“Life is short, but there is always enough time for courtesy.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
I love the world of MasterChef Australia. There is unprecedented sensory delight across different aspects of the show, and there’s so much philosophical stimulation as well. In all its beauty, it makes me think about the food I eat as well as the people who make it. This made me think about what exactly gets me glued to the show, and I’ve found a couple of things that make MasterChef Australia such a phenomenon, compared to its cousins from other countries as well as competing shows.
Disclaimer – the following is not meant as an evaluation of the profession or the technical details involved, and is merely an afterthought of my personal musings on my response to the show.
For this post, I’m dividing my thoughts into three sections that we normally employ on our projects – functional, emotional, & cultural. These facets always help in bringing any brand alive during the course of our project, and I’ve applied the same framework to understand more about MasterChef Australia. Here goes…
The most important part in any episode is the actual cooking of the food. Showing longer time limits within the hour-long episode, the focus is always on contestants battling with the ingredients, the equipment and plating. Yes, there is drama and tension if the chicken is getting overcooked, if the main element is not turning out as expected, or if the pan is simply on fire. But this is always momentary – they show just a little before and a little after the big bang. Otherwise, the entire buildup is spent in explaining to us how they cut the banana shallots, how they decided to use the skin vs the meat of a lamb cut, or how they’ve come up with a beautiful salad to balance the palate, interspersed with the contestants explaining their methods in the bytes section. Then, there’s Masterclass which conveys credibility in the purest manner – get the judges to cook and teach the contestants how to make awesome food. Usually taken out to a farm with fresh produce, the judges enthrall with their personal contemporary takes on traditional recipes, while the contestants are all taking down copious notes and trying to learn as much as possible in the middle of a tough competition – very close to home mirroring the guru-shishya parampara. Masterclass aims and endeavors to deliver on the core promise of any talent reality show – how you can hone your potential into a craft.
The one thing I love about the show is the prioritization of evaluation parameters. There’s the aspect of ideation and conceiving a dish, followed by the application of technique and sound process, leading into the aspect of plating for visual appeal, culminating with the coup de grâce, the tasting. MasterChef never compromises on taste – the contestants could have come up with an innovative dish, using beautiful ingredients and served fitting to an acclaimed restaurant – the winning dish is always the one the judges want to ‘keep coming back to’. This is a consistent attribute throughout the seasons, across contestants and guest judges – the show primarily stands for celebrating delicious food, and then some. Going beyond the kitchen table, MasterChef also stays away from bringing up sob stories. True, there are certain times when a contestant is inspired from their grandparents’ recipe and they become teary-eyed, or they talk about their passions and the jobs they’ve left to come to MasterChef, but never is it shown with melodramatic digression. Contestants share their stories, their challenges and their dreams, all in a positively warm and determined manner without any exaggerated subplots. And before you know, the focused attention on the quality and presentation of the food blended with the contestants’ aspirations starts rubbing off on the audience – I’ve found myself heating the dal for dinner ever so lovingly, trying to maximize its flavor with a soft touch. My dear wife is pleasantly amused at this development – I guess TV has some benefit off the couch after all.
The world of MasterChef also ensures they portray a sound and consistent value system that displays the etiquette they wish to convey and instill in the contestants & the audience. The first thing that strikes is the well-mannered demeanor of everyone on the show. Even when the contestants are at their worst performance, they are rapped on the knuckles with just the right force. Judges are never derogatory, prejudiced or abusive in their evaluation of any dish/contestant. Care is taken to word correctly and effectively, so that they make their point but never dishearten the contestant. As the audience, I feel and believe in the message strongly within me as well – that politeness and correctness can be friends. The show is always motivating and inspirational – at its best and worst – and that says something about an institution. Another aspect that stands out is the championing of local fresh produce. Australia as a country stresses highly on eating right and eating fresh – so farming, fishing, meat & poultry – all find a strong relevance in their larger culture as a nation, and by association, on the show. The garden outside the MasterChef is a beautiful microcosm of their value system – blooming with seasonal herbs and vegetables, welcoming everyone with a bright smile as they enter the cathedral of food.
Marco Pierre White, one of the previous guest mentors, once said on the show – “Generosity is the greatest garnish in the world.” The show reflects and represents generosity and manners in arguably the most refined fashion at a time of exaggerated, and mostly unnecessary, irreverence in the world. MasterChef is like a top-notch dish – conceived with the right ingredients, cooked to perfection, plated with love, and tastes like heaven. With all of this, the attention to detail elevates the experience and relates a story to cherish, making you come back for it.
Because everything seems to be in the right quantity, just enough.