Can amateur chefs mix it with the pros?

Doing my best: The Star's Jo is up against it with the meringues.
Doing my best: The Star's Jo is up against it with the meringues.
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Another amateur cook has just lifted the BBC’s Master Chef crown.

For weeks, Tim Anderson, the American with a wacky professor approach to cuisine, had been dropped into the world’s finest restaurants to deliver perfection on a plate for demanding chefs and diners.

His victory in the seventh series of John Torode and Greg Wallace’s culinary contest surely fired enthusiastic amateurs across the nation to consider cooking as a career.

But can an amateur really walk into a professional kitchen? Is it as simple as following instructions and biting back the tears when the F-words start? I joined the cheffing team at the Milestone @ The Wig and Pen in Sheffield to find out.

My shift started at 6pm and already the kitchens were in full-flow. Containers of chopped this and that were lined up; fridges were stacked to the gills with ready-to-go ingredients for every dish on the menu.

“You’re late,” said head chef Simon Ayres. “By about 10 hours.” His staff had arrived at 8am. So that was why the kitchen was so calm, I thought. And so much quieter than it looks in Gordon Ramsay’s. The only things simmering were saucepans. No-one was swearing. No one even shouted “Service!”– the Campo Lane venue has a discreet buzzer system.

I was plonked into pastry and shown how to make Italian meringue. But Simon is such a control-freak, I wasn’t allowed to weigh ingredients or even switch on the giant mixer. My part? Stirring the pan of hot sugar syrup. Boring.

“I have to give customers top quality; I can’t risk anything going wrong,” he explained politely. “All chefs are that way. Master Chef is great because it makes people realise how skilled our job is, but the downside is it leads people to believe they could cut it in a professional kitchen. The stress and the pace would be too much for them. The only untrained people we take are students for pot-washing and peeling. Master Chef contestants must be watched like hawks.”

When it came to piping “my” meringue into squiggles and nests, I was determined to impress. A third of my work was deemed “OK”. I felt proud. Asparagus-prepping was next. A doddle; snap off the ends and shove briefly in boiling water.

But stickler Simon insists every spear is identically peeled, whittled to a point and trimmed at the tip.

Sacrilege, surely, but I obediently carved each spear to half its size. In 15 minutes I’d turned out four, which looked limp and lumpy compared to the 40 perfect green soldiers produced by a professional in exactly the same time.

Suddenly someone started turning the hot air blue. Was wasting four bits of asparagus such a problem?

Turned out it was someone else meekly accepting the blame for a minor error. I scuttled out of the way to wash the pots.

Next week: The complaints that get chefs steaming