I was taken aback the other day when a friend, who doesn’t work in an office and therefore is always keen to know what people in offices converse about the live-long day, asked me what television programs are being talked of at my place of business. He ran through some very popular shows that he thought would be being discussed avidly and I had to fire off a few short, sharp ‘No’s, leading me to the realisation that the only television program my co-workers care about even remotely is MasterChef. I was devastated to realise that I had, as a non-watcher, therefore banished myself from the mythical ‘water cooler’, when pretty much the only thing I’ve ever really taken to like a duck to water is talking about television while I should be working. I was suddenly a stranger to myself, as though I were Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry.
The only time I can recall this phenomenon occurring previously was in relation to Big Brother. It would be impossible for a human being to have lower standards than I, so it was not due either to snobbery or to finer feelings on my part that I didn’t watch the show. It was more that Big Brother was just too plain a concept for my liking, as it was merely ordinary folk locked up in a house. I did enjoy, however, Celebrity Big Brother, which featured, among others, Anthony Mundine (or, as he calls himself, ‘The Man’) and Adriana Xenides living and loving under the one roof, as well as Warwick Capper being tossed from the house for exposing himself to one of its starry inhabitants. I was also a fiend for the marvellous Chains of Love, which starred individuals who, while they were just as humdrum as those in the non-celebrity Big Brother House, did at least have to conduct their everyday business in the manner of reprobates in a chain gang.
MasterChef had never grabbed me, first, because it was about cooking, in which I am not interested; and, second, because I was all set to rip off my head and feed it to a lion if I had to read one more article about how its success and that of Packed to the Rafters showed that the Australian viewing public now demanded only ‘a return to niceness’ on their screens; a massive come-down, in my opinion, from, say, ball-breaking bisexual Vicki Stafford in The Box. Also, to my mind, there is almost nothing more footling than people holding forth expertly about whether food is any good. You eat it and it’s gone, so why give a tinker’s damn? Nonetheless, in the interests of again feeling ‘with it’, I decided finally to watch some MasterChef.
The only ingredient on which I’ve ever yearned to base a dish is seafood extender, so I’m the first to admit that I don’t know what’s what, but a lot of the MasterChef food did look completely mental to my untutored eye. Probably the most hilarious dish was the ‘macaron tower’ (contestant Peter’s undoing at the ‘hands’ of which, of course, made the national press), which resembled a small Christmas tree that you might see in the reception area of a solicitor in sole practice, but with biscuits stuck all over it. The macarons in question were flavoured with raspberry/beetroot and olive respectively, which sounds wholly disgusting to me, I have to say, but they and their tower are the creation of a man who apparently rejoices in the title of ‘Balmain’s King of Cakes’, so again, what do I know? Another horrid-looking dish appeared simply to be raw egg under a pea substance, which was, in turn, derived from a vile green broth that looked fit for eating only by the subjects of ‘The Monster Mash’. The jelly-like surface was repeatedly cut open to reveal the egg, reminding me of close-up footage of major surgery. While watching the advertisements, I was therefore finding myself quite drawn to Red Rooster’s ‘New Four Quarters’ and McCain’s frighteningly heterosexual ‘Beer Battered Fries’. (Most intriguing of the food-related ads, though, was one featuring a woman claiming she had ‘recently discovered Cruskits’ and, what’s more, asserting that their possibilities are endless, which I am confident is untrue.) Also on the MasterChef downside, I was disappointed that there wasn’t anyone among the contestants whom I felt I could wholeheartedly root for. There was no one quite like, say, the massively self-absorbed, yet tremendously appealing, Kylie Booby from Australian Princess, who brooked no nonsense either from the ludicrous Paul Burrell or battle-axe etiquette teacher Jean Broke-Smith. The MasterChef contestants all seem pleasant enough but, man and woman alike, are a whirl of square-framed glasses, hair in buns and merely genteel levels of ambition.
Still, I am happy to say that it looks as though the much-lauded niceness has been more or less thrown out of the MasterChef window, at least as far as the judges are concerned. The contestants often have tears in their eyes while facing the, frequently abrasive, verdicts. Too, the judges seem inordinately put out if the contestants haven’t made as much food as they were expecting and they therefore have to share a dish. While I can certainly relate to this, as I always demand big helpings myself, none of the judges exactly looks like he is about to die of starvation, so I think they could all afford to be a bit less Henry the Eighth-like about everything.
I did extract a certain amount of pleasure from MasterChef. First of all, one of the judges who isn’t Matt Preston said ‘jack-arse’ at one point. I’ve never heard this emphasis employed before but I’m sure I shall be employing it myself from now on. I also enjoyed seeing guest judge Margaret Fulton, as she inadvertently brought back memories of my mother’s spectacular Women’s Weekly recipe cards, with their luridly coloured photographs of coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon. (Mind you, when it comes to guest celebrity appearances, the third series of Popstars will forever take the biscuit. Contestant Scott Cain’s pièce de résistance was his un-heartbreaking rendition of Leo Sayer’s ‘When I Need You’, so Sayer himself placed a surprise phone call to Cain, clearly expecting him to be thrilled. Cain, however, obviously had not the faintest idea who he was.) Furthermore, I am crazy about the MasterChef clock: a huge and orange affair, it wouldn’t be out of place on the wall of the kitchen at Bunny’s, assuming, of course, that Bunny’s had a kitchen.
As far as I can see, though, the magic ingredient of MasterChef is simply the enormous happiness to be gained from watching someone having to do something one is glad not to be doing oneself. This was always a big part of the appeal of Australian Idol for me as well, but I actually feel it much more keenly with MasterChef. Invariably, my favourite part of Idol was watching the contestants who’d made it to Sydney for the ‘workshop’ sobbing dramatically, ‘It’s just so hard, I didn’t know it would be so hard!’ at the prospect of having to learn a whole song overnight. Memorising just the one song in twelve hours is something I feel that even I could do, but I certainly couldn’t whip up some fiendishly tricky meal, or an easy one, in a deliberately insufficient amount of time. So, I indeed derived great satisfaction from crepes ripping in half, cakes not setting and squabs (whatever they are) not cooking; and from watching the MasterChef contestants being delivered to the ‘pressure tests’ in what looked like the Black Maria, and making anguished declarations such as ‘I need three-and-a-half days to make this bad boy!’ (Having said that, seemingly during the time they’re supposed to be participating in the pressure tests, the contestants conduct endless on-screen interviews, in which their manner, in contrast with their words, often appears eerily calm.)
While I did end up being slightly drawn to MasterChef, this is perhaps because it resembles Australian Idol with victuals. It is packed with the same faux suspense (including much aural simulation of vault doors slamming shut); statements such as ‘Aaron’s satay sauce was the one that we’d go back for’ uttered with gravity appropriate to a declaration that the nation’s now at war; and, when anyone does get the boot, piano music so melancholy it’s like watching a documentary about Cyclone Tracy. I’d frankly rather just have Idol back, but strictly according to the original 2003 model. If there’s one thing I hate more than listening to people talk about food, it’s tiresome rejigging of programs and things from which I get at least a little enjoyment.