand.

So what do you think?" I ask her. "Should salsa verde be in a giant blob, or in a trendy sort of Gordon-Ramsay-ish smear on the plate?"

My wife adopts an ambivalent expression and realises it's probably safer to say nothing.

I try the smear. It looks like something coaxed from a very sick cat with the help of laxatives. I wipe it off the plate with a paper towel and bin it.

Blobs then. How about three green mounds of garlicky, anchovy-ish, coriander-ful zingy sauce, one for each of the three MasterChef judges who will tomorrow nudge a bit of it onto a chunk of succulent snapper (skin-on with fancy japanese panko breadcrumbs, lemon zest and pepper), lift it to their respective mouths before allowing expressions of pleasure, astonishment and admiration to spread across their well-fed faces? Yes?

No. The blobs too look, well, a bit shit. I have 12 hours left to work out how to place a piece of sodding fish, some veges and some green sauce on a plate in a way that looks sophisticated and cosmopolitan and restauranty. Mastercheffy.

I try drawing green squiggles on the plate with a cake icer, but it blocks.

"How about I put the salsa verde in a little ramekin?"

My wife giggles.

I shout at her. She is undermining my confidence. She is destroying my life.

This can only end in tears. Probably mine.

Early November 2009 was a time of angst and tension, as my audition for MasterChef New Zealand – during which I had to cook a single dish to be inspected by restaurateur Simon Gault, Cuisine food editor Ray McVinnie and celebrity TV food guy Ross Burden – drew near.

My editor wanted a first-person MasterChef piece, but seemed reluctant to risk my needing two months off work.

So, with the collusion of the show's producers, I became an undercover contestant, bypassing the first audition, leaping instead straight into the pool of 60 or so applicants who in the first episode are winnowed down to 24.

(They still made me fill in the form though, where I had to profess desperation to be a chef, and admit to any prison time served or restraining orders out against me.)

I planned to cook up a storm while cameras zoomed in on my Olympic-speed carrot-chopping and I chatted blithely about balsamic vinegar reductions and chocolate-dipped asparagus. And, out of the corner of my eye, I would inspect this globally successful reality TV beast from the bottom up. But here's the funny thing. With just 10 days to come up with a dish and practise it to perfection, I found myself swept up in the project, jack-up or not.

Fact is, I'm not too terrible a cook – enthusiastic with the garlic and chilli and lemon juice and herbs, able to cook a steak right at least six times out of 10, and highly regarded by my children for my Sunday morning pancakes. And I started to get a little bit excited about the idea of being judged by these professionals.

"Maybe," whispered a particularly deluded and conceited part of my id, "they'll think you're so good the producers will beg you to go through to the second round, but for real this time, and you'll have to take two months off work after all. How bad could it be?"

I TYPE "How to win MasterChef" into Google, and there's just one hit, which reads: "Look like a 7-foot German supermodel and wear an outfit that seems to be just bra-straps. Cooking skills optional."

This advice, from a blogger who took issue with a particular series of the UK version of MasterChef, isn't quite right for me.

Next, a friend in Melbourne who has obsessively watched and analysed every episode of the recent Australian series offers some tips. One winning trick, emails Danni, is to "suck up to the judges". The contestants who say things like, "I can't believe I am standing in a room talking to..." seem to do well, she says.

More helpfully, Danni also suggests I go with a recipe "that was your granny's, or meant something to you. Pick something simple and make it really well".

My dad's mother used to preserve thinly sliced runner beans in large glass jars with huge quantities of salt. I loved them, but I don't think soft vegetables in brine is what the smart set are eating.

I browse the recipes on the MasterChef Australia website: Blackened tuna steaks with celeriac mash and broadbeans? Cauliflower and gruyere soup? Crusted salmon with lemon wilted spinach and cream? None are quite right.

Helpful colleagues bring in books which have impossibly difficult recipes for marinating things for many hours in rare substances, or reducing a champagne and scallop/mussel broth before passing it through a chinois (what's a chinois?).

Argh, I'm doomed.

I abandon research and try to remember a few things I've cooked that didn't suck. A piece of snapper. A salsa verde from a Jamie Oliver cookbook. And a potato and green-bean side dish from a cookbook I acquired a few years ago.

It feels a bit to basic, so I add a zucchini fritter from a Bill Granger cookbook. The combo is getting a bit too green, but an experiment with turning salsa verde red by adding capsicum fails, so I decide lots of green is OK.

