With the news that Gordon Ramsay laid off 500 staff this week, we thought it would be a good time to re-run this gem of a feature. Because he’s game for a laugh, our drinks editor Peter Dean decided to apply to be a contestant on ITV ‘s Culinary Genius, the new Gordon Ramsay cookery show. Six weeks after learning how to do almost anything with a knife, the big day arrived and our intrepid chef headed to ITV Studios for his chance to show he could do much more than just put a Pop Tart into the toaster. We couldn’t possibly comment on how Ramsay treats his staff but the way contestants on Culinary Genius were treated left a lot to be desired.
Sub-standard knives, garlic that didn’t mince, a broken oven, and a four and half hour wait in the Green Room… who said that cookery shows like Culinary Genius weren’t glamorous?
I am standing in front of a giant cloche that has LEDs twinkling upwards. I think there is dramatic music going on (I’m caught up in the moment). In front of me is a live audience in ITV’s now darkened studios including my wife, son, and in-laws.
“How the fuck did I get here?” I am wondering.
Along with the members of the audience no doubt.
Cue dramatic music. There’s definitely some of that now. I pull up the cloche as instructed to reveal six heads of garlic. I am guessing that some of the other eight contestants are going to be flummoxed by this, otherwise I’m not sure why it’s there.
This is round one of Culinary Genius, the new daytime cookery show from Gordon Ramsay’s production company in which I am a contestant.
First challenge chop up some garlic? Piece of piss.
Sorry, fucking piece of piss (this is a Ramsay show after all).
Once in a lifetime experience
Six weeks earlier I answered an email request from Ramsay Media to be considered as an amateur chef on a new Gordon Ramsay show.
I can hold my own in a kitchen – fry an egg… in the shape of a dying swan being hit by a speedboat. You know the sort of thing.
I thought it would be good for a laugh – only live once blah, blah, blah – so I replied, and then went through a series of hoops to get on the show that involved a Skype audition and talking through photos of dishes I’d cooked. Then I had the great news that I would be one of nine contestants taking part in one of 20 shows.
The format was aimed to be edgy cooking show obeying the laws of daytime TV: three challenges led by Ramsay (or a celebrity chef) with three people going out at each round, until you had to make a main course in 25 minutes.
I’d always admired Ramsay’s cookery books, didn’t much care for his TV shows but hey, cooking on TV with him in any shape or form. Count me in.
The first round was to be chopping and prep skills. The second was protein work. The final round for three people would be making a main course in 25 minutes using the protein from round 2 and anything from (what was promised) as a large on-set larder.
The winner would receive £1000.
So, for six weeks I went at it hammer and tongs – cooking each member of the family a different main course many nights in a row. I got advice from my fishmonger (God I wish I hadn’t said I had a fishmonger in the Green Room) who actually went to school with Ramsay’s wife (an omen?).
I visited Roger Jones one evening and he had me de-boning a duck before I could get my coat off.
I have been known to get obsessed about things and this project was no exception.
I thought of what ‘flash items’ I could rustle up in the allotted time that could transfer to any protein. There was the Thai 3-flavoured sauce from Vatch that could transfer to fish or chicken, but would they have Tamarind paste in their larder? Probably not.
There was the Claridges ‘pie trick’ of cooking puff pastry circles in the oven for 10 minutes while you make the pie filling separately and then join the two with a bit of a flurry. Always a crowd pleaser.
“Before anyone asks. No, you cannot keep the aprons.”
So we get to filming day – Mother’s Day – and after we do lunch for the in-laws I head off to the TV studio to get prepped.
We are shown into the Green Room by the really helpful production team and virtually the first thing we are told is
“Before anyone asks. No, you cannot keep the aprons.”
Say what? Really? I need another apron with a logo on it like a hole in the head, but seriously?
So when you are ejected from the show you are literally shown the door with nothing at all to take home? Not even a pen!
This really didn’t bother me much but it seemed a little cheap. After all, it wouldn’t cost much and surely the show could use social media help through us influencers?
There was also a couple of contestants that I just know would have loved an apron. One was very shy and was repeatedly asked by the team during our FOUR AND A HALF HOUR wait in the Green Room whether she was OK, as she wasn’t saying a word.
So, when she was shown the studio door after failing Round One she had to make her way back to Euston and go home to Birmingham without even a postcard of smiling Gordon to say thanks? Bit harsh?
I used to write and produce a TV show with Mariella Frostrup in the early 1990s for two years. We were a small indie company and we did pretty well looking after guests, but Culinary Genius is modern ‘no frills’ daytime TV.
The reason we waited FOUR AND A HALF HOURS in a barely-adequate Green Room was because we were the third show being filmed in a row. The third! When we arrived at the studios at the prescribed time they were barely halfway through filming the previous one.
No wonder that compere Fern Britton said she couldn’t think of any words before filming our episode.
After about two hours of pacing up and down the Green Room I was wondering if there weren’t hidden cameras in there and that this was part of the show. Big Brother with spatulas.
