My feelings about this show are well documented: it’s the best damn cooking competition out there by a mile, not only in terms of the actual food prepared (phenomenal!) but also because the contestants themselves seem to be such amazing people: they’re all so talented yet humble and supportive of each other, it’s impossible to pick just one to root for.
This season is no exception, and once again we’re treated to a fantastic new crop of home cooks who would put most professional chefs to shame.
My original plan was to wait until the entire season aired and binge-watch the show over my summer vacation, since the only exciting TV content I have to look forward to this summer is Game of Thrones. Alas, curiosity got the best of me and I’m already caught up with MC, which is a little more than halfway through Season 9.
As is the case with most competitions, the elimination process is almost always based on choosing not the weakest chef in the bunch, but the one who had the worst day in the kitchen. It’s as fair as these types of shows can get, as the unlucky cook isn’t shown the door immediately after “stuffing up”, to use the Aussie slang, on a particular challenge, but by participating, along with a few other cooks who performed poorly, in an elimination challenge.
These challenges vary depending on the type of culinary exercise that preceeded them: when it’s a team challenge, the losing team members will find themselves battling each other in a taste test, a cook-along or a simple ingredient-based challenge. On days where the elimination follows an ‘invention test’, the callenge is invariably a pressure test, which consists of a famous chef bringing in an impressive signature dish that the contestants have to replicate by following a complicated recipe.
Now, I know that following recipes is extremely important when it comes to cooking, and especially baking. And it’s also true that, for every methodical chef out there, who can follow instructions to a t, there’s an intuitive chef who’d throw out the cookbook and improvise with spectacular results. Still, there’s something to be said about a cook’s ability to stick to a recipe, so that’s not my main issue with this type of challenge.
My problem is that most of the recipes these cooks are presented with are too… out there to be any real measure of their abilities, especially given the time constraint. When a dessert dish consists of 17 different components that these poor cooks have to finish in under 4 hours, it’s a ridiculous exercise, particularly when this type of exercise is something they will probably never have to deal with in the real world.
Who, in their right minds, will attempt Anna Polyviou’s firecracker in their day-to-day and not spread out the preparation of the 77 (!) steps over a couple of days? What kind of host, given only an hour to prepare an impromptu dinner party, will try and replicate Yotam Ottolenghi’s 5-dish mezze feast? And who, for f’s sake, will have access to the equipment requires to make Christy Tania’s ‘ice cream float‘ sugar balloon? It’s a showpiece, and a very impressive one at that, but how does using helium, isomalt and hydrocolloid to inflate a sugar balloon and attach it to a dessert, really showcase a cook’s true talent?
Most of these challenges are simply a race against time, where simple kitchen mishaps that every chef has to deal with are enough to send a contestant home, and in the case of pressure tests, it’s a losing battle against unfamiliar techniques and ingredients that very few, if any, of these cooks will ever utilize again.
I know I’m nit-picking because it’s an overall exceptional cooking competition, head and shoulders above the rest, but bear with me for one more gripe:
A couple of weeks ago was the one MC event everyone was looking forward to: Heston week. Heston Blumenthal is a legend in his own right, of course, but in the MasterChef universe he has attained almost deity status. Every single contestant was ecstatic to meet him and cook for him, and the idea of taking a road trip with Heston across Victoria was an exciting proposition.
Then the actual cooking challenges started, and that’s where it fell flat for me. It’s one thing to set up cooking stations next to the Murray river and get inspired by nature and local ingredients; that, I can definitely get behind. But how does the team challenge that followed showcase any real culinary abilities other than the poor contestants’ endurance in the scorching sun and gales of wind, especially when they’re required to try their hand at conceptional dishes that would normally take days, if not weeks, to fully conceptualize and execute?
While the judges set up shop under a canopy that protected them from the elements (but not the flies buzzing around them all freaking day), the cooks had to deal with strong winds that blew out the flames on their stove tops, all the while trying not to suffer from heatstroke as they labored in the 35 degree heat and merciless sun beating down on them in a barren location next to some gigantic, and admittedly impressive, painted silos.
Really? Does ANY commercial kitchen in the world operate under these conditions? Why make the poor home cooks prepare their dishes in such an environment, when the goal is to put their best food forward to dazzle Heston with their abilities?
In the end, of course, these amazing cooks’ desire to stay in the competition and impress their food idol paid off, and the judges were rewarded with a handful of truly amazing dishes. But just think of how much better they might have performed in a normal kitchen environment; think of how much more insane ideas they could have come up with, had they not been hindered by their surroundings.
Fortunately, the week’s elimination challenge was conducted under much more ‘fair’ conditions, in the MasterChef kitchen, where the cooks had access to normal equipment and a roof over their heads to protect them from the very elements – air, water, fire and earth – they had to hero in their dishes all week.
But the time issue remains. And yes, I know TV time is a precious commodity; I know these challenges are designed to push them to their limits, and more often than not, this pressure results in phenomenal dishes. But I can’t help but wonder how much more they could accomplish if given the time to truly work on their dishes without running frantically around a hot kitchen as the rest of the contestants cheer them on (or yell indistinctly, as the case may be). I’d love, for once, to see them braise a piece of meat in something other than a pressure cooker; being a baker myself, I’d love to see them bake an actual cake or set a mousse without utilizing the blast chiller or worrying if everything will melt into an amorphous mass.
And I’d definitely love to see them cook in a team challenge without having to prepare massive amounts of food for a few hundred people in under two hours. Hell, even Top Chef usually gives the contestants more time to prep, and those are seasoned professionals, trained to prepare large quantities (and still they falter under the pressure). I’m not saying that every challenge should be a marathon; but just once or twice, I’d like to see it be a bit more than a frantic sprint.
Of course, these are minor gripes that take nothing away from my enjoyment of the show. If anything, it makes these home cooks’ abilities even more impressive. And although even the best cook can have a bad day in the kitchen, which, in the MC environment, could send the cook home, I don’t feel that there have been any big injustices in the eliminations so far: the best cooks in the competition are still fighting for the top spot, and, as usual, it’s almost impossible to pick a front runner.
This week went off with a bang, with Peter Gilmore making his 10th (!) return to the MasterChef kitchen to set a challenge. I still have a few episodes in my queue so I don’t know which chefs actually made it to the top 10, but if I had to choose, my money would be on Eliza, Karlie and Ben being the front runners, with Eloise and Tamara being a close second, and I’m excited to see if my predictions are correct!