2011 saw a brave new world as MasterChef (aka MehsterChef) copied its Australian counterpart by installing a fancy piece of topiary and dragging out the already interminable extravaganza by showing us the previously untelevised audition stages.
Hopefuls prepared their top dish to win a place in the final 20 (twenty!), but the series began with a whimper as the best part of the show - the Invention Test - seemed to have been consigned to history. Where's the fun in watching people make the one dish they know by heart? Where's the creativity, the ingenuity?
Worse was the bizarrely humiliating format, as they were forced to wheel a tea-trolley of comestibles onto a stage and turn tricks for the gurning Gregg Wallace and John Torode. Hopes crushed, unsuccessful contenders wheeled their trolleys back off again under the eyes of their disappointed loved ones.
After two episodes of X-FactorChef, I got fed up and turned off - even the gruesome twosome blind-folding contestants and making them "feel their meat" failed to keep me hooked.
But then, but then, old habits die hard, and so I ended up tuning into the (three) finals. And it seemed that MasterChef might have got a bit good again. Despite the surreally uncomfortable sight of them cooking for John Torode's family, I rather enjoyed My Big Fat Bogan Wedding and the kangaroo ballsack challenge. And so ...
This year's three finalists are 26 year old Tim Anderson, 31 year old Tom Whitaker and 40 year old (but much younger-looking) Sara Danesin Medio.
Overblown music accompanies a montage of their journey so far - I spy what looks like a pimped-up Kinder Bueno and note that the trophy is ten times sexier than it used to be (phwoar, granite).
"One of these three shall join these exceptional people" drones voiceover lady India Fisher and I'm chuffed to see my favourites in the front of the previous winners.
YORK! Padawan Sarah was tortured by fish by her father and grandfather until one day, traumatised, she split into three different people. The other two versions of her ran off to smoke and do naughty things, whilst she comforted herself with bowls of pasta. True love saved her in the form of Doctor David who forced her to learn English and earn her keep in a pub.
Now an ITU sister, her life is stressful, probably made more so by the female youngling in her house whose presence is never explained. As for cooking, her flavours have always been there, but it's not till recently that it's looked beautiful too. She once made an unpleasantly orange soup.
PUTNEY! Tom Hardy lookalike (growl) Tom was exposed to dangerous levels of food as a child. In an effort to cure this terrible affliction, he turned to SCIENCE which found him leading a dangerous double life - supermarket dentist by day and cheese warehouse DJ by night.
He then discovered an affinity for cooking which he honed after three years in Rome, although Italian ethos rather than cuisine is his style.
Lucy is the love of his life and they are soon to be married, despite the fact she didn't like him when they met. He once made a dish that looked like a turd and got dissed by a clown.
WHITECHAPEL! Tim's tale is intro'ed by Perpetuum Mobile, our really old friend (was used to intro Dhruv Baker last year - so that means Tim's won, right? RIGHT?).
Sweetly bespectabled Garth Algar lookalike Tim hails from Wisconsin, the home of that culinary treat known as deep-fried cheese curds.
I've been to Wisconsin. Everything he says is true. Barbecues rock Wisconsin-style and now I'm craving brats and butterburgers.
For no apparent reason, Blur's Country House is used to illustrate Tim travelling to LA and then on to Japan where he studied the art of noodle culture (I kid you not - this reminds me, a cousin once rang up my mum, a doctor, concerned that his love of instant ramen would cause him to develop "noodle face". My brother, also a doctor, had told him this was a genuine disease).
Tim also became a taiko drum master and met Laura, English lass and fellow matsuri lover, and got her drunk enough on beer and cheese that she brought him home with her to the Luxe to engage in a stilted conversation about mincemeat. He now sells beer and sketches excellent pictures. Dude rocks washoku and weird shit.
It's the Final Final Final and we're here in the new, improved and ridiculously cavernous studio!
As usual, John and Gregg begin to stalk the contestants to put them off their game and to issue random nonsense from their mouths.
"Polenta can often be crap, but Sara's Italian - she must be able to make it". Ah yes, John, because all English cooks can make Yorkshire puddings and all Indian cooks can make naan.
Tim's making "Burgers, noodles and British puddings". Gourmet Gregg is terribly worried that he'll end up with a bowl of "wet noodles", but can't wait to get his cock, sorry, spoon into the puddings (Food Urchin made me say that).