“Look guys, give us a break, I’m trying,” said one of the production hands after no one laughed at her morale-boosting humour, “I’ve been up since four this morning.”
“And we probably won’t be back home until one tomorrow morning,” said the other. As though this was making our FOUR AND A HALF HOUR wait any easier.
“Well all I can say is I hope Gordon’s paying you enough,” says I.
Wow! This is cheap telly. And I mean cheap – roll-on roll-off.
They’re definitely not going to have tamarind paste.
The other contestants
Luckily after I ‘disgraced myself’ by saying I used a fishmonger, one chap said that he bought fish off the boats in Dorset. Phew. It seems we were the only two who buy fish outside of a supermarket, even avid amateur chefs.
So, for four and a half hours, we all chatted in the Green Room.
The other contestants were a nice bunch.
First guy I met had previously done Come Dine With Me “Never again. They didn’t leave until one in the morning and then they were banging on the door again at six the next morning.”
Mmmm, pattern developing here.
A couple of others were serial cooking show contestants. And everyone but everyone knew their TV chefs and their cookery programmes back to front. I was feeling very out of place
Apart from Bake Off I never watch anything like this. When one of the contestants whispered excitedly that Phil Vickery might be our guest chef (what happened to Gordon?) I was looking forward to being coached by a rugby player trying to mince garlic with ham fists.
I had kind of hoped we were going to get Gordon.
Back to that fucking garlic
The cloches are off. The audience claps. What have I let myself in for?
We then huddle round Phil Vickery (he didn’t look like he’d hold his own in a scrum) who shows us how to mince garlic – chopping first and not using any salt.
Back to our stations.
Now… I buy garlic all the time. We all do. The garlic I buy you can do the old Gerard Depardieu trick from Green Card with – hold cloves in hand, rub vigorously, all magically peeled – then chop away.
But oh no, not this garlic. Oh no. This was garlic that I have never encountered before. This looked like it had been grown in a back garden in Mogadishu and sent over by slow boat to rest for a few years in some outhouse.
This was like cooking with fake vegetables they put in showrooms.
The timer starts, we have five minutes to mince as many of six heads of garlic as we can. What seemed like the easiest job in the world five minutes ago now seems sort of tricky. I can’t even separate the fucking cloves. The outer skin is like leather. I am now aware of three cameras stuck in my face and lots of bright lights.
I could see my mother-in-law looking pretty unimpressed.
“Cut!” The first contestant shouts after cutting herself with a knife and has to be attended to. “Well she’s having an early bath,” a demon on my shoulder says.
I just manage to peel the garlic from one head and start chopping but using the knife blade to mince the garlic by dragging it across the chopping board doesn’t work. It is impossible, which is why nine out of nine contestants couldn’t do it.
Minutes later Phil and compere Fern Britton are at my station to see another pile of poorly minced garlic. And make a humorous quip.
As I complained to them about how fucking useless their garlic was I could see my wife in front of me in the audience making a ‘zip it’ sign.
“Well I managed to do it OK’” retorts Phil.
“Yeah but you wouldn’t have been able to do it with the knives we got to work with,” which is the reply my wife had managed to ‘head off at the pass’.
Of course there’s much more dicking about – it’s TV that’s what happens – including a vox pop piece behind set where we are interviewed about our challenges.
“The garlic was mouldy,” I say on a piece of tape that will no doubt hit the cutting room floor (it did!). “It was useless, if I bought garlic like that I would have taken it back to the shop.”
“OK let’s try saying that again…” says the production assistant.
We then troop back for the lights-down dramatic eviction bit.
Now in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? there was something genuinely at stake. Dramatic pause required. In Culinary Genius the winner gets £1000. Maybe they should have called it “Does anyone fancy a grand?”
When I was first interviewed and they said ‘What would I spend my winnings on if I won?’, I said I wanted to see Gordon pay me in cash, with a roll of folding, Jim Bowen style. I think I marked my cards way too early.
With the second-cloche-reveal my heart sank. Two racks of venison that we had to fillet in 10 minutes. It was the exam question I hadn’t revised for, I made a hash of it and, sure enough, I was evicted with two others. It was 10.30 on a Sunday night. I had been there since 3.30 and the next three contestants would be going on until well after midnight. So, to be honest, I wasn’t that bothered about heading home – my 82 year old in-laws were looking pretty knackered in the audience.
A woman who was evicted with me wasn’t so lucky – she had missed her last train back to the Midlands and was wondering how she was going to get to work the next day.
My only regret was that I hadn’t had a chance to cook anything, which is why I entered in the first place. But then I guess that’s what TV shows like this are after – entertainment with a snarling chef and a line of lambs to the slaughter. Plus I did hack the venison to be fair.
What brand Ramsay gets out of it is anyone’s guess.
In his cookery book 3 Star Chef, Ramsay says that “Running a restaurant is like putting on a live show every day – but without a script.”
For the sake of people eating at his restaurants I really hope that live show is better than this!
This feature was first published in May 2017