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Masterchef cooks up fine reality trash

My wife is a food aficionada. Foxtel's all-cooking Lifestyle Food channel is, therefore, on often in my house. The programs don't generally appeal to me, although I reap the benefits at dinner time.

There is one program which we discovered, and became hooked on, together. Masterchef is the pinnacle of reality TV. I'm talking the original, UK version here. It is compelling. A taut, high-stakes cooking competition.

Competition is the key word. These are real people — amateur cooks who dream of leaving behind their ordinary careers to become professional chefs. The dream leads them through an increasingly pressurised series of challenges that put their skills to the test.

It's heat-based — small groups cook off against each other for the right to progress to the next round. The focus is on the 'sport' of cooking, so personalities rarely come into it. Nor do the acute voyeurism, the tearies and tanties, sniping and backstabbing that are the hallmarks of Big Brother and its ilk.

This is reality TV, without all that irksome reality TV crap.

Needless to say we were intrigued when we learned there was going to be an Australian version of the cult UK series. But with Masterchef Australia now bubbling towards its final weeks, our feelings have been mixed. It bears the brand, but Masterchef Australia stands little comparison to its UK predecessor.

This is the theme park version of Masterchef. It is Masterchef as imagined by the network behind Australia's Big Brother and The Biggest Loser. Its formula owes a lot to those shows. (Continues below)

Soap opera plays a big part. The contestants live together in a camera-studded dwelling, so that the personality clashes become part of the story. The tanties and tearies are there (although less so since Kate was eliminated). And the talking-head confessionals from contestants about their fellows are not always charitable.

Okay, so Channel Ten needs to think about its ratings. It's only to be expected that it will execute a formula that has proven to be a winner in the past. The problem is, in terms of being a test of excellence, Masterchef Australia is more Deal or No Deal than Eggheads.

The sudden-death challenges make for dramatic viewing, but mean that overall ability becomes subservient to luck and 'on-the-day' performance. This format has seen — among other, lesser tragedies — the exceedingly talented Justine sent home, while the middling Sam remains in the competition.

This is excellence sacrificed to entertainment. It wouldn't have happened in the UK. There, the judges take into account contestants' performance throughout the competition. Eliminations are not based solely on recent troughs and triumphs. Those who have shown consistent excellence, stay. Those who have erred too often, or have failed to improve despite the judges' feedback, get the boot.

Still, Masterchef Australia is not all bad. Its judges, chefs George and Gary and food critic Matt, have gradually found the balance between offering judicious criticism, and mentorial wisdom. George and Gary have almost mastered the 'strict but cuddly' aura and easy, matey chemistry of their UK equivalents, John and Gregg.

Sniping about 'reality trash' aside, there is something to be said for the series' emphasis on personalities. Of course, the character arcs are manufactured. It's debatable how much the edited, on-screen character reflects the flesh-and-blood human being.

With that caveat, it must be said that the show has exceeded at surprising, and thus engaging, the viewer with its portrayal of different contestants. Justine emerged from among louder, bolder personalities to become arguably the most self-assured and gifted chef in the competition.

Dark horse Andre has also come out of his shell. Following a streak of top-notch dishes he began to display a more relaxed air. This week, when stirred by the judges about his previous reticence, Andre retorted: 'I'm not here for all the hoorah TV bullshit'. With Justine out of competition, at that moment Andre became my favourite contestant.

Then there's Chris. The tattooed, slightly dirty-looking 41-year-old seems to exude arrogance. But he can cook. That pig's head he dished up on Monday night had my saliva glands burbling. When George told Chris 'That's you on a plate', I'm sure he was referring to the skill and passion that went into this sublime piece of cooking, and not to imply that Chris was a pig.

Perhaps Chris' arrogance is actually justified self-confidence. 'Chefs need to be arrogant,' my wife says, referring to the personality traits required to excel in the high-pressured, strictly hierarchal environment of a pro kitchen. If that's true, Chris is a shoe-in to become Australia's first Masterchef.

Unless he has an off-day during one of the sudden-death challenges.

Post script: Last night, Justine and two other eliminated contestants were readmitted to the competition as wild card selections by the judges. A tacit admission by the producers of the faults of their own system? Perhaps. Still, a good result for all the Justine fans out there — my wife and me included.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue

Topic tags: masterchef australia, gary, george, matt preston, gregg wallace, john torrode, justine, chris, julie, andre, s



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Existing comments

What a thought-provoking article. I too am a fan of 'Master chef goes large' having seen it in both the UK and NZ.

The first few episodes of 'Master chef Australia' had me making judgmental comparisons, especially regarding the form of elimination. (SO American!) I still don't like the way it is executed - but hey! even chefs have to fire people at times and need to find the best, least emotive, way of doing it.

But now? I really enjoy the Australian experience.I think the live-in style will actually assist their collegiality in years to come - something they probably don't realise yet. Well, how could they?

Now to the contestants. Yes, Justine is good, very good. But then so is the finalist Julia. Lucas? Don't know. Sam? eliminated today, hopefully - how he's lasted so long beats me. Julie will succeed with her dream if she wins or not. Poh? Oh Poh! Tom and Andre? Still a lot to learn, especially Andre - that is my opinion, anyway.

Oh, then there's Chris. He knows where he is going; has enough new recipes up his sleeve to begin a book; has the vision for his restaurant already firing. My vote's on him.

And as for this constant comparing with 'The British Version' - let's get over it! Mother England has died. Her kids have grown up (hopefully) and we do things differently over here.

Janet Marsh | 02 July 2009  

Finally thank you Tim! Someone like myself who was hooked on the original UK classic and was slightly miffed by the Aussie version. That said, I still occasionally watch the Aussie version but if there is a hint of the original UK version on the food channel or indeed a mini marathon I have no qualms about switching over !!

Emma Lamont | 02 July 2009  

Tim, you are too harsh on MasterChef Australia. I think it is way less soapy than you seem to think. Seeing someone brush their teeth or eat a meal isn't very Big Brother-esque to me. And Chris rocks! I think it is self belief, and justified. Would love to see Justine, Chris or Lucas win the title.
Cheers, Annette

Annette Hill | 07 July 2009  

This is a bit like comparing mash made out of a packet and full fat cream: the Australian version of Masterchef keeps me sated.

The Australian version is far and away the better version, and here's why: not only do you get the intensity of the competition, but through the trials, you get to dissect the components of meals which we all enjoy; there's the straight forward tutorials on making anything from fairy cakes to dinner party meals; and finally, the production values and planning of the show, is superb. I lived in the UK and was a fan of the British version, but I'll bet the Brits end up modifying the next series, with some of the Australian formula.

Floo Krov | 11 July 2009  

I have been watching this show here in NZ. I just love the UK Masterchef, and HATE the Australian soapy crap. The format is so so wrong and I am sure there would of been a different outcome had they not had contestants voting out their peers. Also the judges were very favouring of some. Hated it.

Dianne | 30 November 2009  

Australian Masterchef is awful soapy crap. UK masterchef kicks its butt! That overweight one with the scarf/caraffe sniffing and chowing down also makes me sick... I will give this next series a go though, I'm a fan of Marco Pierre White's tutelage.

fastpoose | 01 January 2013  

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