Captain cook’s voyage
The expedition begins to find Australia’s top amateur chef, writes Bob Hart
ARE Australians as obsessed with food as they are attracted to bogans, bad language and appalling behaviour?
The coming weeks will provide the definitive answer as Channel 10 embarks on a huge, high-risk roll of the reality dice.
With MasterChef Australia —a polished and genteel piece of television that will search, exhaustively, for the nation’s best amateur chef— Ten will attempt to fill the void left by the agonising demise of Big Brother.
But how much is Ten asking of its audience in replacing the pondlife recruited for BB with eager, often diligent souls determined to become chefs, and a trio of expert, often compassionate, adjudicators?
Can something as sensitive and, dare I suggest, metrosexual as this possibly work on Australian television?
‘‘Yes, I’m sure it will work,’’ says show host Sarah Wilson, the glamazon and former Cosmopolitan editor who will keep everyone nice, and the ball rolling, for the three-month life of the six-nights-a-week prime-time marathon, which launches on Monday at 7.30pm.
‘‘Even people who are not cooks or foodies want to know about cooking. They love to learn things.’’ Are you sure? ‘‘Yes. And also, just about every human emotion is linked to food: family dynamics are to do with food, and if you have any kind of hang-up or idiosyncrasy, chances are food is involved.
‘‘Celebrations are all about food, so there is a powerful emotional aspect. And until now, there has never been a show that explores both our fascination with food, and the associated human drama. ‘‘This is a very smart show.’’ MasterChef Australia owes much, but not everything, to the British series of the same name which has been uncovering gifted amateurs for decades. In terms of production values, however, it’s closer to the American Top Chef which involves fractious professionals.
Key ingredients of the Ten version, for which some 7000 Australians offered to abandon their lives for three months to compete for a cash prize of $100,000, involve the reduction of 700 long-listed contestants to 50, then 20, and ultimately one through a series of tasks, challenges and on-location adventures, all under the critical gaze of an all-Melbourne team of professionals.
These are chefs George Calombaris from the Press Club and Hellenic Republic, Gary Mehigan from Fenix and the Boathouse, and larger-than-life food scribbler Matt Preston.
Beyond making one amateur chef a lot richer, does the show serve a useful purpose?
‘‘Yes, I believe so,’’ says Calombaris, the colourful young Greek chef who has entranced Melbourne with his sensational food. ‘‘Through our interaction with contestants, we try to impart a lot of knowledge of restaurants and how the average customer can get the most out of them.
‘‘What to expect, what to order, how to eat it, when to arrive . . .
‘‘It’s amazing how little people know about restaurant culture and how much there is to be gained from a proper understanding.
‘‘This show could change the way Australians think about and behave in restaurants, with a bit of luck.
‘‘And it will work, simply be- cause not everyone can dance, not everyone can sing, not everyone is fat enough to be on The Biggest Loser or obnoxious enough to be on Big Brother.
‘‘But everyone thinks they can cook. And the great thing people will learn from this show is that many of them really, really can.’’
Contestants come from all states and all walks of life — from a 21-year-old man obsessed with making pastry to a Greek grandmother who drives a Maserati. And cooks, naturally.
There are fascinating twists and turns — some of them enforced. Throughout, for example, the contestants share a house in Sydney. And in the course of the program, they are subjected, each Friday, to a masterclass from the two chefs showing them where they went wrong.
Weekends will be spent constructively — doing work experience in top restaurants. In short, they will complete crash apprenticeships.
Mehigan, a polished chef with a reputation for technical brilliance, comes to MasterChef Australia from a string of minor TV appearances. He’s a natural.
‘‘The great thing about food on TV is that it’s both voyeuristic and aspirational,’’ he says. ‘‘Whether or not it changes lives is anybody’s guess. People look at cooking shows and say, ‘Wow, I could do that’. And many of them can, as they demonstrate on MasterChef Australia. And many of them can’t, of course.’’
And just how unpleasant was it, then, assessing those who can’t?
‘‘Well, we had a Tasmanian cook who specialised in roadkill,’’ he says. ‘‘He was proud of the way he sourced his own ingredients — locally, and for free.
‘‘He had dreadlocks and a big, hairy cap, which was fine. But then he cooked a very average dish and I found a long hair in it. And that was the end of that.
‘‘We had a bush-food cook from Far North Queensland, and he started well but turned out to be a one-trick pony.
‘‘And there were a few people who simply should not have been there, and we tried to let them down gently. Most of the time . . .’’
MasterChef Australia judges with the new show’s host Sarah Wilson are (from left) Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan.