Last year, I was a contestant.
You didn’t see me on TV but having been chosen from 7000 auditionees, I was asked to meet producers and judges as one of ‘The Final 200′.
I never made the cut.
When I received the invite, I was given a set of strict instructions. I had to get to Darling Harbour in Sydney – a two hour train ride away – for 7 in the morning. I had to bring a dish that I thought would impress judges. I would have no kitchen facilities, no heating facilities and fridge space was minimal. It was advised that whatever I chose to bring should be kept in an esky.
In groups of twelve we were summoned into a room, one group at a time. Each group would disappear for 20 to 30 minutes at a time and then the next group would head in. The rumours from those who had been in and out of that room soon started circulating. Good cooks with great dishes were not being chosen. A man who had given me an in-depth description of how to bone a duck didn’t get a look in. The unicycling student from Canberra who planned on showing the judges a pasta dish (with his secret ingredient, some sweet chilli sauce) went through. I was starting to see a pattern – it was people being chosen, not food. But surely not? This was about great cooking, no?
Finally, it was my turn. In the group were equal numbers of men and women, ranging from 18 to mid fifties. We were herded into a large room, down the centre of which was a long table and we were invited to plate up our dishes for the judges to look at. And no, before you ask, there was no sign of the three television judges that were soon to become household names – it was another man who works with George, and who name dropped a few other first – rate chefs when giving his credentials.
A woman who had been sitting at the end of the room introduced herself and the man beside her as producers of the show and casting agents. She then invited everyone to tell us a little about themselves and the dish we had prepared, which now sat among all the others on the table.
There was the man who prepared duck – very popular as an audition food as it turned out – that was rare and, well – still bloody. I declined to eat it and I normally love duck. There was the girl in seven-inch high heels and a barely-there skirt who announced that she loved to cook in between modelling assignments and that the dish she had bought in was a …. er… “What is it again? Oh yeah that’s it! A chocolate mousse!”. Then there was the woman, all cleavage and heels in a baby doll dress who bought in strawberries and cream. Her reason? “It’s great cream”. To prove her point, she then hand-fed the strawberries and cream to the astonished producer. “See?” she asked, “I told you it was good!”.
And then there was the man who announced that he was a barista and he was sick and tired of going to three-hatted restaurants and having a great meal only to be given a lousy cup of coffee at the end of it. Everyone in the room leant forward in their chairs. He was great. He was passionate. He was knowledgable. He was incredibly cute. His dish? A simple wobbly strawberry jelly and cream pannacotta. I tasted it later. It was perfection. I have been trying to perfect that recipe all year since I tasted it.
And then there was my dish. A date tart with a limoncello mascarpone cream and an earl grey tea syrup that I had spent ages trying to get right. The tart was a beautifully crispy pastry, the cream had somehow stayed chilled despite it being in an esky for more than 8 hours by the time I got into that room, the presentation was lovely. I was very very pleased.
The casting agent leant forward in her chair and turned to me.
“So”, she said, “It says here on your application that you met your partner in Paris. That must have been quite something.” And again, people leaned forward in their chair.
And in that moment I froze. I couldn’t speak except to get very shaky and nervous. I was still manically hoping that my dish would save the day. This was a show about cooks and chefs and their food dammit. Instead, I nodded mutely, and answered, “Yes, I did”. End of subject. And with nothing left to be done, the chef tasted the tart.
“Shame about the pastry” he observed, “It’s suffered for being kept so long out of a fridge”. And with that, my audition was over.
Of the twelve in that room, the barista was the only genuine cook who went through to the next round, the round which was the initial meeting with the judges and which aired in the first episodes of the series. The other two to be selected? Why the model and the cleavage and cream girl of course.
As I watched Series One play itself out, I was entranced by the dishes, yes it’s true, but I was also mindful that this is, first and foremost, a show about people and personalities. Did the right person win last year? That’s been a matter of some considerable debate. There is one thing that can’t be disputed however. In the end, as she must have had in that first room of twelve, Julie didn’t have a signature dish. She had a killer sales pitch.
With that in mind, I wait for Series Two with great anticipation.
Meanwhile, here’s my audition piece, minus the cleavage.
Photo courtesy of The Guardian