My greatest fear as I saw John Torode and Gregg Wallace standing in front of me was that I didn’t want to be the first one out.
For the weeks leading up to this pivotal moment in my short-lived MasterChef appearance, my life had become an endless stream of cooking books, recipe testing, food research and cooking, cooking, cooking.
Food invaded every thought and every spare moment I had. I was barely sleeping, making notes, revising recipes and trying to learn techniques I’d never even heard of.
Even after working all day as a travel writer and then putting the kids to bed, I was whipping up dishes for my supportive husband – who quite frankly would have given anything for some egg and chips.
And then there was the clearing up afterwards; my kitchen would look like a bomb had hit it every night – even I was astounded by my aptitude to make such a mess.
My effort, however, was beginning to pay off. Who knew I could make an egg yolk-filled ravioli, pork dumplings and ramen noodles from scratch and grow microgreens? Or produce homemade plum sauce served with perfectly-cooked duck? Or creamy vanilla ice cream to accompany raspberry-flavoured chocolate brownies?
Regardless, nothing could have prepared me for the intense pressure of the MasterChef kitchen.
A few months beforehand, it was my nine-year old son who encouraged me to apply to be on the popular BBC One primetime show. I laughed at first and refused, but because we were in the middle of our first UK lockdown and everything felt like Groundhog Day, I changed my mind.
I cook every single day and enjoy it. I like bold and different flavours, travel extensively and grew up watching my parents make their living in their Chinese takeaway. Food is one of my greatest passions.
After filling out the long application form and hitting ‘send’, I totally forgot about it… until two months later I got a call from one of the producers. The next stage consisted of phone interviews and online auditions.
As I made it through each and every one, I really didn’t think I would actually get on the show. But then I did. I was one of only 40 people chosen to take part out of 8,000 applicants.
At first, I was pretty chuffed. But then the fear set in…
I pride myself on being a multi-tasker, someone who is adept at spinning lots of different plates, all the while appearing to have got everything covered. But as the filming day fast approached, I began to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew.
I am competitive by nature and, of course, was adamant that I didn’t want to leave in the first round. But the cooking was beginning to take its toll on family life. I was tired and stressed, worried and snappy. And I hadn’t even got through the first heat yet.
Being on set was surreal and yet so familiar. Having to film the slo-mo walking shots and seeing the famous logo, sitting on those colourful plush sofas.
The other contestants were so lovely and we all felt at ease with one another. After all, who else could we share our experience with as our appearance on the show was top secret.
While the producers and the runners try to explain to you what it will be like when you enter the kitchen – the challenge of having to cook under time constraints with the cameras in your face, a kitchen you don’t know, with unfamiliar equipment and an induction hob, as well as Gregg Wallace interviewing you – the pressure is insane.
Time disappears. I had an hour and 15 minutes to cook my signature dish of pork cheeks in black bean sauce and egg fried rice. It felt like five minutes.
Having practised it over and over, I knew how to make it – but I made a huge mistake and I knew it. I hadn’t cooked the rice properly. Rice – which I make several times a week. Rice – which is a staple of Chinese cooking. I never undercook rice. But this time I did.
And as I stood in front of John and Gregg and their inevitable admonishing of my error, I just hoped that my face didn’t betray the pure humiliation I was feeling inside.
At this point, I knew I would get another chance to cook, to try and win the famous MasterChef apron and continue to the next round.
But again, the pressure got to me in the next challenge, where I had to produce a dish with my favourite ingredient, chicken thighs. My mind went blank. And in my panic, I also messed up the quantity of my flatbread ingredients.
It was far too wet, and in survival mode, I just gritted my teeth added more flour and tried to get a plate of food up to the judges.
When a producer kept asking me if I was OK, I really wanted to scream and say ‘No! It’s all going to s**t…’ but I smiled, even though I knew deep down that I was going to mess up again.
My only hope was that the two other contestants would mess up more than me. But it wasn’t to be.
As John held up my burnt and raw flatbread I knew I would be leaving. My MasterChef food career was over before it had even begun.
As I was told by Gregg that I would be going, I swallowed my pride, and was resolute that I wouldn’t cry on TV. I think I even managed to laugh while having to film the ‘get the coat’ scenes, because thankfully, the MasterChef team were really supportive.
I was even told by producers that I was in a strong heat, and had I’d been placed in previous ones, I would have surely gone through. Who knows?
But as I made my way back home to my family, the weight of expectation and tension that sat so heavy soon started disappearing.
I was free from having to frantically stir pots and eyeball the oven. I was free from having to plan elaborate dishes and produce them in an hour.
That night I ordered a takeaway, and drowned my sorrows. Was I worried how I was going to look on TV? Absolutely. Did I replay my failings over and over in my mind? Yes, for weeks afterwards and even when I think about it now.
I also swore to my husband that I wouldn’t watch the episode, that I would be far too embarrassed.
My curiosity got the better of me. So I did watch it, cringed and screamed at myself. But I also laughed. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of supportive and kind messages from family, friends and even strangers, all of who think it’s wonderful that I even made it on national TV in the first place.
Perhaps the fear of being seen as a failure was worse than actually failing in the first place.
I still flush as the shame of having John and Gregg tell me my food wasn’t good enough. However, I’ve since learned that sometimes you have go for a dream to realise it’s not actually the one you really want.
I’m more of a ‘take my time with a glass of wine, listening to music’ type of cook.
I am in awe of all the MasterChef contestants and winners who make it through each stage of the competition. And I wish all the finalists this week the best of luck.
In failing, I’ve rediscovered my love of cooking. I’ve become more confident in the kitchen and tried techniques that were previously never considered. I’ve also taken the leap to share my cooking and recipes on my own food blog, Cook Simply.
It’s a work in progress, but my culinary journey would never have started if I hadn’t have been kicked out of MasterChef. I may not be the next up-and-coming foodie sensation, but I can pat myself on the back for at least giving MasterChef a go.
And thankfully, my parents have also forgiven me for messing up rice…
To read Ting’s new food blog Cook Simply, visit her website here.
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