Practice run number one is at a friend's place. I can't decide where to put the fish, and the coarsely mashed potatoes and beans look like someone has knelt on them. Everything tastes OK, though. I have a horrible feeling that's not enough. Maybe I should try a different-shaped plate.

LAST WEEK, I watched a rough edit of the episode that was being made the day I cooked my dish. It skims through the cull down to the final 24 contestants, pausing only to highlight particularly uplifting or appalling moments. A young woman proudly presents a rib eye fillet, but the judges think it's no good; a strange man from the South Island explains why on earth he cooked his pork in cola; there's even a vegan, which causes much alarm among the judges.

It's been edited into a zoetrope of delight and sorrow, with some poor souls on screen only long enough for a viewer to register their forlorn expression. But what I hadn't really appreciated is the amount of time, and emotion, that goes into getting those few seconds of anguish. I do now.

When I parked at Auckland's Ellerslie Showgrounds on a Sunday morning with a boxful of ingredients in the boot, and a fresh snapper fillet from the Auckland Fish Markets in a plastic bag on the front seat, I was in my undercover character without trying. I was a MasterChef contestant. I really wanted to get three thumbs up from the judges.

There were half a dozen other contestants in the ante-room. Black-clad production crew with headsets wandered in and out, asking us if we were nervous to ensure we were, and ordering us to mock up our departure, so they could film it from various angles.

Eventually I was led to the kitchen, where a camera crew roamed the three workstations, and was shown to my own. Be ready to deliver your food, said food producer Marc Zajtman, at 11.05 on the dot.

Sure, I said.

No earlier and no later, he said.

Sure, I said.

11.05 on the dot then, he said.

Sure, I said.

And then a weird thing happened. Yes, it's a little stressful to cook in an unfamiliar kitchen while being filmed, interviewed and timed. But as far as my brain was concerned, this was a full-blown fight-or-flight moment. Just like the time I thought I was about to get beaten up in the streets of Palmerston North (don't ask), time slowed, my mind blanked, my peripheral vision faded, and my ability to think sequentially collapsed.

I reckon I could have outrun a pursuing Palmerstonian, but I wasn't really capable of cooking. I did everything fast. Way too fast. The spuds went on too soon. And the beans. And the fritters. I overcooked the potatoes.

I overcooked the beans. I burnt the fritters. I hadn't cooked this ineptly since the last time I fried sausages drunk at 2am. I looked at the clock. About eight seconds had passed. I put the fish in the pan. Done.

It was then I noticed Marc the food producer looking at me in utter disbelief. I had finished 20 minutes early. This was bad. This was a calamity. I couldn't finish early. I had to finish at 11.05 on the dot then present the meal. Everything was going to end up stone cold or cooked to buggery.

As it became clear I was screwing up, the camera team deserted the other two contestants to capture every nuance of my failure. "What's happening?" "What have you done?" "What are you going to do?"

That would have been the end of my kitchen nightmare, if Marc hadn't gently pointed out that I had another bit of fish and some leftover fritter batter. I took a deep breath, and made my meal again.

As reality TV goes, the judging in MasterChef is soft-hearted stuff. Burden – who, in the 15 years since he was a finalist in the UK MasterChef has carved out a career at the fluffier end of food TV – has an inexhaustible line of cheesy talent-show one-liners ("It's a Cortina – but you're driving it in the fast lane!"; "It's not good...It's frickin' brilliant!"), yet there's no Simon Cowell-ish nastiness.

McVinnie is chalk to Burden's cheesy – dry and cerebral and unlikely to squander praise – but he still gets excited when a contestant gets something right. And Gault is a grinning gourmand, full of hugs and warm praise, and positively wolfish when he has a forkful of good food in hand.

So they let me down gently when I finally stood in front of them, hot, bothered, but exhilarated from my strange hour in the kitchens of Ellerslie racecourse.

The snapper is cooked perfectly, they agree, but I shouldn't have put crumbs on it seeing there was skin already. The salsa verde is perfect, but the slice of lemon is redundant. Gault reckons the fritter was OKish, but McVinnie thinks it's pointless given the presence of the starchy potato.

The beans look "dead", the potatoes are underseasoned and the anally retentive placement of the meal's elements on a rectangular plate is a failed attempt to make home cooking look restauranty. I am, they conclude, a pretty good home cook, but not up to the standard they require.

Or as Burden put it: "I wanted an opera in my mouth, but instead of La Traviata I got Rick Astley".

Sunday Star Times