During the early elimination rounds of MasterChef Australia, I suggested in my post entitled ‘MasterChef Australia’ – Egos in Aprons, Seeking Celebrity that this was just another ‘reality TV’ show, and therefore all about entertainment and ratings, rather than determining which of the contestants was the best cook. A fake, in other words. I predicted that the final 20 would be selected not solely on cooking prowess, but on other criteria to do with maximising the appeal of the show. My punt, ignoring the cooking ability factor altogether, was that the finalists would fit into the following categories:
1. Some spunky gals and guys with good ogle value. (Tick: Justine, Poh, Sandra, Geni…lots of exposed cleavage between that lot, with all ages covered…not qualified to comment on the guys’ sex appeal, but in view of his pretty ordinary kitchen performance I’m guessing Josh, at least, was selected for the ladies)
2. Some outrageous personality types – ie: fucking poseurs with outsized egos and an acting or TV career as a sub-agenda (Small tick: Poh – not a poseur, and I quite like her, but this gal is a media ho through and through)
3. A token gay or two. (Double tick: Tom and Michelle)
4. A token ethnic or two. (More than token, actually: Poh – Malaysian, Sandra – Spanish, Tom – Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander, Andre – Italian, Geni – Greek, Linda – Polish, Kate – Indian)
5. Maybe one old fart for the young things to resent and conspire against. (No tick, but I did qualify this with “maybe”)
6. A pain in the ‘community’ arse to bring out the bitchiness like salt brings moisture outta eggplant. (Small tick – Aaron)
Not bad. But I missed some of the more obvious extra-culinary selection criteria. For instance, gender distribution – the final 20 comprised 10 females and 10 males. Further, the states were all well represented: 7 from Victoria, 4 from NSW and Queensland, 3 from WA, 2 from SA. All very neat. So, in summary, all significant demographics covered, ratings potential maximised…
No surprise, then, that the show was a ratings success, but who could have anticipated the scale of the triumph? This has to come down to the personalities of the contestants and judges – partly astute selection, partly luck.
Matt Preston, the urbane, cravat-wearing food critic with a faintly Wildean air, jowly with good living and a tad pompous, is intimidating in his knowledge and manner but ultimately benign – kindly, even. One of the highlights of the show has been his enigmatic gurning as he gently rolls a morsel around inside his mouth while the poor contestant sweats on the outcome, trying vainly to decipher his facial contortions as love or loathing.
OK, but what of the cooking? Well, I have to admit to being surprised at the standard most of the contestants have attained. All were very food-literate from the start, and have demonstrated a grasp of technique that I suspect would have dropped the jaws of all but the most accomplished domestic kitchen virtuosos. In fact, excuse my cynicism, but I suspect smoke and mirrors are part of the equation here.
Were the contestants really given zero time to research their meals once the core ingredient(s) were revealed? They managed to concoct very impressive dishes most of the time, seemingly off the tops of their amateur heads, and under time constraints that would stretch the best of cooks, pro or domestic. Hmmm…
Indisputably, though, the host chefs, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, are the real deal. Friday night Masterclass has been a weekly highlight, with both chefs regularly turning out impressive-lookin’ but doable dishes that many thousands of viewers have no doubt been inspired to duplicate at home. That’s a good thing, I suppose, although readers of this blog will know that I detest poofy cheffy-looking yuppy food, and it’s disturbing to think that MasterChef might have ushered in a new era of pretentious “gourmet” home cooking. Those of us – a minority, certainly, at least until now – for whom great food and cooking have always been truly central, can only sigh and prepare for the onslaught of newly converted food wankers waxing lyrical about their kitchen expertise as the fine home food fad out-contagions swine flu. (And yeah, I know there’s no such verb as “out-contagions” – suffer me my neologisms).
But you know, now that the cake is almost baked, my sense is that we’ve been dudded. I didn’t much like Chris Badenoch – he was up himself, not to mention having eyes like a nasty mongrel – but his elimination was ludicrous. With the entrance of tent-on-heels Donna Hay as guest judge, there was an abrupt change to the criteria – flavour and presentation – that the contestants have been judged on from the start.
Her royal jawness Hay, queen of dumbed-down recipe books for the masses and “food stylist”, introduced photogenic quality and potential for recipe book sales as the principle assessment considerations. Chris was ousted because his recipes were “too brown” (apparently brown is a problematic colour in recipe photography). Frumpy tremulous housewife battler Julie, despite not even finishing her dishes, was clearly Hay’s favourite, not because of the cooking prowess she demonstrated on the night, but because she embodies family values and down-home no-nonsense cookin’ that Hay identifies with, and that will be easy to market on the back of her MasterChef story. A publisher’s wet dream, in other words.
Never mind that Badenoch has consistently been the most organised and professional of the contestants, that he has a clear vision of his future place in the food industry, that his dishes have hit the mark more often than any of his competitors…he failed a one-off “stylist” test. (Fuck me, is there anything wankier than a “food stylist”?)
Badenoch’s elimination is the most obvious demonstration that cooking talent is not the main game in MasterChef, but is only one of several such instances of goal-moving and favouritism. Was it solely on the basis of their culinary talents that the two best bits of eye candy, Justine and Poh, were given second lives out of the blue after being eliminated? And is it fair that the other contestants who had made it through to that point should not also be given second chances? Clearly not.
Poh may or may not be deserving of her place in tonight’s final on the basis of her cooking, but a question mark is hanging over her. It was blatantly obvious that none of the Caucasian judges who have raved about her mostly Malaysian-influenced food have ANY IDEA about Malaysian cuisine. One of her recent deserts, ‘Glutenous Rice Dumpling with Coconut Pandan Leaf’, received rave responses from the judges, who found the flavour combinations tantalising, exotic, unusual, creative blah blah. Well, boys, good and all as your food knowledge generally is, if you’d spent any time in Malaysia, you’d have recognised this as a stock standard run-of-the-mill Malaysian dessert.
Much of Poh’s “creativity”, in fact, is merely a matter of perception on the part of judges unfamiliar with Malaysian cuisine! They demonstrated their collective ignorance in this area on the Malaysian theme night, during which all – including celebrity guest judge Matt Moran – referred on multiple occasions to “Malay” cuisine. Fine, as long as they meant Malay…but they didn’t. They were treating Malay and Malaysian as interchangeable categories. As anyone who has spent time in Malaysia will know, the country has three basic cuisines: Malay, Chinese and Indian. And a number of regional variations (eg: Nonya). You have to wonder why Matt Moran was selected to be guest judge on the Malaysian theme night, rather than a celeb chef who knows Malaysian food – such as Cheong Liew. Liew’s presence would have guaranteed that at least one of the judges had a thorough understanding of the theme cuisine.
So, one of tonight’s finalists, Poh, may be there only because the judges attribute her with ‘creativity’ that is, in fact, merely a function of food flavour combinations and textures standard to a cuisine of which they have only the most superficial knowledge. The other, Julie, is there because she found favour with a guest celebrity “food stylist” judge who got excited about her publishing prospects and dismissed a superior rival contestant because his food was “too brown”.
A successful series, sure – a ratings coup, no less. And I acknowledge I’ve enjoyed it. But it ain’t any more ‘real’ than any ‘reality TV’ show.
I don’t care who wins. Why would you, when a show that purports to identify the best amateur cook in the country is obviously and demonstrably running to other agenda?