Masterchef Mindbender

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 7th June 2011.

Are you a reality TV fan? Are you addicted to watching a bunch of starving, bickering Americans on a tropical island? Perhaps following pairs of bickering Americans race around the globe floats your boat? Or maybe you prefer something a little more home grown?

Masterchef has become a ratings phenomenon and made stars out of its contestants and judges. With spinoff cookbooks and merchandise, product endorsements and personal appearances, the show has become a cultural and marketing juggernaut. It’s changed my life. I wouldn’t know how to spell croquembouche if not for Masterchef. I also now know that I shouldn’t cook the bait.

On the surface, Masterchef is a show about cooking, personal triumph and caramelised stuff. It’s about real people doing a real life activity that most of us have to do everyday, albeit a little better. However, I think Masterchef is the most unreal show on TV, far more complicated than any episodic drama or sci-fi series.

Think about this. You’re watching a standard episode of Masterchef. You’re witnessing a contestant baking a cuttlefish or perhaps something more exotic. The next moment, the same contestant is speaking in an interview about their thoughts and motivations in real time. Wait a minute. How can the same person be in two places at once? They’re living and reflecting on the same moment simultaneously. It’s an instant director’s commentary.

Compare this to a documentary. In this format, you might see footage of a subject doing whatever, let’s say, protesting for the rights of cuttlefish. Then you’d cut to an interview with the subject, speaking about the cuttlefish protest in the past tense. They know the outcome of the protest and any future developments. And they acknowledge it.

On Masterchef, the contestant doesn’t appear to know what happens next. You see them burn the cuttlefish, they speak about the stress of burning the cuttlefish but they don’t then say, “Actually, it all worked out in the end because I won anyway as George liked my cuttlefish flambé.” It’s like a good (or bad, your choice) Star Trek episode about parallel universes.

OK, so I understand that this is not actually the case. Obviously the Masterchef production team must grab the contestants from time to time, or perhaps at the end of the day, to watch footage of the day’s events and then reflect on them, without giving away the outcomes. Clearly there must be some very switched on production assistants who observe everyone and everything, taking notes on who would be the most interesting contestant or contestants to interview and follow, storyline wise, for that particular episode.

A single episode of Masterchef is a masterpiece (no pun intended) of editing. Footage from the past in the kitchen is spliced together with interview footage, also from the past, to produce an episode that to the audience appears to be in the present but as a whole, is also from the past considering that it is pre-recorded weeks in advance. The cuttlefish that was baked tonight and interviewed about it at the same time, was actually baked and eliminated weeks ago. This is more mind blowing than an episode of Lost.

And let’s not even mention the insertion of that annoying explosion that happens just before every mystery box reveal, decision or cuttlefish dissection. The winner is…whoosh! The mystery ingredient is…whoosh! I think Matt Preston just accidentally ate someone. Oh no, it’s…whoosh!

So ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as you’re enjoying your favourite reality show about bickering contestants, remember that what you’re watching is a feat of editing genius and is possibly more unreal than any work of fiction.

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Junior Masterchef: kids in the kitchen

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 14th September.

Sunday night saw the debut of Junior Masterchef, a retread of the successful Masterchef format, but this time with kids. I must admit to becoming addicted to the original series. Whilst I have never really enjoyed cooking programs, there was something special about the show that really hooked me in.

I guess we all have to eat, so watching delicious and beautifully presented food being prepared and served is something we can all appreciate. However, I think it was the human drama that really attracted me. Witnessing regular folk undertake and (mostly) overcome challenges had real appeal. And the art of cooking is something that we all can improve on in some way, so it is something that is easy to relate to, unlike shows such as Survivor which sees the contestants face ridiculous tasks and challenges.

I must admit though, I avoided the second season of Masterchef. I just wasn’t prepared to commit to six nights a week of viewing for months on end. That was going to require far more dedication than I was prepared to give (again). Of course, that would be a different story if we were talking about whacky Japanese game shows or wrestling.

The first episode of Junior Masterchef saw a bunch of kids cook up an array of totally amazing dishes. The quality of the cooking was surprising but what totally shocked me was how confident and ambitious these young people were. I am sure that kids weren’t like this when I was growing up.

Back in the eighties, when I was the same age as the Masterchef kids, I certainly didn’t have any plans to open up my own restaurant as soon as I turned eighteen. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I got older. Actually, I did, I wanted to be Batman.

There’s also no way that I would’ve been able to sit in front of a camera and speak as eloquently about food as the aspiring kiddie cooks did.  I’m almost certain that if placed in a similar situation, my twelve year old self would’ve scratched himself and mumbled something about liking Space Food Sticks.

I’m also sure kids weren’t as self-assured back then. In fact, the only super confident kids I knew were the school bully and the Young Talent Team (and they were robots).

At the age of twelve, my cooking abilities extended to grilling fish fingers and heating up frozen pizzas in the oven. I barely knew how to make two minute noodles in four minutes. And let’s not mention the time I put the frozen pizza, complete with plastic tray, in the oven for twenty minutes.

The Junior Masterchef kitchen was set in the same warehouse-like concrete and steel cavern as previous series. The main difference was that the cooking stations were tiny, as if the kitchen renovations were done by Fisher Price. The kids were also given red plastic knives instead of metal ones.  Whilst it was probably a wise idea to give the kids safe sharps, did they forget about the hot ovens, frying oil and boiling water?

Junior Masterchef airs once a week so will be ideal for those of us that think a little cravat goes a long way. Hearing the words “caramelise” and “reduction” each week will give me a sense of comfort, even if I have no idea what they mean. The kids will probably become less cute and more annoying over the season, but I guess there will be lots of gorgeous food to ogle.

Although you probably shouldn’t be allowed to make a crockenbush unless you can spell it and be taller than one, I’m sure plenty of us will get hooked by Junior Masterchef.

Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 09:17  Leave a Comment  
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