Our MasterChef does a poor imitation of the British
Watching people slice bread is officially the best thing since sliced bread.
According to the Daily Telegraph this week, MasterChef is “the most powerful television show in Australia”. With $100 million worth of industry around it and almost two million viewers, it has even out bigged Big Brother.
But as we mark the show’s halfway point with an oyster terrine and a joyful high-five, there’s no escaping the sad fact that our MasterChef pales in comparison to the UK version. And not just because Australian contestants are hell bent on crying their way to the title.
While the UK series is just about the cooking, Australian MasterChef is an overblown Pavlova of a show, with more product placements than a Gaga film clip.
I first came across the MasterChef concept in the UK early last year. It took just one episode of the British show and I was a fan. Admittedly, it was minus something degrees outside, dark by 4 pm and I was supposed to be studying. But as a show where everyday people put their cooking prowess to the test, it was a revelation.
In its current format, UK MasterChef is on four nights a week over eight weeks, never featuring more than six players at a time. A bit like Wimbledon for food, it eliminates contestants through heats, quarterfinals and “comebacks”, before a big finals showdown.
In no-nonsense style, the heats kick off with an invention test. Six contestants have fifty minutes to cook anything from the ingredients before them, before three are eliminated for doing indescribably bad things with chickpeas and pancetta. The remaining three are thrown into a professional kitchen to cook lunch for paying customers, before returning to the studio to whip up a two-course meal of their choice. At the end of this process, one lucky junior burger gets a place in the quarterfinals.
As the series hots up, contestants cook more courses, prepare more servings and try to keep up at even fancier restaurants around London. Occasionally they have to recreate a classic dish according to a recipe or feed a hungry battalion using army rations. But more often than not, within given parameters, the contestants decide what to cook - and no matter what, they always cook it themselves.
While judges Gregg Wallace and John Torrode chat to contestants as they cook and provide a private commentary to viewers (salmon and bourbon in a soufflé? I don’t think so!), they don’t flounce about like the stars of the show. At no point are the contestants put in a share-house or marched around like the Von Trapp family children. There is no such thing as an “immunity pin” and the only prize is the glory of winning.
In the process, over eight weeks, not only do you get a sense of what English people are making for their families and friends, you also have a pretty good idea of how the contestants cook.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, despite spending six nights a week for eight weeks (so far) with the Australian MasterChef kids, the only thing we’ve got a sense of is how they respond to whatever weird challenge the producers have come up with. We know from the website that Jimmy makes a tasty curry and Joanne digs Lebanese food, but beyond a few early challenges about childhood memories, you hardly ever see contestants cooking food according to their own ideas about it.
In fact, it seems the producers are doing their level best to hide individual interpretations, with swarms of contestants, group challenges (where some people end up waiting tables or selecting decorations instead of cooking), pairs challenges and master classes. All too often, contestants are just following recipes - be it in group challenges, like the canapé cook-off, or elimination and immunity challenges, where they fiddle around with some famous chef’s famous recipe.
With its huge prize money, faux camaraderie, team picking and random routes to elimination, Australian MasterChef is like a cross between Survivor, high school and the pokies.
It’s not surprising that Channel 10 has capitalised on the opportunity to attach bells, whistles and advertising bucks to MasterChef, but the show treats a food-loving audience like idiots. Surely if we were so interested in cooking, we wouldn’t need colour-coded aprons, “top tips” and feed-a-bogan day to tune in.
For a competition geared at raising contestant’s foodie profiles, you’d also think we’d be more inclined to buy their post-MasterChef range of marinades and mod Oz Asian fusion cookbooks if we had an inkling about what they did in the kitchen. As it is, we’re supporting or ignoring them based on the fact they wear a beanie, miss their girlfriend, are good mates with Alvin and can’t tell the difference between spearmint and mint.
When it comes to food, sunny Australia should beat pub grubby England hands down. But UK MasterChef has it all over our blockbuster spinoff. Not because of the Brits’ predilection for rabbits and gooseberries, but because it’s a cooking competition that’s actually revolves around cooking.
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