John's worried about a flavour clash, though excited by Tim's "Wah-GOO","GUY-oza" and "Shee-SHO" (he and the voiceover lady really need to look at FORVO).
Tom wants to win because he's never been the best at anything ever ever ever and is prepared to sacrifice a pig (and his finger) in order to see this through. And if that fails, the fried things, soft things and crispy things should do it.
TASTING TIMETOM'S DISHES:
- Pan-fried fillet of gurnard, octopus pease pudding and mollusc ragoût of whelks, winkles and razor clams
- Saddle of suckling pig stuffed with walnuts, black pudding and oats, on smoked pomme purée, deep fried pigs trotter crubeens, crispy pig’s ear salad, and creamy pork honey sauce
- Seashore and hedgerow: carrageen moss vanilla pudding, oat biscuit crumble, quince and rosehip coulis, elderflower jelly and crystallised mint leaves
The starter is fab save for the peas, which are undercooked and still firm.
As for the main, Gregg says it's highly original. I guess he does eat at Harvester a lot.
Anyway, Tom's smoked mash is unnerving me.
Pudding - and Gregg is over-excited about Tom's "moss flavoured custard". Carageen yeah? Just a seaweed version of gelatine (cf agar).
Anyway, Tom's elderflower jelly is unnerving me.
VERDICT: they'd book his restaurant in an instant.
- Chocolate ravioli stuffed with partridge and ricotta served with partridge demi-glace sauce, and beurre noisette with parmesan
- Mango parfait topped with passion fruit glaze and lime and vodka nitro-sorbet
- Saddle of hare served on blackberry jam with crispy thyme-scented polenta, parsnip silk, chestnut purée and a medley of autumn mushrooms
John thinks the starter is beautiful and well-executed on every level; Gregg loves the "meaty partridge as smooth as you like" and wants to give it a kiss.
Gregg is completely surprised by the main and didn't expect that combo of flavours. I guess he does eat at Harvester a lot.
The pudding is dreamy and refreshing for Gregg, but lacks a dimension for John.
VERDICT: this is restaurant quality food.
- Tri-City Sliders: The Los Angeles Slider of Wagyu Beef Tartare, Smoky Beer and Jalapeño Marmalade, Avocado and Butter Bean Mousse, The Tokyo Slider of Monkfish Liver, Umeboshi Ketchup, Jellied Ponzu, Matcha Mayonnaise, and The London Slider of Curried Lamb Cheeseburger, Apple and Ale Chutney, Raita Mayonnaise, all served on Beer Buns
- Kyushu-Style Pork Ramen with Pork Belly, Truffled Lobster Gyoza topped with Porcini crisps, Julienned Rhubarb and Spring Onion and served with Aromatic Oils and Pork Broth
- Sticky Toffee Crème Brûlée with Blackcurrant Stout Sauce, Deep-fried Rhubarb and Custard Crumble Ball and Cheddar Cheesecake with Whiskey Jelly
Gregg is reduced to giggles by the radish highs of the starter and dubs Tim a clever old stick. John's not keen on the sweet curried lamb, but admits that that's his palate - mainly he's flabberghasted that Tim made everything from scratch in time, including the sour pickled plums. This astonishment carries through to the main and the pudding - it's inventive, delicious and incredible that he managed it all.
VERDICT: Tim says "That went better than expected". Bless you for your understatement.
So the three contestants leave the room, and John and Gregg froth at the mouth about what Tim, Tom and Sara have achieved. Gregg says "You could eat out every day for two months and still not experience food like that". I guess he does eat at Harvester a lot.
John's beside himself at Tom's ability to make nose-to-tail British food wonderful and sexy and by the fact that he exploded a pig in their honour, Gregg's orgasmic at Sara's chocolate ravioli and her Italian soul, and they're both overcome by Tim's chutzpah, quirkiness and talent.
But as well we know, there can be only one.
Strangely melancholy music plays as the three come back into the hangar-like studio and after the cliched dramatic pause ...
Tim is announced as the worthy winner for making every one of John's senses tingle.
Incredulous, the young man steps up to get his trophy (with the words "You're kidding?" - yes, Tim - that really is the only prize).
"If you're gonna spew, spew into this"
And in an unexpected turn of events, instead of the traditional "shout into the mobile phone to say that they've won", Tim's wife Laura appears in person to congratulate her conquering hero.
WATCH A CLIP FROM THE GRIPPING FINAL
All screencaps/photos copyright BBC/SHINE