November 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Masterchef

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It is like a sixteenth-century court: royal, papal, judicial – take your pick. The court makes its own rules and makes sure, by its self-designated pomposity and paternalism, that its power is never in doubt, that there will be no surprises, no rebellion. There is no jury, unless you count the millions they say watch its play on television.

The physical court is a cavernous pastiche of intimidatory space, despite its being nothing more than emptiness and preparation benches of gleaming stainless-steel approximations of commercial kitchens; a place contrived for the domestic wannabes to prove their allegiance to the court’s rule. There’s a spectators’ gallery, but no jeering – if there is to be any of this, it is left to the jury of unseen viewers.

The court, as represented by its three rulers, depends on cameras to provide false gravitas. One ruler intermittently advertises kitchen paper towel with as much hauteur as he delivers his verdicts on dishes. Another is grammatically challenged (“Make sure you plate it up absolutely sexy”, “I want the recipe off you”). The third seems slightly distanced, less sure of his role – a little embarrassed, perhaps – and for this we allow him credibility.

It’s hard to know what tone to take in commenting on the Channel Ten phenomenon called Masterchef, now in its second life as Celebrity Masterchef. Do you treat it as flotsam and keep your tone light or allow yourself to be exercised by its premise, its excesses and its doubletalk, and so fight back? I watched two episodes of the first series and recently watched one episode of Celebrity Masterchef. This isn’t like skimming Proust and declaring you have him under your belt; you don’t need to stay glued to the screen in order to understand it.

Like most television shows, Masterchef and its offspring are first and foremost entertainments devised around the advertisements that will pay for them. When Henry VIII acted upon Thomas Cromwell’s advice and declared himself head of the English church in the sixteenth century, he began to finance the court by diverting money from monasteries. The contemporary court of Masterchef – which purports to celebrate fine produce, culinary skill and the art of thinking on one’s feet – is funded by one of the two major supermarket chains, a brand of kitchen paper towel and McDonald’s.

The aspiration behind the title is so absurd that you can only picture the cynics in the boardroom chortling as they proposed it, liking it for its megalomaniacal reach. As an entertainment, Masterchef has an edge because it is a competition, a sport; not any old gladiatorial sport, but culinary gladiatorial sport – a home-grown version of Japan’s Iron Chef. Yet Iron Chef beguiles with the dazzling craft skills its competitors display, giving us something authentically thrilling to watch.

Turning cookery into sport made mincemeat of some of the first contestants on Masterchef. I remember the exact moment when it became unwatchable. One judge stared down the contestants and said, “Make us say ‘yum’ or we’ll show you the door,” and the camera obediently panned to doors that might once have done for the Tower of London. The series teeters between bogus threats, humiliation (“Honestly, it looks like spew”) and patronising encouragement.

In the episode of Celebrity Masterchef I watched, a woman cooked lamb cutlets with Moroccan spices and suitable accompaniments. She stacked the three cutlets on top of each other at semi-rakish angles and then dribbled something extra on the plate. The panjandrum declared the dish “very chefy” and, peering over his paper-towel cravat, he said to the cook, “You have an artist’s eye. Beautiful.”

In the final episode of Masterchef, the winner – a tearful keeper of hearts, a lamb for future slaughter – plated her final dish and it was judged to be perfect. Deliberate skid marks of celeriac purée had been smeared across the plate. She sees in her future an honest, warm, friendly restaurant with honest, warm, friendly food, yet she won by paying sedulous attention to “chefy” plating. The runner-up plated Hainanese chicken rice as though it were an interior decoration. She had prepared one of the world’s great, yet simplest dishes with such skill and cultural authenticity that you vowed she would win, until she lined a bowl with limp Chinese cabbage (although limp cabbage received praise).

The aestheticisation of food has a long and interesting history, always linked with luxury and decadence. Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, argued that because the ruling elite owned the empire’s wealth, they became attached to luxury and so lost their ability to understand the lives of ordinary people. Thomas Love Peacock, writing about the famous feast of Trimalchio, makes a connection between the decline of the Roman Empire and the status of cooks. And Michael Carter, in a paper he gave at the Aesthetics of Food Conference in 1998, wrote:

A rise in the esteem in which cooks and cooking are held is not in itself fatal. It is the aestheticization of culinary activities that opens the gate to decadence, since it is the aspiration to art which subordinates the nutritional role of food to the demands of spectacle, performance and transgression.

The contestants who vied for the title of Masterchef were not asked to prove themselves mastercook, masterforager, masterprovidore or mastereconomist. I am not suggesting that the court disguised its criteria. What is worrying is that the huge audience held in sway by the program watched people they could easily relate to aspiring to cook like chefs, slavishly producing pictures on plates. The strategies most of us employ in dealing with our lives, and in particular with our culinary lives, are by default demeaned by the aspirations which form the premise of Masterchef.

Restaurant food makes up only a tiny percentage of food consumed in this country. Television’s endless parade of food programs gain audience in inverse proportion to the number of people who handle real food and cook good meals. If it were my court, and I were Alice’s queen, I’d say of the Masterchef judges, “Off with their heads.”

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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