Hunger games

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on March 16, 2018 Published on March 16, 2018
Keep it simple: Since it has no “villains” Masterchef Australia manages to capture the “evolution” of each
contestant from amateur to pro

Keep it simple: Since it has no “villains” Masterchef Australia manages to capture the “evolution” of each contestant from amateur to pro

Cooking competitions on TV are deliberately designed as nightmares — a far cry from restaurant kitchens where careful, organised crews work in harmony

The recipe for reality TV cooking is standard: take a cast of good cooks with compelling personalities, some nervy, some unflappable, some underdogs, some overconfident alpha males, some stubborn teenagers. Lock them away from the outside world and have them perform impossible tasks in increasingly short amounts of time, and voila!

If how-to-cook programmes show you a dream kitchen, an idyll of organised jars, perfect produce, cooperative ovens, and Nigella Lawson’s soothing voice, cooking competitions are deliberately engineered as nightmares. The idea seems to be that restaurant kitchens are a kind of Kitchen Confidential inferno of swearing, machismo and bodily harm, and that any competitor who can survive the producers’ inane challenges can survive those too.

The contestants are all good cooks, especially the professionals. But give them only 15 minutes and force them to cook with one hand, using toy utensils, outside in the snow, and they implode. The format is designed to incite chaos and confrontation. But food cooked in panic isn’t necessarily better.

Restaurant kitchens are hectic, hot, sweaty and high-stress, of course. But imagining a restaurant as a constant string of plot twists (“Surprise! You can only cook with one hand and no pots!”) is a disservice to careful, organised kitchen crews, who work as teams without anyone throwing knives or calling names.

On the shows for pros, contestants duke it out over champagne beurre blanc, smoked pine needles and oxtail relish, and everything is topped with microgreens. Iron Chef’s cast treat the show like a gladiator contest. Hell’s Kitchen is 50 per cent Gordon Ramsay shouting and 50 per cent contestants crying. I’m emotionally invested in all of them, and watch while warbling commentary like an Olympics presenter.

Meanwhile, Top Chef US usually casts a classic reality TV cocktail of colourful loudmouths, villains, and people with God complexes that apparently populate restaurant kitchens. Contestants squabble, steal pea purée, and make each other cry. Still, it’s an excellent show with informed, funny judges. Not to mention the delightful, inscrutable face of presenter Padma Lakshmi desperately trying to segue to the next round: “This next challenge will be child’s play”, or “You’ll have to bring a can-do attitude.” Strangely, Season 15 forgot to cast villains, and so the cast became friends, bonding over their anti-snoring devices, throwing each other baby showers, and talking about how much they love one another.

They’d probably been watching the UK’s breakout hit The Great British Bake-Off (GBBO). A snuggly blanket of a TV show, at least in its early seasons, GBBO is helmed by presenters Mel and Sue, the innuendo-dropping Mary Berry and picky Paul Hollywood, and takes place in a sort of village fête’s tea tent. The bakers themselves could front a Disney film, no questions asked. (Season 1’s Mark Withers, a lovable Welsh bus driver whose cakes were “the talk of the depot”, and who broke into tears when his marmalade tea loaf sank in the middle, will have my heart forever.)

Masterchef Australia goes in for the same huggable breed of characters. The judges radiate a sort of cuddly omniscience; the contestants clap each other on and weep when anyone is thrown off.

I can only attribute this to their lifelong proximity to koalas, because Masterchef’s versions in other countries are very different. Masterchef India, for instance, looks like the Filmfare Awards, with Bollywood stars and booming sound effects. The show’s lowest point was probably the all-vegetarian Season 4: a silly idea that excludes the cuisines whose star dishes involves meat and the 71 per cent of Indians who eat them.

Meanwhile, Masterchef US Junior intimidates children barely old enough to hold a spoon into cooking complicated meals. And it’s not just cheese-toast either; the fledgling geniuses cook scallops with garlic custard and pheasant à l’orange with pistachio. Even Ramsay is powerless before them, turning from the sarcastic ogre of Hell’s Kitchen to an old softy who lets the tykes test meringues on his head.

So I stick to the down-under version, even if they have a maddening habit of all saying the same things: “This is my food dream”, “I want to hero this ingredient” and “I’m just praying that my dessert has enough time to set in the blast chiller”. (This last is usually the harbinger of doom.)

What it gets right is the “evolution” of each contestant from amateur to pro. Since it has no villains, it focuses on this progress over the 60-episode run, showing us how the home cooks struggle, triumph, fail, and learn (by reading and doing, mostly).

But the show is a victim of its own success: the line between a home cook and a chef with dozens of tools and techniques at their disposal is barely there. Contestants come in already trained, and so their fumbles are less lovable, and less relatable. Masterchef Australia is starting to look like Top Chef Masters, which is a show where industry veterans compete for charity and bore us to death in the process. No one wants to see experts expertly experting, with nothing to lose. We want to see people like us, who sometimes forget to put the carrots in the carrot salad and sometimes burn the toast, triumph.



Naintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer based in New Delhi; @naintaramaya

Published on March 16, 2018
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