By Jess Goulart
My boyfriend and I wake up a full hour earlier than we have to every morning, make a pot of coffee, race to the couch, and flip open our laptop. We strum our fingers on the table and banter loudly about our favorite contestants as MasterChef Australia loads on the screen–season seven of the beloved show is nearing its finale.
In case you’re not a die-hard fan like myself, here’s how it works:
Over 26 (or so) weeks, 24 home cooks compete in daily cooking challenges set by Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris, and Matt Preston, three acclaimed culinary personalities.
These three judges critique the dishes along the way and, each Thursday, send the least impressive contestant home.
The last person left standing wins the chance to mentor under some of the most brilliant chefs in the world, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a quarter of a million dollars to “kickstart their culinary dreams,” and the renowned title of Master Chef.
An array of famous chefs guest star throughout each season. This week only six amateur cooks remain and Marco Pierre White is running the kitchen.
If you don’t know who he is (for shame!), Marco Pierre White is considered the first “celebrity chef,” and was, at the time they were awarded to him, the youngest chef in history to receive three Michelin stars. His proteges include Shannon Bennett, Curtis Stone, and, most notably, Gordon Ramsay, who happens to be a judge on the American version of MasterChef.
White is like the Phil Jackson of cooking, and Ramsay is his Michael Jordan.
But the MasterChef that Ramsay heads up is a far cry from the one his old mentor appears on. The stark contrast between the Australian and American versions is rooted in the history of American reality TV, and indicative of the genre’s biggest problem as a whole: the emphasis on “teardown culture.”
American teardown culture is most famously illustrated by American Idol’s Simon Cowell. Cowell helped elevate the show to unparalleled success with his purposefully abrasive judging style, leaving contestants often humiliated on air.
That success set an unfortunate precedent. Three years after Fox first aired American Idol, the network followed with Hell’s Kitchen, a cooking show hosted by Ramsay (this guy is everywhere!).
It features a slew of ill-mannered, ill-tempered “aspiring chefs” who Ramsay tortures into fits of drama so obviously contrived it is laughable. The false tension is nothing compared to the real kicker of the show, which Carey Jones, the former senior editor of Serious Eats, put more eloquently than I ever could: “The contestants are talentless hacks.”
Nearly a decade later, Fox answered Bravo’s acclaimed Top Chef with the American spinoff of the UK’s hit original series MasterChef. Ramsay judged alongside Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich, with only slightly less deliberate instigating than on his other network show.
That was the only version of MasterChef I had seen, so when my boyfriend sat me down to watch season five of MasterChef Australia, I was skeptical.
But after just a few minutes of the first episode, I noticed the absence of teardown culture. Far from adversarial, the judges are genuine teachers that give constructive criticism along with enthusiastic encouragement. They speak openly about their pride at watching the contestants learn and grow.
The relationship between the contestants is different from American MasterChef as well. When one of them wins an advantage, they use it to help themselves rather than destroy others. There are no petty fights. There is no household drama. They compose themselves professionally at all times.
The tension comes naturally as each contestant narrates their journey through the MasterChef kitchen, willingly talking about the mountains they must scale both as chefs and as people. It can get very, very personal, and yet it never feels forced.
But the best part? These guys obviously love to cook!
Rather than arguing with Ramsay over how to prepare a steak (seriously, you’re going to disagree with GORDON RAMSAY about cooking?!?!), contestants in Australia spend their out-of-kitchen moments studying, perfecting single recipes or techniques over weeks of practice, and designing their own restaurant quality original dishes.
In season six, for example, Brent Owens (who went on to win the title) created a dish called “The Light At The End of The Tunnel,” to symbolize his tumultuous relationship with his father. The focus of the dish is a perfectly white scallop, which lies at the center of a bed of seafood and leafy greens all dyed sheer black with squid ink.
What’s more, Australia’s amateur chefs are often challenged to recreate painstakingly complex dishes from the world’s best chefs. Standouts include a croquembouche (every season), restaurateur Peter Gilmore’s guava Snow Egg (season two), and pretty much any dish given to the contestants by molecular gastronomy master Heston Blumenthal, a repeating guest chef on the show.
In a recent episode of America’s MasterChef, the contestants had to bake a birthday cake. The next week, they made tarts. But, you know, they yelled at each other over baking times so there’s that.
Recent trends in American reality TV shows hint at the end of teardown culture. Hopefully America’s MasterChef will be part of the industry’s re-imagining.
I like to think my tweet to them will help sway them in the right direction, though I have yet to hear back:
Image courtesy of Jess Goulart.
Until then, if watching talented home chefs learning to cook the world’s most beautiful, delicious dishes is appetizing to you, pour yourself some coffee and tune into MasterChef Australia.