Admittedly, I thought very long and hard before agreeing to appear on Celebrity MasterChef. I like to cook, but my tastes are relatively simple and I am often called a fussy eater.
The older I get, the more strongly I dislike so-called fashionable food. All those ‘foams’ and frills and flavours that clash. If you told me you were taking me to a Michelin-starred restaurant for dinner, my heart would sink.
I can’t stand most Thai food — a violent reaction on holiday to a chicken-foot soup heavy on coriander and lemongrass has forever ruined those flavours for me — and I’ve even been known to bring my own cut of meat to a posh dinner party to have it cooked plainly without any of the fancy sauces and spices so often produced on these occasions.
Inspire Columnist Dom Parker (pictured) reflected on his Celebrity MasterChef experience
Steph has laughed her legs off more than once when, staring down at the plate given to me at a dinner party, I have realised there is nothing on it at all I will eat with pleasure.
I am not, and never have been, impressed by the effort that has gone into tagine and couscous.
So when I got the call to join Celebrity MasterChef, my favourite food show, but one watched by millions of armchair chefs, I paused before saying yes. Was my palate so weak and under-developed, that I’d just look like an idiot? Or would the simple, basic food I like to serve at home — beef cooked so it tastes of beef, pie and mash, roast pork — prove such a hit with experts John Torode and Gregg Wallace, that I’d stand vindicated as a better judge of what makes a tasty meal than all those faddish modern cooks with their obscure ingredients and show-off techniques?
The fact is, I can cook some things well. I first learned at the age of 13, when my mother was very unwell with back problems and I had to help out in the kitchen.
This went beyond messing about with cakes and biscuits, and into proper cooking territory. I have a clear, rather poignant memory of taking a roast lamb in its pan up to my mother’s bedroom to ask her whether she thought it was done well enough.
I am rather good at potatoes and the everyday sort of vegetable — peas, carrots, onions — and I cook a mean sausage dish in beer.
Like most men, I wield an efficient barbecue tong, though I hate doing it. Beef so easily turns into shoe leather on a barbecue, and then you end up fighting with a bit of raw chicken in the dark.
Dom admits he was apprehensive of how cooking experts John Torode and Gregg Wallace (pictured) may react to his recipes
My chicken a la crème, however, is a thing of beauty and I’m a half-decent pasta chef, too.
All the same, Steph and I have always cooked to live rather than lived to cook. She’s good in the kitchen, but not willing, and her repertoire is strictly limited.
For years when we ran The Salutation, our B&B, we ate every night in our own restaurant, which was excellent and sounds like heaven, but becomes boring if you do it all the time.
I steered clear of the kitchen and I did not interfere with what the chefs did back then, though the menu probably reflected some of my personal favourites, and for a while we served what was undoubtedly the best roast beef in Kent. On the bone!
What swung it in the end, and made me say yes to MasterChef, was the prospect of improving my kitchen skills.
That knife costs more than your car!’ yelled the head chef, going bananas at me for using it to turn chicken in a frying pan
I’ve watched and admired John Torode for many years. I like the no-nonsense way he cooks, and hoped that a bit of his skill would rub off on me.
I also expected to be challenged mentally and physically, and, yes, to have my taste boundaries pushed, although not so far as lemongrass.
At home in the weeks before filming began, I practised in the kitchen like a demon. I’m not too proud to admit that some of my trial dishes were utter filth, and once or twice would have been altogether tastier had I remembered to turn the oven on.
On set, our first MasterChef challenge was a test of basic culinary competence: the Invention Test in which contestants are asked on the day itself to cook a dish from scratch.
I was told to produce a pizza and immediately thought, well, I’ll get my coat then. Pizza is not a great favourite of ours at home, and although I had an idea of the basic tenets and traditional flavours, I really had no clear idea of dough flipping techniques and don’t much like basil.
Dom says he particularly enjoyed muddling through with comedian Josie Long (pictured) who was spectacularly disastrous at some things
Since finishing the show, I’ve often been asked whether John and Gregg ever step in to help, especially when a disaster is clearly looming.
The answer is no, though as a kindness they might gently ask someone why they were doing X, Y or Z unbelievably stupid thing that would result in raw pastry or fish that leapt from the plate.
They were also good at imparting basic kitchen knowledge, like speedy chopping techniques for garlic, which was just the kind of thing I needed.
Luckily, no one goes home after the Invention Test and I managed to get something on a plate.
I did want to win. But there was also plenty of camaraderie and sharing and banter among the other contestants which stood us in good stead when we went into the professional kitchen for our next challenge.
I particularly enjoyed muddling through with comedian Josie Long who was, like me, competent at some things, and spectacularly disastrous at others.
Also, Dr Alex (of Love Island fame) was hilarious, and without giving too much away, he may have had a tendency to serve up his dishes a little on the rare side.
Dom says Dr Alex from Love Island (pictured) was hilarious and had a tendency to serve his dishes on the rare side
One challenge was a real eye-opener. In dropping a group of terrified amateurs into a high-end restaurant kitchen during a frantically busy lunch service, MasterChef has created one of the classic set pieces of reality TV.
