"Come down to see us all you hotel owners," yells Tante Blanco. "If you need cooks, it's an ideal moment to find people -- lots of us don't have jobs!"
A former Asturian miner, Blanco is one of the 9,000 people who have competed to take part in the Spanish version of cookery TV talent show MasterChef. State broadcaster TVE is bringing the series -- already a hit in 100 countries -- to Spain in April hoping to emulate the success of cookery shows such as Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and its Spanish adaptation.
Judging by the numbers who turned out for auditions in Bilbao, Barcelona, Málaga, Valencia and Madrid over the past month, everyone wants to be a chef and is willing to change their lives to do so. Housewives, doctors, lawyers, seniors, engineers, students, designers, journalists, teachers, unemployed waiters and even a town mayor all showed up to test their luck.
"People from all social classes and of all ages -- the youngest 18 years old, the eldest 78 -- have come to us. And more men (60 percent) than women," says Shine Iberia, the producer of the show.
People from all social classes and of all ages, from 18 to 78 have come to us"
In Madrid, 453 preselected candidates headed to the Plaza de Oriente, in front of the Royal Palace, on the last Sunday in February to show off their prepared dishes. They had 20 minutes to put together their plates, which were then examined by 30 professional tasters, who had to pick out 15 winners.
The outdoor location may not have been ideal for keeping their creations warm, but then the winning contestants will have to get used to working in some strange environments. The producers plan to take them out of the studio to some "extraordinary settings in extreme conditions."
All the candidates in Madrid were confident about their chances. "My friends say I cook marvellously, and why don't I open a restaurant," says young Olaya Suárez, from Vigo, who cooked a wild sea bass caught by her mother on a portable stove.
Meanwhile, Tamara Losada, an interior designer from Albacete, turned a menu into a box of chocolates and Madrid chauffeur José Luis López almost burnt the enclosure down trying to glaze his pig's ear.
Blowtorches, silicone molds, designer plates, edible paper, camping stoves, fridges and microwaves were all brought out as candidates tried to impress the day's judges, who will be replaced by Jordi Cruz, Pepe Rodríguez Rey and Samantha Vallejo-Nágera in the program itself. The host of the show will be former Miss Spain Eva González.