Friday, November 22, 2013

Creativity doesn't get much tougher than this ...

I don’t get a lot of time to watch TV these days, but when I do I’m very selective and possessive about my turn on the sofa with a Do Not Disturb expression on my face. Note, I haven’t managed to assert my turn with the remote control – with two children and a fully grown male in the house, that would be absurd. In fact even the cat gets a look in on that more than I do!  Anyway, one of my most favorite programs is currently running in the UK: Masterchef !

If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically a competition that runs over a number of weeks to find a top chef from either amateurs, professionals or celebrities. As the weeks progress, contestants have to leave the competition because they’re not up to scratch and eventually there are 3 chefs fighting it out for the ultimate prize. It started in the UK in about 1990, but is now produced in over 35 countries – so this show clearly has global appeal, but it recently occurred to me that it has come to represent more than just posh meals on plates for me. 

Once upon a time when I was young, free and single, I fancied my chances on getting on the show one day and would think nothing of spending a whole weekend creating something amazing from scratch. Like an authentic curry for instance, grinding the whole spices in a pestle and mortar, creating aromatic purees, marinading for hours and then trying to emulate an Indian tandoor oven somehow … Now I have a busy family life, such pursuits are the stuff of dreams (especially when they all want something different for dinner!), but Masterchef  has begun to impact on me in another quite unexpected way.  The entire competition, the heats and rounds and ultimately the selection of the winner is almost a mirror of what it’s like to become a published author … I can’t get the emotional parallels out of my head. Think I’m mad? Reckon all those hours sat hunched over a laptop surrounded by laundry and dust have turned my head and sautéed my brain? Let me set out my case:
  • Wanting to be a published author and a competition-winning  chef requires passion, dedication and a lot of practice. It’s not something that can be achieved overnight even if you are the world’s most genius/lucky author or chef.
  • You want to experiment and trail blaze with your exciting new ideas, but you have to master the basics first: chefs have to be able to at least identify the parts of the animal they’re cooking, an author will be expected to pitch their masterpiece as fitting into a distinct genre it they want to get anywhere. And there are rules that have to be abided by whether you like it or not – you are not in charge of this kitchen/publisher. Scrupulous hygiene and damn good punctuation are non-negotiable. 
  • Both the chef and the author need patience and tenacity. In the same way it takes hours to make a fine cooking stock from bones and exotic vegetables, an author will spend an almost unbelievable amount of time reading through their work trying to improve it. The skill lies in layers of flavour and sensation for the chef, and emotional highs and lows, gripping plot and a convincing character arc for the author. It’s not easy and it ain’t quick.
  • You must please the gatekeeper if you’re to achieve your dream; the author needs to snare an editor’s interest and follow through with a manuscript that lies up to expectations. The Masterchef contestant will have to suffer the scrutiny of the professional judges; watching in agony while they sip, wince and shake their heads.  Those first mouthfuls are like sending in your three chapter partial and synopsis; will it be good enough? Will I get through to the next round and get asked for the full manuscript?
  • Both the author and chef are always learning and criticism comes with the territory. Unfortunately it’s not a precise science either, there’s no right or wrong answer as to whether the seasoning of a sauce is completely right because everyone’s taste is different. An editor may say a sentence (or entire book!) is too flowery/clunky/ inappropriate. They may even go as far as to simply say they don’t like it. There’s nothing you can do but keep trying; chef takes the plate back to the kitchen, author sits down and rewrites the bloody thing or rips it up and starts again …
  • Both chefs and authors tend to curse a lot.
  • Then both the author and the chef face the ultimate judgement ; readers and diners. There will be rejections, mixed feedback, poor earnings, long hours, moments of overwhelming self-doubt, tears and possibly neglected spouses ...

The emotions, highs and lows, stresses and high stakes intensity are present in both scenarios and it makes you wonder why people put themselves through it all. The answer is simple, it’s their dream and ultimately, somebody has to win … I cry every year when the winner is announced because being handed that Masterchef trophy and a glass of champagne is just the same as getting your first ‘call’, signing your first contract and holding your first book. In that moment all the pain is forgotten until you go through the whole process again.

However, I do think the author has a slightly better deal over all because nobody checks if my fingernails are clean and when it comes to dinner time these days I can cheat!

Have you ever watched Masterchef? Or similar shows? Have any particular recipes stuck in your mind? Someone did vanilla potatoes the other week. I’m not so sure about that idea …


  1. I love MasterChef! I watch the U.S. version. I love how they plate their dishes.

    1. Fantastic how they do that, isn't it? My presentation skills don't go far beyond a basil leaf chucked on top! :0)