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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Oh, how I hate Masterchef!

 Let me count the ways…

I’ve always been a fan of food shows on television. There is something infinitely comforting about sitting down for half an hour or so and watching someone cook a lovely meal on the telly. You can lose yourself in the colour of the ingredients, the gleam of the kitchen utensils, and the expertise of the TV cook. Everything comes together seamlessly as she – yes, I know you’re visualizing Nigella Lawson now, as one does – peels and chops, roasts and fries, and then serves up a delicious spread to friends and family. You can almost taste the roast lamb and potatoes, hear the satisfying crunch as a crab claw gives up its succulent meat, and smell the vanilla scent rising from the bread-and-butter pudding. It’s a food feast for all your senses, even if it’s one step removed from reality.

And then, there’s the Anthony Bourdain school of food telly. Here, you get taken to one exotic location after another, shown the kinds of dishes that you’ve never ever seen, heard of, or even dared to imagine. You go from the street food of Bangkok to the tapas bars of Barcelona, from the backwaters of Kerala to the sushi bars of Tokyo, from the brassieres of rural France to the gritty streets of New York’s Chinatown. And you get a vicarious taste of the world, thanks to your intrepid host, as you watch open-mouthed from your couch.

In shows like these, it is the dishes that are centre-stage, the meals which are the stars of the show, and the entire point of the exercise is to appreciate food in all its infinite variety. The hosts are just there to tease out the flavours, the colours and the aromas, and of course, to eat on our behalf. What’s not to love?

And then, there are shows like Masterchef, which take food in all its life-affirming glory and transform it into an instrument of mental torture; which take the art of cooking and suck all the joy out of it so that rather than being an act of nurture it turns into an exercise in humiliation. What Masterchef does, one cook-off at a time, is snatch away all the pleasure that you derive from feeding others, leaving gut-wrenching anxiety in its wake. It is less a food show or even a cooking contest and more a gladiatorial smackdown in which only one winner will be left standing in a field of cooking casualties. Seriously, what’s not to hate?

Food should be infused with the love you cook it with, not contaminated by tension and stress. It should be served up with smiles of pleasure, not with a side order of the tears you shed because you feared elimination from a competition. And it certainly shouldn’t lead to ritual humiliation if you don’t hit exactly the right spot.

As if this was not enough, there’s the generous lashings of emotional manipulation thrown into the mix. Nearly every participant has a hard luck story: there’s the single mother cooking on a budget for her daughter; the recent immigrant who can only rely on his culinary skills to get ahead; and thus it goes.

I am sure that all of them are very worthy people who deserve to make it big. But, to tell the truth, I am not terribly interested in their backstories. And all that hyperventilating about how nervous they are in a professional kitchen and how scared they are of elimination: frankly, it leaves me cold. When I tune in to see a food show, I’d like it to be about the food, thank you very much.

Ah, the food! There is something soul-destroying about the poncy little plates that are served up to the judges, weighed down as they are by gimmickry and artifice. Give me a good, honest dish any day, with clean flavours, fresh ingredients simply cooked, and served up with the minimum of fuss. Instead, we get ten kinds of fiddly garnishes, complicated sauces, all of it peppered by pretension.

And that’s before we even get on to the ‘experts’ on the panel. There is something risible about such chefs as Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White lecturing the participants about calmness and communication in the kitchen. These are men who have built their reputations on their abusive behavior in their own kitchens. During their careers, they have turned the air blue in every kitchen they ever worked in, with their extensive vocabulary of four-letter words. They have turned bullying into a fine art. Their kitchens are hothouses of tension, stress and full-on fear. And then, they turn up on our TV screens, holding forth on the virtues of ‘calm’. Give me a break.

But leaving everything else aside, you know what is the saddest thing of Masterchef? It’s the fact that it makes cooking appear stressful and scary rather than fun and relaxing. Watching the participants fret and fume, or go into full-on meltdown mode, doesn’t really inspire us to get cooking. And that, at the end of the day, is the real pity.


