Pushed to boiling point
Published 02/11/2011 | 09:55
As Masterchef: The Professionals begins its fourth series, two of the judges tell why trained cooks can't always cut it under the glare of the TV cameras
Together, Michelin-starred Michel Roux Jr and his cooking protegee Monica Galetti seem to embody the precision and perfectionism required to make it as a top chef.
Steely-eyed yet charming, all those years of enduring eye-wateringly anti-social working hours and the rigours of kitchen life have left them with an uncannily ability to appear calm at all times while spotting every mistake.
These are handy qualities indeed for judging Masterchef: The Professionals, a competition that puts 40 trained chefs through their paces before a winner is crowned.
Last year the title went to Claire Lara and the talented chef has now opened her first restaurant, La Mouette, in the Wirral.
With the fourth series about to start, Galetti is quite clear what she's looking for. "At the start of this particular series, I picked two chefs that I thought would make it all the way through," she says, adding: "And they did."
She explains: "They were both quite young and, under the pressure, still delivered and outshone the others.
"The big difference between the amateurs and the professionals is often something won't work out on the day, but they can go back to their skills and know how to rescue [the dish]."
Fans of the show have come to expect frank talk from Galetti, who began working with Michel Roux Jr more than 10 years ago, and is now senior sous chef at his two Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche in London.
"Maybe I come across harsh," she says of her withering put-downs. "But when they mess up, they shouldn't. I don't think you should put yourself up for this programme and then mess up, at something you should never mess up... like plucking a bird.
"For me, these are supposed to be professional chefs, so they represent us to the general public."
Ever the supportive boss, Roux adds: "Once Monica's in her chef's whites she is a true professional and doesn't want to let anyone through who would cast her in a bad light."
Both Galetti and Roux, the son of Michelin-starred Albert Roux and now a familiar face on foodie television, understand the pressures of competitive cooking and the exacting tasks the contestants have to undertake.
"A lot of the mistakes come from nerves. They might have been calm when they arrived, but it's a good couple of hours before they get to come and see me. They're sitting there with no idea what to expect," says Galetti.
Such anticipation can lead to shaking hands and nervous breakdowns, as chefs struggle to perform highly-skilled tasks, such as dessert decoration, against the clock.
"They psyche themselves up, thinking about what the task might be," says Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised Galetti. "Then they walk in and see the task and their minds go blank, because it's not what they were imagining they were going to get."
In order to give the chefs a fair chance to prove themselves before they face these 'skills tests', this year the first challenge will be an invention test in which contestants are given six ingredients and 50 minutes to makes a show-stopping dish of their choice.
Galetti says it gives her an opportunity to assess their abilities before the knockout round in which they have just 10 minutes to impress her plus Masterchef regular Gregg Wallace.
But despite the show's efforts to encourage creativity, nerves will still get in the way, say Galetti and Roux.
"It's gut-wrenching when you see a professional not manage to do the job he loves," says Roux. "Some do break down in tears, and you really feel for them."
Galetti adds: "It's horrible. You want them to do well, because you can see so many of them can do it.
"They're shaking and you're thinking, 'C'mon, hold it together, you can do this'. And you cannot help them."
Having worked together for years, Galetti knows just how good the chefs will need to be to impress Roux, who judges the final winner. That's why she's so hard on them.
"Many years ago, [Roux] got me to break down in tears. But I probably deserved it... it's the heat of the moment," she says. "It happens to everyone. And you get angry, but you hold it in."
After the first four weeks of knockouts, the remaining chefs will go on to face the brutality of the restaurant critics, cook a busy lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant and be expected to prepare a three-course menu for 30 of the world's leading Michelin chefs with 40 stars between them, before the final cook-off at the Masterchef kitchen for Roux Jr and Wallace.
"I reckon I can spot a talented chef very quickly - within a day's working with them," says Roux. "And I definitely saw that in Monica.
"It's all the cliches: drive, passion and commitment. When you see that, coupled with great cooking skills and knowledge, then you know they're going to be a success."
Ironically, when the chefs are given free rein to show what they can do, the results can often be uniform.
Roux explains: "Without giving too much away, later in the series we asked for a classic dish and got five Sole Veroniques, a true classic of the Seventies, which when it's cooked well is absolutely beautiful.
"Funnily enough, Gregg had never come across it. He was like, 'Oh my God, sole with grape'. But after a bite he was sold."
MASTERCHEF PROFESSIONALS: THE ROUX FAMILY
Three generations of the Roux family are cooking up a storm in British kitchens...
:: Michel Roux Jr's daughter Emily is soon to graduate from a hotel and catering school in Lyon run by acclaimed chef Paul Bocuse, and her father admits he'd like to work with her in future, although she can be "a bit bossy".
:: Alain Roux (Roux Jr's cousin) is head chef at the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, which remains the only UK restaurant to retain three Michelin stars for more than 25 years.
:: Michel Roux Sr and Albert Roux (fathers of Alain and Michel Roux Jr), who opened the acclaimed Le Gavroche together in 1967, will appear in a new series called The Roux Legacy in January 2012, along with their sons.
:: Masterchef: The Professionals starts on BBC Two on Monday, November 7