We cooked for the MasterChef judges - and it's as terrifying as you'd think
To celebrate the start of the new series of MasterChef: The Professionals, reporter Peter Cary tests his own culinary skills in front of the notoriously tough judges.
Marcus Wareing, Monica Galetti and the ineffably enthusiastic Gregg Wallace return to our screens on November 8 with a set of culinary challenges for 48 professional chefs, hoping to land the professional MasterChef crown.
It wasn't without some trepidation that I accepted the invitation to swap my shabby journalist garb for chefs' whites and cook for judges Wareing and Galetti. But I'd get to see first hand what contestants go through when they rustle up grub for the judgment of their esteemed peers.
In the bright studios in east London, I blink dumbly at the recognisable MasterChef logo hanging from the wall as me and my fellow "cooks" mimic lambs for the slaughter.
Galetti and Wareing smile a lot. It's something you notice when you walk into a studio kitchen filled with an acute sense that you might imminently cause them to frown.
I step forward to introduce myself after Wareing's demonstration of cooking Steak Diane. I wonder if every dish in his kitchen at home gets the same attention to detail.
Wareing says: "When I cook at home, I tend to apply the same techniques that I use at work. The food might be more relaxed, but I still think about the proper way to chop a shallot, the proper way to fry a steak."
No arguing with that. It would be tempting to suggest that Wareing's Steak Diane was anything other than mind-burstingly delicious, but that would be false: my mind burst.
Not least because I was one of half the group selected, instead, to cook Galetti's ceviche: a dish whose intricate delicacy was, I correctly feared, beyond a mere 20-minute demonstration.
Despite Wareing's Michelin-star staus, I'd always suspected that Monica Galetti represented the harder task master of the two as far as the show's contestants were concerned. Her latest book The Skills is a beautiful testament to some of the fundamentals of cooking, and demonstrates an obsession with precision and quality.
Those two words weighed heavily on my mind as I fumbled through my first pitiful attempt to fillet a fish. Ceviche is, after all, concerned with these two very important characteristics: the fish has to be as fresh as possible, and sliced into thin, delicate rounds. The accompanying tiger's milk has to be punchy and convey the freshness of the fish, without drowning out its natural flavour with undue sweetness.
"Tiger's milk," I hear you cry, "what the deuce is that?"
Don't worry: Tiger's Milk, or "Leche de tigre" is the Peruvian term for Ceviche's citrus fruit marinade, which cures the fish and adds depth and flavour.
I'm still far more worried about filleting my fish. Do I go from head to tail or tail to head? Do I tickle it out, or dig deep? It's not long before Galetti spots me in a silent panic and comes to - kindly - offer some gentle words of encouragement.
I also try to get to the bottom of how a TV programme like MasterChef appeals to chefs like Galetti and Wareing enough to tempt them away from their highly acclaimed restaurant kitchens.
Both say they see it as an opportunity to encourage young chefs to flourish, rather than an elaborate game show.
As candid outside the studio as in it, Galetti's enthusiasm is catching: "You go away after filming, you know, for three months together, and look forward to seeing everyone again. I'm always excited to discover some great chefs; always disappointed when they're not so great in the beginning.
"But I think, as Marcus would say, that watching their journey throughout the competition and how they change and develop as chefs really does make it exciting for us."
Perhaps it's not so surprising then, that despite my preconvictions about criticism being at the heart of the show and my own personal experience of cooking for the judges, it functions as more of a side note for them.
"I think it's easy to shoot people down," said Wareing. "I think it's probably the easiest thing to do in life, to criticise somebody. I think the way I approached it, and I think Monica's almost identical to my thinking, is the basis that there's 48 contestants coming into this competition and I'd like 47 to be sent home feeling like they've had a great experience. I think that's always in the back of my mind."
Flash back to the kitchen, where I've miraculously lost the pan I'm meant to be crisping the fish skin with, my chopping block looks like something out of Nightmare On Elm Street, and I'm dangerously low on time to make the fruit-juice tiger's milk.
The result? Something that certainly resembles ceviche, albeit one done by ... well: an amateur. The tiger's milk is rolling about on the plate like I spilled a glass of Ribena on it, and I've adorned it pitifully with what I took in a moment of frenzied madness to be some sort of delicious herb, but is, in fact, a carrot top.
So, what of the professional opinion? Galetti up first: "This is the healthiest I've had for a while.
"The ceviche for me is too wet. There's too much of the dressing and it needs a bit more body through it. With the chilli, a bit more of the warmth would be nice through the dish.
"I wouldn't serve that to anyone."
Now Wareing: "It's a little bit more like fish with fruit juice.
"The seasoning's okay. It's all okay. It could have been a lot, lot better, and there could have been a lot more attention to detail."
Cue unalterable shame: the kind that follows you to your grave and dances on it after the burial. Sadder still, they're right.
Back in the interview room, Galetti and Wareing talk passionately about the explosion of food trends that exist in modern Britain, the ability to dip in and out at one's leisure, and even the heart-warming prank that Galetti played on Wareing in a season past when she filled a fridge with his favourite guilty pleasures - a few hundred Twixes.
It's all so unquestionably nice. And encouraging. In fact, I really do go home feeling like I've had a great experience - just as Wareing hoped for his contestants.
I suppose this must be how it feels.
But that really doesn't fix my ceviche.
MasterChef: The Professionals returns Tuesday November 8, 8pm on BBC Two