Anonymous said...

I struggle to find any objectivity in your blog post. The food you eat in a restaurant, sitting and smiling with the people you love, is made by someone sweating it out in the tension of the kitchen. And as someone who loves cooking, I can tell you that there is immense pleasure in seeing people enjoy your food even if the process of cooking it has taken the life out of you. And I speak from personal experience.

As for emotional manipulation, I hoped that you would understand that there are times when the only reason for people to do things is not because they possess the talent to do it. Motivation often comes from emotional injury. I will actually use an example from Masterchef to prove my point. This lady, Amina, was suffering from post natal depression and cooking got her out of it. The fact that we, as cooks (if I may call myself one) get through bad times because of cooking brings tears to our eyes. And excuse us if it offends you.

In addition to that, I think you redefined Masterchef to suit yourself. Masterchef is not just a cooking show. It is a reality show. It is a lot to do with the journey of the contestants with the food they cook.

Finally, cooking is stressful. It is. And even if you go into "full-on meltdown mode", it is highly rewarding, and it leaves those who cook it with the most amazing feeling.

Clifford said...

Hey Seema, have you watched TV show 'The Taste'? It had a slightly better format than the other cooking shows; the judges had to 'blind taste' the food prepared by the contestants. So, the premise of the show was ultimately the 'taste' of the food (not the shenanigans of the contestants or judges).

The show featured Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre, and Marcus Samuelsson as judges. Unfortunately, ABC cancelled the show due to the poor ratings it received; I guess there was no drama like Ramsay's show. You can still watch the episodes on TLC though.


Manoj N said...

I beg to differ on this. Historically speaking, food shows have all been about guiding the viewers on experimenting with new cooking styles and acquainting them with new cuisines. Much as you would want to believe that the purpose of food shows is to inspire us to cook, I'm of the opinion that for most people the 'entertainment-quotient' far outweighs any such aspirations that one might choose to imbibe. I would go so far as to say that to watch the participants go through the motions--groans, grunts, mumblings, rumblings, et al--is truly delightful to watch.
There was a time earlier when all that I was concerned about was getting the ingredient mix right and making my food visually appetizing as well. But then suddenly came this show whose main protagonist is shown standing with a knife that flies in from somewhere to land on to the table next to him, and it makes me wonder--is this going to be about cutting lessons or what! I was mistaken; nonetheless, it was enjoyable to watch Mr Ramsay go about turning around failing restaurants in an unflinching fashion.
To put it simply, however much a show may deviate from our preconceived notions about how a food show ought to be, it has to be borne in mind that shows like Masterchef and Kitchen Nightmares have an undeniable charm attributable to the entertainment value that it affords more than anything else, and hey, who says it's about the food after all!

The knife said...

I must confess that I like Masterchef Australia and find a decent amount of focus on food there

Anonymous said...

I completely diagree with what you have written in your blogpost... Forget about cooking... tell me one thing in life that is not a competition or stressfull? Like you have mentioned even those professional chef put pressure in the kitchen in real life... then masterchef is a perfect stage for getting ready for real life challange. You go eat at a resturant and 30 mins your food doesnt come and you will be screaming all over the place. Masterchef Australia has bought in a lot of technique, a healthy positive competition and a very good reality show.

Anonymous said...

MasterChef is a great show.... Not only are there great dishes put up, but also the challenges are truly enjoyable to watch. It is definitely fun to watch amateur chefs make food by this sort of industrial perfection and watching them evolve through the show is an inspiration for not just inspiring chefs, but anyone in general. There is no denying that it is a house of stress and hyperventilation, but to anyone who has achieved anything in life, it is only remniscient of what greatness takes from you. Moreover, people from all walks of life follow their dream of cooking, get great at it, have lifelong memories and produce truly spectacular food. What's to hate?