Monday, 26 December 2011

Masterchef Australia: Hardcore TV Investment

When trailers for upcoming series’ of Masterchef begin running on the BBC, some of the finest displays of celebratory armchair dancing can be seen through my living room window. I will always hold dear the way John Torode elongates his vowels, models a roll neck cardigan and drowns his eyeballs in tears the moment an amateur chef displays the tiniest flicker of culinary genius. Gregg Wallace, who I imagine gives the warmest hugs this side of Tom Kerridge, should be knighted for his services to enthusiastic face filling.  Even the most recent series, set aside for kitchen professionals and chaperoned by Michel Roux Jr, left me giddy as a cold-smoked kipper come the finale.

There is, however, a TV cooking contest that noisettes my beurre to a far nuttier state than John, Gregg and Michel’s manifestations of Masterchef, and that’s their Australian namesake. I found it through sheer serendipity during the first series. A friend happened to settle on it while we surfed the channels late one Saturday night, hoping for something a little more interesting than Match of the Day. It just so happened that this particular episode featured an especially chiseled and unknown (to us) creature named Curtis Stone. While my pal sat there rhythmically panting and falling head over heels for Curtis’s multi-tonal blonde highlights, I did the same for the show.  Said friend didn’t have the energy to last beyond the first series, but my love has been steadfast throughout the first, second and third outings. If Masterchef UK is an enthralling but brief love affair, Masterchef Australia is a committed relationship in the ‘meet the parents’ stage. I’ve introduced my dad to it. They get along very well. 

Masterchef Australia requires an abundance of stamina. It runs six episodes per week over a three month period. This is a hardcore TV investment, but it pays dividends. There are obvious fascinations that arise from being a foreign viewer. For example, it still sticks in my mind that the contestants tackled various complicated Asian themed challenges without breaking a sweat, then went on to grab at their cheeks in horror when asked to cook a Spanish inspired meal. My reactions to each would be quite the reverse. But Masterchef Australia is far more than a lesson in geography for me. 

The judges are so deliciously honest that when praise is bestowed upon the trembling contestants, it truly has been earned. And there is no dilly-dallying over making a decision on winners and losers.  Very rarely does anyone escape elimination because there isn’t even an ice cream wafer between them. They make difficult decisions regardless of whose heart they break. Once you’ve put in as many viewing hours as I have, you acquire the ability to predict the judges’ reactions based on their body language. 

When top chef Gary Mehigan turns his spoon around and slowly draws it out of his mouth in a downward movement, that’s very good indeed. George Calombaris, Mehigan’s former protégé, has a special talent for channelling the power of a thousand puppies and shooting lacklustre meals a look of such disappointed sorrow, his eyes would have you believe that not even his mum’s cooking could mend his broken heart. Floating judge Matt Moran is consistently the perfect combination of an encouraging arm around the shoulder and the steely constitution of a lauded chef with terrifyingly high standards. How this man doesn’t have his own show is beyond me. I adore the masterclasses where he gets to cook. 

Last but not least there is food critic Matt Preston. The only man alive who can get away with wearing suits and cravats in various clashing shades of sorbet because there just isn’t anyone brave enough to call him out on it. More used to delivering scathing critique than his cooking colleagues, some of the show’s most tantalising moments have been when Mr. Preston frames his chin with his thumb and index finger on tasting, not giving any indication as to whether his pout means the meal is the best or worst he’s ever eaten. I’m sometimes tempted to pause the TV at that moment and take bets on the outcome. This is, after all, a man who once smashed a whole plate of food on the floor because it was so incredibly good he didn’t want to share it with the other judges. His unpredictability is an impossibly alluring trait.

Beyond the appeal of the judges, Masterchef Australia oozes quality. The show, of course, has a budget. And yet you wouldn’t know it. I regularly find myself marvelling at the amount of money they must spend. No chef or guest is too famous or decorated to be flown in from around the world. Even the Dalai Lama allowed himself to be fed by the contestants during this last series, with unsurprisingly emotional results. No exotic destination is too distant to visit. During series three the contestants spent a week cooking at spectacular locations in New York City, including catering a canapé dinner for dignitaries at the UN.  Every episode is packed with so much fantastically fresh and abundant produce I often wish I could reach in and steal some of the finest slabs of meat and fish I’ve ever seen. The tuna alone is worth tuning in for. 

You don’t have to spend a fortune on a television programme to make it work if the format is great. But in this case, the obviously ample funding makes the viewing experience feel even more sumptuous. The winner of Masterchef UK doesn’t win a cash prize, they simply take home the honour of winning and a heightened public profile. Masterchef Australia winners earn $100,000 and a book deal on top of the prestige. Even though I was excited by them at first, I’m not entirely sure attempts at making the last standard series of Masterchef UK more like the Australian version worked. It fell a little flat in places. It’s probably unfair to compare the two though. They are the same in name only and are actually wildly different shows. The UK version is a BBC production and therefore publicly funded. I’d rather walk over a hot coals than see it move to a commercial channel for the sake of extra shellfish choices, a cash prize and a longer broadcast run.

What Masterchef Australia does so well is tap into all the right cooking and television senses. It has bags of brilliantly edited, against-the-clock tension in the form of complex individual and team challenges. It delivers engaging, personal journeys, strengthened by the bonds and friendships built on the back of having contestants live together for the duration of the competition. They really do eat, sleep and breathe the show while they’re on it. It has hosts and guests with opinions viewers can place stock in. There are never any filler episodes. Every single hour feels different to the last, which is a huge achievement considering there are, using my shaky mathematics, over 70 episodes. 

Most importantly, as a seasoned home cook and with the exception of Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver’s output, Masterchef Australia has educated and inspired my cooking and the techniques I use more than any other show. Not a single week went by during the third series where I didn’t bubble with exciting ideas, recipes and flavour combinations. If my Sky+ hard drive were large enough, I’d have kept every episode for future reference. Even by the end of each series when only the most accomplished cooks remain, the food is delivered in such a warm, inclusive way that it still feels achievable to those watching at home. This, I think, is its greatest success. 

I must now wait until September next year before the fourth series hits British screens and I have approximately four or so months before I’ll have to unfollow all the judges on Twitter for fear of having the series spoilt before it even begins. It’s quite a feat in this age of global sharing to let three months of television pass you by without stumbling across even the contestants’ names, but it’s so very worth the effort. All those months of scrunching my eyes up when I thought Australian friends were about to tell me something I didn’t want to know on Twitter were worth it.  To witness the finale without knowing whether Kate or Michael would be Australia’s third Masterchef was a joy. Roll on, September. Roll on!

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