Cap­tain cook’s voy­age

The ex­pe­di­tion be­gins to find Aus­tralia’s top am­a­teur chef, writes Bob Hart

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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 . . .’’

Kitchen cab­i­net:

MasterChef Aus­tralia judges with the new show’s host Sarah Wil­son are (from left) Matt Pre­ston, Ge­orge Calom­baris and Gary Me­hi­gan.

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