About six fish dishes into MasterChef Ireland (RTE2) I realised what the problem was: I couldn’t taste anything.
If you’re watching the X-Factor, you can hear whether a contestant sounds more like Adele or a troll; on Show Me The Funny, you hear the jokes and decide whether the wannabe comedian is more Richard Bruton than Rich Hall. On Strictly Come Dancing, you’ll spot pretty quickly whether the guy in the tux is Fred Flintstone or Fred Astaire.
But on MasterChef, all you can do is look and try and assess the nice presentation. And as anybody who’s been out for a meal in a restaurant knows, a fabulous-looking dish is no guarantee of a tasty dinner.
The format is simple enough. Dozens of amateur chefs have 45 minutes to cook a meal, and ten minutes to put it on a plate and clean their worktop.
Their effort is then assessed by two chefs – in Ireland’s case by Michelin-star chef Dylan McGrath and Nick Munier, the co-owner of Dublin’s Pichet restaurant.
One thousand people applied and were whittled down to 50 by some presumably very fat researchers. This week that number will be reduced to 16 by the two judges.
After that, all manner of food-related tasks will be given to find the ultimate winner of the €25,000 prize. The final task, a few weeks hence, will be to prepare a nine-course meal.
Munier and McGrath are as accomplished as they come, so there are no doubts about their reliability. If they say a contestant’s rosti isn’t crispy enough, then the viewer’s not going to argue.
But MasterChef’s failing is that we should be able to argue, in the same way that we can shout at the television if Louis Walsh’s assessment of a singer displeases us.
Unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough information to get stroppy last night. MasterChef is more an academic than an emotional exercise, therefore, and almost entirely devoid of excitement as a result.
The programme does try to compensate for our lack of engagement by telling us a bit about the contestants, in the hope that we might identify with one or two of them and start to care about how they get on.
Forty-year-old Mark (nobody had a surname for some reason) works in IT, but wants out. “I enjoy my career, but it doesn’t make my heart sing”, he said.
Hopefully his boss doesn’t take offence: Mark didn’t get through. He and his non-singing heart will be back at their desk this morning.
Miyana from Mauritius (the number of non-Irish nationals who made the last 50 was very high) has been in Ireland for three years and has already developed a thick local accent.
She wants to be a chef, and was hoping to use success in MasterChef, to achieve her dream. Not this year, unfortunately.
Richard, whose wife told us that he eats, sleeps and breathes food, cried when his panfried venison dish got the thumbs-up from the judges. His tears were the nearest we came to a bit of drama last night.
He and 28-year-old Mary (“you’re exactly what this competition is looking for”, McGrath said) were the two you’d put your money on to be there in a few weeks when the finalists are wrestling with their nine courses.
How many viewers will stay the pace is another question altogether. RTE have been advertising MasterChef Ireland with great abandon, promoting it constantly on television, buying up huge billboards all over the country and giving it the front-page treatment in the RTE Guide, so they obviously have high hopes for it.
But it’s an essentially dull programme which appeals to the mind and not to the senses. The proof of the pudding has always been in the eating. On MasterChef, it’s in the watching, and it just doesn’t work.
Earlier on RTE2, John Giles and Eamon Dunphy, the Munier and McGrath of football criticism, were as bewildered as the rest of us by the roasting Ireland had taken in a Moscow pressure cooker against Russia.
The Russians had chewed us up and spat us out, but somehow we’d escaped from the experience with a draw, and a more than decent chance at qualifying for next year’s European championship.
“They didn’t have the guts”, Dunphy said of the Russians, sounding like a MasterChef judge bemoaning the lack of foie gras dishes.
He was being a bit harsh. It was Ireland who were offal, even if it all worked out in the end.