Sunday 21 December 2014

TV cookery shows are turning our dinner parties into a battleground for perfection

Published 09/05/2014 | 02:30

Masterchef Judges Dylan Mc Grath and Nick Munier pictured preparing some Pancakes  at the announcement of details of Masterchef Series Three which starts on RTE One Tuesday 4th March at 8.30PM
Masterchef Judges Dylan Mc Grath and Nick Munier pictured preparing some Pancakes at the announcement of details of Masterchef Series Three which starts on RTE One Tuesday 4th March at 8.30PM

It's a recipe for dinner party disaster. The rich menu of competitive cooking programmes that is being served up on TV is turning what used to be relaxed and casual Saturday night get-togethers into a high stress battleground for one-upmanship and expense.

God be with the days when the success of a dinner party depended on the mix of friends invited, and the great gossip swapped, rather than the standard of food produced from your amateur kitchen, or who designed the place settings on the table.

I don't want to boast but I am a handy enough cook. In between jobs five years ago I took a month out to do an intensive culinary course. But some of my most memorable home dinner parties were when I served up simple fare. Lasagne and chilli were two of my big things 10 years ago. Or a big roast. And in more recent years whipping up quick pasta mostly does the job.

Yes, I have often done far more elaborate dinners, with the fancy frills and several courses, but they were the nights when I was most stressed out and so exhausted after serving the grub that I wilted before I got to serve dessert.

The trigger for the posh dinner party trend is the huge popularity of the TV shows 'MasterChef' and 'Come Dine With Me'. Both have massive followings here and in the UK. So much so that 'Come Dine With Me' groups have popped up all over the country, where friends hold their own mini competitions.

And Channel 4 is to stir things up even more with a new dinner party show 'Secret Diner' where members of the public open their homes as pop-up restaurants to 30 diners for a single night. Aside from aspiring restaurateurs, who would want to do that? And who can fit 30 diners in their house?

My heart was thumping and I was in a sweat as I watched the final of 'MasterChef Ireland' on RTE One this week. I was left exhausted after watching the gruelling, sweat inducing, emotionally charged drama in which three amateur cooks battled it out for the 'MasterChef 2014' title.

The heat was well and truly on as the three finalists cooked a three- course menu for tough judges Nick Munier and Dylan McGrath all in just three short hours. And hats off to the winner, Diana Dodog, for coming out on top. The sheer tension and intensity of the competition was reflected in the fact that Diana dropped to her knees when she was declared the winner.

The scary thing is this competitive edge has been introduced to kitchens all over the country. A survey in the UK recently found that more than one-quarter of those holding dinner parties admit wanting to outdo their friends when entertaining and to serve "restaurant quality food".

The costs hosts are prepared to incur have also risen with their ambitions. To impress guests, the average dinner party host will now spend six-and-a-half hours preparing food and an average €120 on buying food and trimmings. One in 10 amateur cooks will spend more than €250 entertaining at home.

The pressure to host the perfect dinner party seems to be extending to everyday family meals too. From what I am hearing dishing out a bowl of pasta, or doing a stew for the spouse and kids is nearly frowned upon. Oh no, it must be something a little more sophisticated from a Jamie Oliver, a Catherine Fulvio or a Donal Skehan recipe book.

This competitive and celeb cooking culture may spawn something less flavoursome – Come Cheat With Me, with petrified hosts and hostesses resorting to taking culinary short cuts. I was in a house some time ago where all the vegetables were from the supermarket and microwaved. The hostess eventually put her hands up to admit guilt. It was one of the best nights I had in ages.

So what if we use ready-made pastry and sauces from a jar. Or heck, even if we buy in food from the local Indian.

When someone invites you over for dinner of course it is nice to put in some effort, but not to the extent that you want to be judged or awarded marks for the evening, 'Come Dine With Me' style.

Leave all that to the television. Remember having a dinner party at home is as much about the atmosphere you create, the welcome you give, and the people you gather around your table to "break bread" with as it is about the ingredients you are using and the dish you are cooking.

If you are a good cook and can serve up restaurant standard food without feeling the pressure, fine. If you are more comfortable keeping it simple, well that should be ok too. So what if something gets burned.

You be the master of your own kitchen – your way. (PS Cooks tip. Don't forget the garlic bread with the lasagne.)

Irish Independent

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