Since the court has determined to condemn me – God knoweth how – I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the King’s title.
— Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons
Just as I had finally managed to purge the memory of my failed audition from my mind, Fox began broadcasting the American debut of MasterChef. Many friends and relatives have asked me what I think of the show, but I have reserved judgement until I could watch at least five episodes. I’ve been thinking about the show, trying to formulate an opinion, but I’m still not sure how I feel. The short answer is that the show has promise. The long answer is a bit more complicated.
MasterChef, like most American reality shows, is based on a British original. In order to prepare myself for the (in retrospect, extremely remote) possibility of being selected as a contestant, I watched the entire 2009 season of MasterChef UK (sample episode here). The structure of that show is described in detail elsewhere (scroll to the “MasterChef Goes Large” heading), but the summary is that six contestants cook a mystery box challenge, their dishes are tasted by the judges, and three are immediately eliminated. The remaining three must work a busy lunch service at a restaurant – their first exposure to working in a professional kitchen – then, when they return, have an hour to cook any two dishes they choose. The winner competes in a quarterfinal round against the winners from the other three weekly rounds. (The show runs Monday through Thursday for eight weeks.)
Four finalists are quickly reduced to three after a three-dish cook-off, then the final three are subjected to a series of increasingly more difficult tests: cook out in the field for a military regiment, cater an event for 500, cook the staff lunch at Buckingham Palace, and cook a complete menu for a table of Michelin three-star chefs. The final challenge sends each contestant off to a different three-star restaurant to cook one dish for lunch service under the supervision of the chef. It’s quite a consolation prize to the eventual losers: who could complain about cooking under Jean Michel Lorain at La Côte Saint Jacques, or Juan Mari Arzac at Restaurante Arzac, or René Redzepi at Noma (which will become the best restaurant in the world when El Bulli closes this year)?
What I love about the show is it’s no-bullshit approach: you live and die by your cooking skills. There’s no interpersonal sniping, no delusional behavior, no unwarranted braggadocio – if you can’t cook, you can’t advance and you can’t win.
One hundred contestants from around the country had an hour to cook their signature dishes, which would be tasted (or not, in some cases) by the three judges. The thirty who remained would have to survive two more challenges: knife skills, in which they had to dice and slice a bag of onions; and an ingredient test, in which they had to cook a dish that highlighted a single egg. This reduced the field to fourteen finalists, which is when the real competition began.
With the preliminaries out of the way, the show has settled into its groove. Each day begins with an improvisation test, in which contestants have less than an hour to cook a dish based on the ingredients in a mystery box. The winner of that test has an advantage in being able to choose the ingredient or dish that all contestants must cook in the invention test that follows. Last week the invention test was replicating a dish after seeing it prepared by Cat Cora, “one of the top chefs in America.” (I don’t agree with that assessment. Not only doesn’t Cora rank with Keller, Ripert, Boulud, Vongerichten, Chang, etc., she isn’t even the best Iron Chef.)
This is the first opportunity for a contestant to employ some strategy. He can make a choice that plays either to his strengths or his opponents’ weaknesses. In this case, the winner’s choice of a halibut dish – difficult to cook properly – backfired on him, and he wound up in second place. The loser in this round is sent home.
The winner of the invention test gets to chose his team for the following team challenge. So far, the contestants have had to feed Marines at Camp Pendleton and truckers at a desert truck stop (do we see a theme here?). The winning team is safe from elimination, and the losing team is subject to a pressure test which so far has involved identifying ingredients. The first test involved naming as many ingredients as you could in a pot of chili before getting one wrong, last week it was identify the ingredients seen on a table:
The person with the lowest number of correctly identified ingredients is sent home. It was frustrating to see six contestants fail to identify more than eleven out of twenty ingredients. I don’t know how the final rounds will be structured, but I’ll be disappointed if contestants don’t get to cook in a professional restaurant kitchen.
The show, which was heavily hyped during the compressed run of Hell’s Kitchen (which is now a fall season show with MasterChef to follow in the spring), is an attempt to present a kinder, gentler Gordon Ramsay, a Ramsay who doesn’t scream at contestants. He seems genuinely interested in the contestants, perhaps because they are amateurs, a welcome change from the delusional psychopaths that overrun the killing floor at the Hell’s Kitchen set. He offers advice, but also gives them enough rope to hang themselves. He’s the man in charge, if for no other reason because he’s had years of television experience.
Ramsay is joined by Graham Elliot, chef at the Chicago restaurant that bears his name. He’s younger, less jaded, and more enthusiastic than Ramsay, and has a better appreciation of comfort food, which Ramsay tends to dismiss as lacking finesse.
Last, but by no means least, is Joe Bastianich, son of Lydia Bastianich, and managing partner in Mario Batali’s restaurant empire. Despite the objections I’ve heard that characterize Bastianich as a douchebag (or worse), he’s a no-nonsense guy who knows what good food looks and tastes like, and what would be fit for a restaurant or destined for the bin. More than once he has dashed the hopes of a contestant by looking at a plate of food and refusing to taste it. He’s not a feel-good fellow, but a needed counterpoint to Elliot’s enthusiasm and Ramsay’s cheerleading.
Here’s where I take issue with the show. I watched the first two installments in which the original one hundred were winnowed down to thirty, and by the time the show was over I was fuming. I watched a parade of inept, uninspired, and poorly plated dishes get presented to the judges: fish tacos that fell apart when you picked them up; beer and cheese soup; and by far the worst offering, “funeral potatoes,” a casserole of potatoes, bacon, sour cream, mayonnaise, cheese, and a pound of melted butter that was baked into a thick, runny sludge. Bastianich asked the contestant if his winning strategy was to kill the judges.
How did those dishes make the cut? The guy with the sandwich at my audition was a better cook than the hick with the artery-clogging tray of starch. Surely, there had to be better cooks in his regional competition, unless the “talent” scouts had a remit to select at least one incompetent boob from each region for humor value.
Fortunately, the final fourteen (now eleven) seem reasonably competent, with some real talent displayed by Mike, my pick to win, and Jake, the dark horse contender. The show is still mostly free of the interpersonal trash-talking, but that may get ramped up as the playing field dwindles, or due to creative editing. There were two contestants from Boston that I didn’t recognize from my audition, but now only one is left, and he’s not long for the competition.
What I Think
The show has a chance of letting contestants succeed on their own merits; it’s quite likely that the winner will actually be a decent cook.
The selection of the original one hundred entrants still baffles and infuriates me. I know I’m a better cook than the people who made beer soup and potato sludge. I have skills that are comparable to the remaining contestants, and a better knowledge of ingredients, but I also know I’m not the guy who will jump out of his skin when he wins a round, or will be on the verge of tears when he’s in danger of being eliminated. I’m not telegenic, and that may be the reason why I failed six months ago.
I wish the contestants luck; one of them will be granted a life-changing opportunity.
And me? I’ll just never understand television.