March 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Cannibal cookery

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Channel 7’s ‘My Kitchen Rules’

Dinner was a large bowl of freshly picked, steamed butter beans with a smidgen of olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. Still hungry, but later, a shared fried cheese sandwich (good cheese, good bread) sufficed, and much later still, a bowl of mulberries, picked in the morning, and spoonfuls of yoghurt. After all, this is home, not a restaurant.

The pairs of contestants in Channel 7’s second series of My Kitchen Rules (MKR) are asked to make an “instant restaurant” in their homes. Each three-course meal is assessed by fellow contestants and the judges, Manu Feildel and Pete Evans. If our slow, simple dinner was to be judged by the standards of MKR, I reckon we would have scored sweet zero – no meat, no fish, no painstakingly careful plating, and no apparent cooking skills.

Contradictions abound in the show’s rules, not least the exclusion of any preparation before the three-hour cooking countdown begins. I would have cheated. Restaurants depend on calmly completed mise-en-place (the preparation of ingredients before cooking), and on something approaching military precision – on testing again and again before deeming a dish ready for the dining room, on working out how to produce exactly the same plate of food every time for every diner. Many of the contesting pairs vowed they had not tried beforehand one of the three courses they presented.

With the odd exception to the rule – for it was a rule, something the directors surely asked for – preparation in the MKR kitchens is characterised by chaos and hysteria (failed meringues, undercooked lamb, lost or forgotten ingredients) and the pressure of a large digital clock, glowering over the cooks in their logo-heavy aprons (they have already shopped with their MKR bags and chopped with their MKR knives). If Network Ten’s Masterchef made no bones about its demand for restaurant food produced by amateurs against a clock and in a slick space with a gallery to make it spectator sport as well, then MKR builds on this influence by making a fetish of incompetence and last-minute chaos. “Time’s not working as it usually does,” said Artie as his ‘tower’ of two scallops toppled.

But the puzzling, even incredible, premise at the core of the series is that we should want to turn our homes into “instant restaurants”, cooking for guests but not eating with them. Kane, a professional tennis umpire, and his housemate, Lee – “in fashion” – transformed their dining room into a restaurant called Masquerade, produced a first course that one judge declared inedible, made up ground with their fish, stumped most of the competing guests with the dessert, then slumped in their kitchen in despair at their own incompetence. “We’re good home cooks,” said Kane, “but it was just too tough for us.”

While a plethora of lauded professionals host series celebrating fresh produce and a return to simplicity (chefs such as Rick Stein making hay of peasants, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall mashing wild elderflowers into wine, René Redzepi of Denmark touring Indigenous land in the Flinders Ranges), the MKR contestants seem not to share a productive garden between them in their mostly outer-suburban homes.

There’s so much kissing in MKR – kisses between the pairs of cooks (only if they’re different sexes); kisses to greet the female fellow-contestants; kisses for the judges from the female cooks; kisses of farewell until next dinner, next city, next episode; kissing that is a cover for lack of words but also a sign of camaraderie, which any competition brings with it. Mel and James, kissing, announce they “could get tens”. Mel has been called the “Tassie tiger” by another contestant. She often deems a dish “not good enough for a competition”; often bites, never praises. One judge says he has great expectations for her and, of course, we’re hooked for the next episode, in which she and James score 75 out of 110 despite soggy noodles and overcooked King Island eye fillet. “I’m embarrassed,” says Mel, and she has our sympathy now. There’s something cannibalistic about food television series in which people offer themselves up for slaughter. Why did these ‘ordinary’ people (we’re told they are in the voice-over) sacrifice themselves?

Personal stories might have partly rescued MKR from the torturous repetition of banal commentary and critique, from trumped-up kitchen chaos. Every word to camera at the table is a judgement (is this why we eat together?), and all we really know of the contestants is that they advertise self-belief and high hopes – and that they are always partly dashed to allow for photogenic dejection.

This is the crux of my criticism of television cookery programs such as My Kitchen Rules. Cookery is manipulated towards competition and tortured plating. This kind of television is turning cooking – something we do to survive as pleasurably as might be possible, some better than others – into a contest. Make a sport of it, turn it into harmless, competitive fun, and more people will become interested in food? Surely, the subliminal connection to hierarchy, to competitive jubilation or shame, taints any spark of interest. The insistence on ‘restaurant’ food, the profoundly conservative idea of it being different to home-cooking, does little to further the undeniable satisfaction of something like a large bowl of beans. Life may be a sport and a pastime, as the Koran says, but a food program that includes pressing issues such as food security and climate change wouldn’t go amiss.

And the judges? Feildel and Evans are men of few words and stock phrases – puppets on the strings of their contracts, praising ridiculous plating. French Feildel predictably comments on salt, his love of butter, and “sexy” food. The two act out a version of gladiatorial do-or-die theatre aped from the original Iron Chef, which – give it its due – seemed always to be laughing at itself as well as presenting remarkable, professional culinary accomplishment.

Given the script, this wouldn’t have been possible, but how giddily subversive it would be to see one pair of contestants open the door to their home and, instead of trucking in sand or mounting garish ornaments to make a ‘themed’ restaurant (one of MKRs rules), announce that this was a home, that they always served large plates of food to be shared and that, yes, those two extra chairs were for themselves.

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

March 2011