This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
This year, I auditioned for MasterChef Spain. Partly, because I thought it could be funny to be on TV and partly, because I found the prospect of presenting my culinary vision to my home country, exciting. I'm Basque so I constantly compete with my friends over who the better chef is, anyway. MasterChef offered the added pressure of being scrutinized by strangers, the option to compete against other semi-professionals, and the risk of losing my dignity—but if you counted all that out, it was basically the same thing.
Like all great adventures, it all began with my girlfriend encouraging me to audition and signing me up herself when I took too long to make a decision. I wasn't very interested in the show before I applied but once the process started, I suddenly transformed into a Chef-zilla—a monster made of kitchen utensils and a huge sense of ambition.
Still, about 20,000 people had applied for a place in the program, so I knew that at best I'd get a chance to show off a dish and a story to tell the grandchildren. The first thing I had to do was send the production team a video, in which I prepared a recipe while talking about myself. This proved no hurdle, and I got through to the first round.
I was called in for a regional casting in a hotel in Barcelona. This time, I was competing against 299 other wannabe chefs—300 Spaniards, who passionately believed they looked better than each other on TV, and who were all armed with huge kitchen knives.
For this round, we had to bring with us a second recipe we had prepared at home, and serve it on our own plates. An hour into the casting—cameras already running at this point—one of the celebrity chefs appearing in the program got to assessing our dishes.
I had spent my Christmas break thinking about what I was going to make and how I would present it. To improve my technique, I cooked for my family non-stop for that couple of weeks. What characterizes me as a cook is a fondness for raw materials and an ability to make the most of my resources—a legacy from growing up in a post-war family, who spent their lives expecting they would have to go hungry or ration at some point.
To stand out, I was determined to cook with ingredients that I'd found in the trash cans behind my local supermarket. I thought I would come up with a recipe based on products that, at the end of the day, end up in the garbage but are the only kind of food most people can afford. It was an ethical statement of course, but there was also a more banal and pressing motivation: I was completely broke after Christmas, so I needed to save up every way I could.
In a back alley, I found a heap of vegetables (chards, leeks, and mini peppers), a few trays of chicken filets (one of which smelled like old people's sweat, so I left that), sliced bread, and yogurt. It all looked, more or less OK to eat. I was even lucky enough to find a tray of mushrooms, which turned out to be my key ingredient. To this, I added some frozen cod fillets my mother had brought me on her last visit and my course was complete: Confit Cod cooked at a low temperature, with cream of mushroom and dried fruits and nuts. My audition wouldn't cost me a thing.
The casting seemed to last an eternity. While I was arranging my confit cod fillets on my IKEA plate (from the 356+ line), my competitors were preparing smoked fillets on slate boards, presenting four flavors of courgette purée (bitter, sweet, acidic, and salty) topped with a bit of ash or serving fish soup in Rococo tableware. We had been banned from bringing anything to heat up the food with us—everything had to be prepared in advance and eaten cold. Apparently, the aim of the audition was "to evaluate the mise-en-scène."
That was unfortunate and not what I had prepared for. How was my IKEA plate going to win against 18th Century crockery when it came to mise-en-scène?
Still, I have no idea how or why, but I won—together with the Rococo fish soup girl. More importantly, I was the undisputed moral winner of the day. I had gotten through to the final casting in style.
Now, not to be a dick but I just want to underline here that I took partly rotten food and presented it not very artfully, in a competition for people whose goal in life is to someday have a Michelin star. And I won that day. I didn't win with ingredients from the local farmer's market but from the garbage behind a grimy supermarket that won't familiarize itself with the concept of "organic" for at least a couple more decades. The guy who chose my dish as the winner is a professional who, in theory, ought to be able to see right through it, but he tasted it and shook my hand.
Anyway, there we were, the 20 finalists—the cream of the crop. Before we were moved to the final round, we were rewarded for our perseverance and sacrifice with a wooden spoon bearing the program's logo.
The last test was to prepare a dish with a surprise ingredient, which had been hidden in a box. In my case, it was a partridge. I did what I could with the bird: I wrapped it up in cured ham and accompanied it with a reduced liquor sauce and some strips of fried sweet potato. I named it "Iberian partridge embraces Catalonia." The chef thought that was funny—which was one of the warmest things he had said to anyone all day.
I didn't make the show. I royally screwed up the personal interview. I guess I'd gotten too full of myself, which kept me from taking the interview as seriously as the cooking part of the auditions. Turns out, following up "I'm a good guy and I need the money" with "and cooking has always been my passion" doesn't move anyone.
A couple of weeks later, I received an email that informed me I wouldn't get the chance to become a MasterChef. I recovered from the bad news by preparing a bean stew on a camping gas stove for the whole office, while wearing a 12-year-old's Elsa dress. That made me feel almost as glamorous as winning MasterChef would have done.