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.