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Cooking doesn't get tougher than this

Forget the pyrotechnics of Hell's Kitchen. MasterChef is the toughest cookery challenge show on the box.

The ready, steady, cook round alone, where the contestants get 10 minutes to pick their ingredients and an hour to cook them into something edible, is intense enough to break the spirit of the most experienced kitchen devil.

And then there's the tricky taste test, the shift in a real, working restaurant kitchen, and finally, the make-or-break round where they have to cook, at their peril (or at least at the risk of ridicule by hilariously acerbic judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode), their signature dish.

But the celebrity version of MasterChef comes with an extra challenge for the viewer: Recognise the Celebrity. The only one I knew from the off last night was Olympic gold-winning javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson, and then only after briefly mistaking her for someone else, whose name I can't remember.

As for BBC Radio DJ Nihal Arthanayake? Nope. Brookside and Hollyoaks actress Alex Fletcher? Not a chance. Entrepreneur Richard Farleigh? You kidding? Neil Stuke, "star of Nineties cult series Game On"? Mmm . . . kind of. Vaguely. But not really.

Their obscurity aside, the celebs seem to be chosen as much for their potential ineptitude in the kitchen as anything else. "I originally started cooking because I had to eat," said Nihal. Well, at least he's grasped the basics: hungry, cook food, eat food. Sounds a bit like a title for a cookery show on BBC3.

Richard revealed he'd only been cooking for three weeks . He proffered a bowl of vegetables he intended to shove in the oven.

"I don't know if that's something people do every day," he said to the judges. "Maybe you can tell me." Cue a raised eyebrow from Gregg Wallace, who looked as if he was about to tell Richard to shove his bowl somewhere else.

Poor Tessa, first in the door, was also first out. "We have big issues on this plate," said Wallace, balefully considering her finished meal. They sure did. Tessa's chicken was practically raw. Eat that and you'll never throw a javelin again.

The taste test, where the celebs had to recognise as many ingredients as they could in a mushroom and five-herb omelette, was even less promising. "It looks like it's got egg in it," said observant Alex, poking it with a fork.

Nihal was equally perceptive. "There are lots of little green bits in it," he said. "I've got lots of little green bits in my cupboard at home, but I don't know what they are."

But first impressions can be deceiving. Alex may not be much of an actress (she wouldn't be in Hollyoaks if she was) yet turned out, after Omelettegate, to be a cracking cook.

So did Neil, who revealed late on -- and rather sneakily, I thought -- that his dad was a chef. Both went through to the first quarter-final.

Celebrity MasterChef, which continues tonight and tomorrow, is great fun. Wallace and Torode milk the contestants for laughs, but never humiliate them. You can't say the same of Dragons' Den, which grows nastier and more patronising by the series.

It's also increasingly less about the inventions/investments and more about the Dragons', especially the insufferable Duncan Bannatyne and the obnoxious Theo Paphitis.

Twice last night the pitchers were sidelined to the role of spectators as these inflated egotists squabbled and point-scored off one another.

What's more, the puffed-up dragons -- the smarmy Peter Jones in particular -- don't like it one bit when the worm turns and talks back. As another Jones, the Corporal from Dad's Army, might have put it: they don't like it up 'em, you know.

STACEY'S STARS

Celebrity MasterChef ***

Dragons' Den *


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