When I sat down to watch Masterchef, it was largely out of curiosity: I knew of the format internationally, and was curious to see how Gordon Ramsay was translating it into his television oeuvre. The basic premise of the show, taking “amateur” chefs and turning them into culinary professionals, is not without its merit, and it puts Ramsay in his only tolerable mode for me personally. I loathe Hell’s Kitchen because Ramsay’s antagonism is an end in itself: he yells and screams and swears to manufactured a hyper-competitive environment, and his personality overpowers the show’s potential as a cooking competition (which is underdeveloped, since that’s clearly not why people are watching). However, I find Kitchen Nightmares to be quite watchable because Ramsay’s yelling and swearing, while certainly heightened for the American version, eventually gives way to his effort to actually help people, and work towards some sort of meaningful conclusion.
Masterchef is unquestionably that more meaningful Ramsay, but unfortunately I have to say that the series is thus far a pretty big waste of time. I think there’s probably a show in here somewhere, but this opening episode was so poorly designed that I don’t know if I can tough it out for any amount of time. I actually like many of the elements of the series, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t actually get to see anyone actually cook in this week’s episode, which is so focused on personalities and yet ends up making the actual cooking process seem inert and lifeless in 99% of examples. By focusing on these auditions, to the point where they’re being stretched out over two weeks of episodes, the series kills any momentum it could possibly achieve by failing to define its own personality while trying to lay the groundwork for each of the carefully selected chefs who are being allowed into the competition.
And while I may appreciate a good cooking show, I spent more time laughing at the over-the-top production of the show than I did connecting with any of the contestants, which I would consider a bit of a reality television disaster.
I am admittedly one of those people who have stopped watching the audition episodes of American Idol – I just don’t find them very interesting, as the thrill of seeing people embarrass themselves in front of the judges has grown tired with time. In the case of Masterchef, the problem is that bad food isn’t funny, or even that pleasurable: when someone cooks something poorly, it’s a soggy mess. The show gets lucky with someone like the “Funeral Potatoes” dude who tried to kill them with grease, but for the most part the failures are disappointing more than disastrous. The result is that Ramsay starts posturing for the camera, turning the entire thing into a largely uninteresting piece of performance art rather than actually focusing on the food. You realize after a while that the food isn’t important at all: they’re bringing people in for their personalities and their personalities alone, and we just sort of have to accept that.
I’m actually okay with this, in that the premise of the show is taking regular people and tapping into their cooking potential. The problem is that this episode didn’t actually show us each person’s personality, it showed us their life story: yes, the jerkish dude from Boston who misnamed his dish was arrogant and insufferable, but at least you got some sense of how he might be in a kitchen environment or facing some sort of cooking challenge. In most cases, the judges didn’t even talk about what was wrong with the food, and when they did it ended up being ignored in favour of personality. I’m fine with the series valuing casting over food, but I think that putting it out in the open like this is a bit damning. While that imbalance can take place during casting, the series itself needs to balance food and personality, and the cattle call setup really, truly failed in that respect.
If they wanted to do this, they should have shown us all 30 competitors in a single episode, cutting the failures down to a couple of highlight reels and just giving us each person’s story and giving us a sense of what they cooked for Ramsay and the judges. I understand that they want those moments of uncertainty, those dramatic moments where the judges fight over whether someone should go through to the next round or where someone passionately states why they want this more than anything in their entire lives, but none of that escaped the cliche: I guffawed at numerous points in the episode, shocked at how over the top the contestants were being and how much Ramsay seemed to lap it up. I love (read: hate) the way that the show plays up Ramsay’s persona by having him bring Faruq’s wife and son into the room at the end of the episode. The move is transparent as can be: you know that Ramsay knew they were out there, and that he knew his entire life story, and that he was going through as soon as his Mac and Cheese wasn’t a complete disaster. And yet the show plays up that Ramsay might have actually brought them in to crush them, still keeping its foot in his mean streak roots despite the sheer positivity that Masterchef’s premise purports to.
And unfortunately, that mashup of identities is all we really have to go on: I can only guess at how those contestants who went through will perform on a cooking show, and what clips we saw from future episodes looked like Top Chef but without that series’ respect for the food itself. So if you watch Top Chef and really wish it was more about “real people” with highly emotional backstories filtered through reality television, then I’m willing to recommend Masterchef. However, while I prefer Ramsay in this mode as opposed to Hell’s Kitchen, the connection between emotion and food which Ramsay keeps telling me about just isn’t apparent within the series itself because we didn’t really get to see them cook. Instead, we heard them talk about cooking for the cameras, prompted by the judges to become emotional rather than actually getting emotional on their own.
And I like my reality shows to feel a bit more realistic than that.
- I continue to like Graham Elliot quite a bit: he was a strong presence on Top Chef Masters, and is the kind of personality that really does work well for the show. He’s good at describing what he’s tasting in a way which doesn’t seem too inside foodie, and that’s something I appreciate. Accordingly, I wish he was part of a better show, or that I could fastforward to a part of this show which isn’t quite so noxious for me.
- If I was someone who tried out for the show and could actually cook, that beer cheese soup and numerous other failures must have been a real slap in the face: it’s one thing on American Idol, where the joke contestants are never treated as real contenders and are part of small regional auditions, but here the joke contestants got a ticket to Hollywood (although Idol would have put through the professional soccer player, too – it’s shallow like that).