masterchef: passing the test

02 Mar

As La Fanny notes in the previous post, the essence of cooking well is actually “IT’S GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT”, rather than “IT’S BETTER THAN SEX” — culinary excellence is not (in itself) that high a bar to clear; there are tens of millions of excellent cooks in the world, and only a very few of them wish to be high-profile chefs in the Ferran Adrià sense. Masterchef has to preserve this low-bar high-bar dichotomy: essentially it’s a very severe (and carefully calibrated) obstacle course to discover the very very very best “ordinary” cook.

(Hence the need to siphon off a different class of competitor, with Professional Masterchef, which has a somewhat different sequence of pathologies…)

The obvious ones (for Masterchef OG) are:
i: technique (not burning stuff; not undercooking it; knowing how to prep meat; a basic knowledge of what to do in a kitchen and what not to)
ii: palate
iii: timing
iv: inventiveness
v: working knowledge of the tradition
vi: dealing with pressure
vii: curiosity and ability to learn

So far so unexceptionable, I think: vi and vii in particular are the pretext for parachuting contestants into unusual kitchens in famous restaurants to work as sous chefs on signature dishes, or flying them to thailand (a non-competitive round that i thoroughly enjoyed: it somehow — quite unexpectedly — managed to depict a brief reversal of the usual consumer-tourist nexus; the competitors were suddenly the anxious service industry to amused crowds of thais just wanting speedy street-food lunch)

Which of course brings us to the 8th and most interesting obstacle: the supplier of the hungry mouth…

Masterchef supplies this in several forms:
a: massed “exotica” <– a posh service for lawyers in grey's inn; a teat [edit: i meant “a tea”, that’s TEA] for the Last of the "Few“; the strange cosplay enthusiasts at the jane austen picnic — where we (coded as “ordinary viewers”) get a glimpse of the eating-out classes gathered in some non-fine-dining part of their lives <– they just want to eat, on time, and there's a lot of them
b: the critics <– an interestingly and reliably repulsive crew of self-appointed connoisseurs (like almost all professional critics, they are endlessly airily dismissive of the power of fashion over others, while utterly unself-awarely hock to it themselves)
c: the experts <– professional chefs of various types, generally present to provide first stress (as demanding bosses in their own domain), then supportive and sometimes valuable advice, technical or emotional (some are more dislikeable than others; interesting always to watch disciple affection develop for tough-love masters…)
d: the bizarrely random <– this is quite rare, because very hard to set up, i imagine (but it happened in thailand and i'm going to say a bit more about it, as it's what made me write this post)
e: the capricious distracting voracious self-absorbed c0ck of no very obvious quality <– this of course is the role that gregg wallace plays so effectively, and is apparently (to the appalled fascination of all viewers who can still abide him in this role) being encouraged to amp up… and it's basically true, AS ANY REAL COOK KNOWS, that unpleasance of appetite (of whatever irrelevant kind) is always the hungry elephant in the dining room. As with Ramseyness, this is already becoming paper-thin shtick (I assume because he's playing a role, and is not actually particularly like this in life), but I am very prepared to argue that it's to Masterchef's credit that it rigorously supplies this element.

Anyway, back — briefly — to (iv) the bizarrely random: the final test in Thailand was to prepare a meal for some local royals (sadly NOT King Bhumibol of that Ilk, but a lesser if tremendously venerable dippy princeling who once spied for the Brits…). The purpose here — as regards obstacle course — was to heighten stress over timing, invention vs tradition, and the sheer UH OH THEY’RE ROYALS panic: the side-effect was that, while the younger royals were just like media-literate posh kids everywhere, excited to be on TV and pliably subservient to its codings, the Prince himself, being v old yet clearly still a PLAYA, was able entirely to BREAK the mc conventions and seem the more charming for it. Royals be bein royal: they make their own randomly random rules and everyone non-high is required to fall over themselves complying. Of course this is an artefact of congealed class attitude even in such a contorted set-up — but here too was a lesson worth attending to: @hungrymauritian (for it is shelina) made a rainbow cake of some deft complexity; the Prince declined to put it in his mouth because he’d “never seen a a rainbow with green in it”. Which might be madly aggravating if you’re not a monarchist — except how else can you generate the “randomly random” in a programme like this and NOT have it dismissed as merely abstractly perverse and contrarian, or just ordinary-punter ignorant. As a formal mode of punter, a Royal-on-Telly is ALWAYS RIGHT, even if s/he only orders crusty cat poo on a bed of nettles.

The relationship between working cook and waiting mouth — even if we completely strip the commodity nexus out (haha “completely”) — is an enormously subtle and complex dance of knowledge-as-power and refusal-as-counterpower (you can make your child eat tomatoes but you can’t make her like them). And not everyone is on the same page; some don’t want to be; some have very little incentive.


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6 responses to “masterchef: passing the test

  1. syllabubdobdee

    March 2, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Note to all: plz to add any levels of the test I missed here, I was in a hurry to expand on the points I wished to expand on!

  2. CarsmileSteve

    March 2, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    See, the thing is the Thai prince thing is basically a very very poor version of the Actual Dalai Actual Lama on MC Oz last season which contained extraordinary levels of WTFness…

    • CarsmileSteve

      March 2, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      Here he is now:

  3. syllabubdobdee

    March 3, 2012 at 11:07 am

    So far I am enjoying his “Every one is a unique snowflake!” approach to food crit!

  4. syllabubdobdee

    March 3, 2012 at 11:13 am

    “All monks are pleased when they get food”

    I don’t think this invalidates my argument about the formal role of the “super-punter” in the obstacle course, though: obviously he’s at the opposite end to the Thai Princeling, because his role is always to accept what he’s given without judging, but I still think that he wears the temporary hat of Designated Non-Wrong Crank…


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