My team was sent to The Baptist Grill in Holborn, central London. We were overseen by head chef Tony Fleming, who seemed like a perfectly nice chap, though he did at one point go bananas at me for using an expensive knife rather than a spatula to turn over a piece of chicken in a small frying pan.
‘That knife costs more than your car!’ he yelled, clearly afraid that I was somehow going to blunt it. Possibly by chopping off my own finger, given the dozen or so cooking processes you have to perform almost simultaneously while getting out six or so perfectly crafted dishes mere minutes apart. And yes, the paying diners do eat them.
In principle, I was cooking a roast chicken dish, which doesn’t sound so hard. But it came with lots of other bits, all in odd numbers — five pieces of this, three blobs of that, one strip of greenery down the middle — and everything, of course, had to be timed to the split-second.
Then there was the jus to make in another pan, plus the chicken wasn’t only roasted, but a slice of it was grilled too. It was a lot to think about.
Meanwhile, everyone else in the kitchen is doing something quite different, banging pots and slamming ovens and shouting orders.
Either you’re fully in the zone or you lose track and start to doubt yourself.
Dom (pictured) revealed his experience on MasterChef taught him respect for restaurant chefs
It taught me huge respect for restaurant chefs — and why they shout so much. The whole business is so reliant on precision and teamwork. If one person does something just a little bit off, it all falls down. Several times I was told I’d got it wrong, to take it away and do it again. Just like being back at school!
At home, a frying pan is always on the hob and never in the oven, but in the restaurant kitchen, they shove frying pans in ovens all the time, and I quickly discovered just how hot a handle can get!
Did I like the dish myself? I did. Each constituent bit was nice, but I’m not sure I could have finished the whole plateful. It was rather rich for my pared-back taste buds.
Back in the studio, we had to produce our home-rehearsed dish for John and Gregg — the traditional finale of that first MasterChef round.
I’m not allowed to tell you what I cooked, but it did involve a bit of wine and, though the studio has a strict no-alcohol rule, as with all ingredients, it’s important to taste and test as you go along.
One thing viewers might not realise is that, of the 1 hour 15 minutes you’re given to cook your dish, a good 15 minutes is spent on those little interviews with Gregg and John that intercut the cooking action.
Cameras are often in your face, and timing is tight. Truly, it’s all quite hard work.
When the time is up, you have to bring your dish up to the judging table.
Dom (pictured) says taking part in the show has caused his standards at home to shoot up
Terrifying stuff. John and Gregg look at you, look at the dish, and look back at you.
They then taste and deliver their verdict, and actually, they’re so good at being kind and finding a compliment in what’s literally a dog’s dinner, that you do feel you’re learning as you do it.
Did I get into the next round? Spoilers! I can’t tell you that. But I can say that I had great fun, and that my confidence around food is now greatly improved.
My standards at home have shot up, and I’m much more able to take recipes apart and understand why certain ingredients are necessary and why others aren’t. I am much better at getting the seasoning right, too.
And no, I did not conclude that my palate was boorish or uneducated. On the contrary, I’m more convinced than ever that I can tell a good plate of food from a bad one.
You pick up a lot working in a kitchen, listening to all the tips, trying dozens of dishes.
I remain quite picky, but now I’m picky with good reason. I know whether a sauce is too rich or too thin or too disgusting to eat at all.
And if that sounds terribly arrogant, well, after my experience, I can tell you that tyrannical arrogance is practically compulsory if you want to be a top-notch chef.
DOM’S BACON-WRAPPED SAUSAGES IN BEER
Dom’s bacon-wrapped sausages in beer
- 1 pack of 8 sausages (nothing too posh nor too herby; you want fairly simple sausages)
- 1 pack unsmoked streaky bacon
- 2 cans of lager
- Bag of potatoes
- Several knobs of butter
- Splash of full-fat milk
- Bag of frozen peas
1. Open first can of lager, start drinking. I like Stella, but any Belgian beer will do.
2. Take your sausages — don’t bother pricking them. Carefully wrap each one in a piece of bacon. Carry on drinking. Place them in an oven-proof dish. Open second can of lager and pour over sausages (seems like a waste, but it’s worth it). Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover with foil (or else they’ll make a terrible mess of the oven.)
3. Bung in oven, on high, about 200c for 40 minutes. Set an alarm on your phone for 20 minutes to remind you to turn them over. This is important as it means they get colour on both sides — otherwise the underside looks like an old chap.
4. While they’re cooking, make your mash. Always Maris Pipers. Always full-fat milk. And always, always lots of butter.
5. And peas. Petit pois. Frozen is fine. Served with butter (yes, again), salt and — secret ingredient alert — a tiny pinch of sugar.
6. Pour the juices over your mash — the beer will now be like a delicious, sticky, salty gravy. If you want to look pretentious, then stick a bit of parsley on top of your mash.
Serve with English mustard. Definitely not ketchup. And wine. You will have finished the beer by now.
Celebrity MasterChef starts on Monday, September 2 at 9pm on BBC1.