Masterchef Australia

What’s Eating You?

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I’ve become my grandmother lately. Every evening about 8.40 PM, I sit squarely in the living room, clutching on to the remote to make sure that no one else can take control of the screen. I announce often (and in irrelevant ways) to anyone who so much as passes by that I’ll be watching television from 9 PM to 10 PM. You can join me, of course, but there will be no changing the channel. Not while Masterchef Australia is on.

India’s favourite western cooking show is back along with its much loved judges, Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris. I say with confidence that no other reality cooking competition has come close to elevating cooking into an impassioned spectator sport the way Masterchef Australia has. No other cooking show boasts of the staggering talent (of both participants and guest judges) that Masterchef Australia does, either.

This season, for example, only four weeks have passed, but we’ve already seen participants come out with exorbitant desserts, beautifully plated salads, meats cooked in methods that are impossible to pronounce, and dishes that will have you questioning how they still call themselves ‘amateur’. We’ve also seen the terrifying Marco Pierre White (the youngest chef to clip three Michelin stars to his belt) take participants through challenges and bark orders at them as they sweated it out in commercial restaurant kitchens preparing bulk amounts of fine food. This week, food goddess Nigella Lawson came on to the show, sending participants, judges and the viewers into a tizzy.

The contest is designed in such a way that two participants are eliminated every week, and each time a participant comes up for elimination, there is a dramatic sit down with them where the judges ask – What does this competition mean to you? What does cooking mean to you?
While this exercise is mostly carried out for the theatrics, it really is incredible to see the raw passion in some of the contestants’ answers. This is my life, they say. I can’t see myself doing anything else. When you watch the seriousness with which the contestants approach this question, you ask yourself – Isn’t it just food?

The answer is in Netflix’s excellent documentary show, Chef’s Table. Chef’s Table traces the journey of some of the greatest modern chefs of our time, including Massimo Bottura, Grant Achatz, Magnus Nilsson, Dan Barber and Gaggan Anand. These are chefs who have changed the way food is thought of, seen, presented, and eaten. The documentary traces their beginnings, and draws the viewer into the present day where they are changing the discourse about food. The chefs themselves talk about their inspiration, the ways they drew strength when faced with failure and criticism, and what pushed them to be where they are today. The episode with Gaggan Anand in particular I found compelling for obvious reasons – I was able to understand better because of the Indian connection.

Gaggan now heads a successful restaurant named after himself in Bangkok, a restaurant that consistently has been featured in the list of the Top 50 restaurants in the world, and was named Asia’s best restaurant in 2014, which is no mean feat for a restaurant that serves Indian food, a cuisine associated with quick comfort food.

In the episode, Gaggan recalls a time when he lost his job, despite being one of the most promising chefs in the country, and found himself making and delivering food for Rs. 15 to Pizza Hut employees. He meets small success a while after, and just when you think he’s doing well, political situations push him out of business, and he loses his brother. When you’re watching it, you wonder, how did he ever manage to push himself to where he is now? When you’re pushed so hard in to the corner”, he says, “You explode”. The documentary then shifts to his triumphs, the night he won the best restaurant in Asia award, the culmination of his sweat, the overwhelming emotion in his voice when he says he’s lived a dream, and that’s when you realize, it’s never just food.


{Masterchef Australia is on Star World HD and Chef’s Table is on Netflix}

Cooking Up A Storm

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Masterchef Australia came to an end last week with a finale that was, in every way, a condensed, concentrated reflection of the entire seventh season. It was full of drama, endless close-ups of focus and perspiration on contestants’ faces, Heston Blumenthal, and of course, beautiful food. The show’s ending has left a rather large void in my week night routine, considering that for the past few months, all I’ve been doing at 9 pm is religiously sitting in front of the television watching contestants chopping, pureeing, zipping sous-vide bags and plating up food like their life depended on it.

 

Contestants of Masterchef Australia Season 7
Contestants of Masterchef Australia Season 7

 

I’ve been watching this show right from its second season, and initially, I was underwhelmed. This was a cookery competition, where they showed very little of the actual cooking. What’s more, the contestants were nice, friendly and supportive of each other, which was against everything that was sacrosanct in reality television. A week into the show, however, I was hooked. I quickly realised that this was a show which elevated cooking into an adrenaline-pumping, high intensity sport. Five seasons later, I’m still infatuated with the show. I know the challenges contestants face in preparing and seasoning lamb racks, in creating that elusive shade of pink that only belongs to the most juicy of steaks along with them, and in filleting a King Salmon in a manner that is not only efficient, but also respectful. And this, is in spite of my being a vegetarian.

Considering the fact that the show doesn’t encourage participants to get nasty with each other, the theatrics come from the hosts (and judges) George Calombaris, Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston. They zip in and out of kitchen stations, questioning contestants’ dishes, seasoning choices, and most importantly, what the title of Masterchef means to them. When the food does come to the tasting table, there are no words – just dramatic music as spoons meet plate, and indiscernible expressions before they admit, in detailed and almost poetic ways, to loving, loathing, or being on the fence about the dish in front of them.

This season was no different – George, Gary and Matt constantly spoke about the show and winning the title the same way most people would speak about the invention of Penicillin. For twelve weeks we saw amateur cooks either coming on top of, or crashing and burning while they recreated Michelin star recipes and participated in fine dining challenges with dishes whose names required French lessons to pronounce. Celebrity chefs including Marco Pierre White, who has become the resident Masterchef Boogeyman, and everyone’s favourite mad genius, Heston Blumenthal made appearances, and were given rockstar welcomes.

As it is with any reality competition, it is only when the season considerably progresses that you really start rooting for someone. When the Top 10 was announced, Reynold became an instant favourite for me, as did Billie and Matthew. Unfortunately, both Reynold and Matthew crashed out towards the end of the competition, and finally, only Billie and Georgia remained.

The finale, as expected, was brutal – and the usually calm, collected and machine-like Billie got a delayed attack of the nerves, and Georgia, who is made for prime time television and who experiences at least fifteen different varieties of panic before the hour comes to an end, powered through the first two rounds with a considerable lead. The final round, which was a vicious five hour pressure test set by Heston Blumenthal, turned the tables around as Billie tapped into her inner beast machine, and Georgia, oh Georgia, started dropping things and panicking again.

When the time came to announce the final scores, I had chewed up fingernails and had nearly dropped off my chair, and when it was confirmed that Billie was to be crowned this season’s Masterchef, I pumped my fist in the air as if it were a personal victory.

I’ve often wondered what makes this show the success that it is – Is it the format? The concept? Or is it the food? I got my answer this year, when my staunchly vegetarian mother watched a meaty dish being put together and sighed – “They’ve butchered a poor animal, but it looks delicious”.