'Oh dear... it lacks depth of flavour': Keeley Bolger tests out her skills for MasterChef judges Marcus Wareing and Greg Wallace
If Gregg Wallace is trying to help me relax, it isn't working.
"What are you doing with this?" he barks, pointing his finger at my uninspiring looking ingredients.
It's a good question, and one I've asked myself repeatedly this morning.
I'm attempting to cook a shepherd's pie for MasterChef: The Professionals' host Wallace and new full-time judge Marcus Wareing, in a competition with five other journalists. But unlike 'the professionals' in the title of the BBC Two series, I am most definitely not a whizz in the kitchen.
And it's clearly showing.
"Where's the fresh thyme?" asks Wallace, dancing around my station, rifling through the carrots and throwing daggers at the offending pot of dried thyme on the side. "Why haven't you used fresh thyme?"
"I don't know, Gregg," I wail. But before I throw the towel in, a bit of praise comes my way. "Carrots, potatoes, stock, Worcestershire sauce," says Wallace, scanning my ingredients. "I like this, it's honest and non-fussy."
With this and a theatrical courtesy, perhaps a nod to his short stint as a contestant in this year's Strictly Come Dancing, Wallace is off terrorising another journalist for using sweet potato over bog-standard King Edwards, leaving me to get on with my "non-fussy" dish.
It's tempting to let this wee scrap of goodwill go to my head, but from studiously watching TV food competitions, I know I'm better off getting on with the task in hand. And that task is cutting up carrots.
At home, I cook most evenings, usually while carping on to my husband, with a glass of vino in hand. So far, my meals haven't caused any lasting damage on myself or my other half. But then, my husband is legally-bound to be nice to me.
In the harsh light of the studio, away from my husband's dutiful niceties and a ready supply of booze, I see my cooking 'skills' just aren't cutting the mustard.
Luckily, new boy Wareing is zoning in on my (panic) station. A rather more calming presence than Wallace, he gives me an encouraging smile and stirs the bubbly mess of meat and stock.
"If your stock's too thin, you can always add a bit of cornflour," he says, before taking a look at the hastily-peeled potatoes. "And if I were you, I'd get those on the boil."
I'm clearly in no position to dismiss the advice of a Michelin-starred chef, so on the tatties go. But while they're bubbling along, disaster strikes.
"Sausage, what are you doing with that meat?" says Wallace, aghast as he peers into the meaty mixture. "Where in the recipe does it say to add the leftover meat with the stock? You've already cooked it, you don't need to cook it again."
As panic sets in, I decide to make myself feel worse by watching Wareing pipe mashed potato on the shepherd's pie he'll serve up to us later.
With a crowd around him, he steadily squeezes identical blobs of mash onto his meat. He looks positively relaxed, the complete opposite of me as I stand, hands glued to hips as if auditioning for the part of Peter Pan in panto, gravy down my front and furious red cheeks. But there's no time for vanity.
Now my pie is in the oven, there's time to look around the room. One journalist is piping perfect lines of mash. Another is putting each of her four pies in the oven. Four!
With just five minutes to go, there is panic and meat in the air, but as time is called, all of us manage to pull our pies out of the oven.
While the dishes settle on our stations, we're called over to try Wareing's effort. This strikes me as an unfair trade-off. "So many people cook shepherd's pie that we thought it'd be a good challenge for you," he says, plating up his dish.
Wareing isn't easy to impress. He wants a hint of spice (nutmeg), creamy mash, lamb shanks in the meaty mix and the tang of a cheese topping from his home county of Lancashire. Basically, the opposite dish to the one I've offered up.
"Oh dear," he says, prodding my mash as our meals are judged one by one. "This lacks depth of flavour."
Rummaging around the dish, neither Wareing nor Wallace find that depth they're looking for.
"I would have liked a fork to have been raked across the top of this," adds Wallace eyeballing the scrappy peaks of mash I had been feeling pleased about a minute earlier.
"Anything else wrong with it?" I say after this bruising shake down, hoping that there isn't. "Oh, I could go on..." says Wareing with a smile.
"You don't have to," I say. "I won't give up my day job."
"You should do, because now you know how to do it, you could apply for the next series," says Wallace.
But for the sake of the judges, and (mostly) myself, I think it's best I leave that to the real professionals.
- MasterChef: The Professionals, BBC Two, Tuesday, 8pm