There’s something Matt Preston said in season 6 of Masterchef Australia that I will never forget – the chicken is so juicy, it’s almost like it’s weeping in my mouth. Season 6 was pure gastronomical poetry. Cooking was treated like a dramatic art form, with contestants mentored by some of the world’s best culinary artists delivering food that was aesthetic, flavoursome and theatrical in presentation. What was most satisfying was the fact that the challenges had gotten more brutal than ever before and that can only be credited to the skill sets the talented bunch of amateur chefs possessed. You ask a dog to leap through a higher loop because you know he can.
Personally, I don’t think Brent deserved the top award. His growth curve is bumpy which neither showed improvement nor a mastering of techniques. The man was just good at prepping lamb racks – and that’s all he did for all the team challenges in the latter half of the show. He did not master desserts nor did he get a hang of pan-searing and sous-viding meats. He did read books and copied plating styles though. But his obsession with negative space came across as thrifty. Yes, his D-day performance might have been impressive but that cannot be compared to Laura’s, Emelia’s or Jamie’s. While many might complain that all Laura cooked was Italian, let’s understand the facts – She’s eighteen and can cook Italian cuisine good enough to win an immunity pin (you compete against a pro for that). Her prepping techniques are exquisite. She can work with meats and seafood and makes some badass pasta. I will let all those facts sink in now. Jamie displayed growth that was fascinating to watch. He had his share of pitfalls but the fellow nailed it during the top ten challenges. Yeah, he’s a little cocky and does bite off more than he can chew sometimes, but give the guy some credit. He wants to have fun and try new stuff. No one has gone as bat shit crazy with tools and techniques in the kitchen as he. And I’ll say the same for Emelia. Her craft is spectacular. Let me share another fact – Jamie is 25. Emelia is 24. Jamie now works as the head chef of a property in Sydney.
But more than anything else, this season was about trends that will, in probability, continue in the next seasons. Unfortunately, most of these trends are, well, unfortunate.
Squid ink – Let’s face it: it looks like black food colour paste and it works like black food colour paste. And I like black food colour paste only if I have a Phantom of the Opera themed birthday cake. In general, black is a negative element to have on a plate of food. We connect black with ‘rotten’, ‘burnt’, ‘disgusting’ or just plain ‘what the fuck is that’. Black pasta might work out (just like cocoa pasta. Risqué, very risqué), but caking bell peppers in an inky goop and frying them? No. That is the kind of experimenting that created Frankenstein’s monster.
Lesson for season 7: Don’t get carried away. Some ingredients are just not meant to be mainstream.
Sous vide – Let’s first understand what sous-viding is: It is a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath or in a temperature-controlled steam environment for longer than normal cooking times—72 hours in some cases—at an accurately regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking, typically around 60 °C for meats and higher for vegetables. Yes, I picked that from Wikipedia. So, much like the Indian dum pukht or the Afghani underground tandoor technique, it is a slow cooking process. Now, explain to me, why the kangaroo, would you try to sous vide meats when you have just 45 minutes to cook an elaborate meat dish with multiple elements? Not once was the sous-viding successful on the show (understandably, given that it is meant for longer cooking time) and every contestant had to pan-sear their meats afterwards, leading to overcooked or undercooked meat.
Lesson for season 7: When you need things evenly cooked and cooked fast, take a leaf out of the Indian mother’s handbook – pressure cook it. If you think you’re too cool for that, try something else.
Meat cooking techniques – That brings me to the next point. Meat was grilled, pan-seared or sous-vided. There was just one effort at trying something offbeat – Colin’s duck neck sausage. And the number of episodes featuring fish filleting (particularly snapper and salmon) was mind numbing. Is there nothing else you can do with proteins? What also confuses me is the stress on prepping proteins. I understand that can be a good challenge to put the contestants through during the first few weeks, but forcing amateurs to fillet and de-bone a snapper when you give them 30 minutes to cook? Facts: A) You’ve tested them. They know how to do it. B) You know it takes bloody long to fillet those effing monsters. Why then (just a thought), can you not have fresh cuts and fillets available in the pantry?
Lesson for season 7: Prep less, cook more.
Liquid nitrogen and foam cans – Boys love their toys. Masterchef loves its foam cans and liquid nitrogen. Freezing a gin and tonic into a palate cleanser with liquid nitrogen – Heston, darling, it’s oh-so-fancy but not exactly ‘cooking’, now is it? There was so much of flash freezing this season! Yeah, Jamie enjoyed his heart out (it was fun watching him dragon breathing) but how necessary was it? They have blast chillers, now don’t they? Also, when Amy tried to flash freeze her chocolate lollipops, they didn’t work. Tut-tut.
Lesson for season 7: We don’t find liquid nitrogen in our kitchen cabinets at the drop of our hats. Get the hint.
Indian cuisine – Indian flavours have started influencing Aussie cuisine – this season of Masterchef was more than proof of that. While watching contestants rustle up Vikas Khanna’s avant-garde chicken tikka masala was a treat, most of the Indian attempts were major misses. For starters, Khanna made a boo-boo himself. A rice papad with tikka masala? Are you trying to make a dish fancy just for the heck of it? Because you think Indian cuisine is not intricate and complicated enough? You try making shukto like our grandmothers make in your first try, Khanna babu, and we’ll discuss complicated cooking. Or a plate of sorpotel. Or roganjosh. The Indian contestant didn’t help much either. Deepali, a dentist, can’t cook. She made aloo masala, chapattis and dhokla for her Top 24 selection. I will give you a moment to re-read that. And she got through too. Re-read that too. And she made a Gujarati chicken curry. What on earth is that? Was Deepali there in the competition because Australia has realized that Indians are a vast section of their population AND India is lapping up the show for the last 2 seasons? I wonder. More so, all the other Indian attempts by the contestants were vegetarian. A lot of aloo. A whole lot of blah.
Lesson for season 7: Indian cuisine can beat your broiling and baking asses. And like George, if you ain’t got the stomach for it (not that we are all about spicy curries and chilli powder), don’t bother.
Fresh produce obsession – See, I love the motto “the more you do to food, the more you take away from it” and don’t mind that for my dinners. But honestly, has anyone realized that not once was a marinade used in the whole season? Meats were mostly just seasoned. Fish was served raw thrice. Salt-pepper-thyme-sage-kale is all that the proteins got treated to. Only lamb racks got spice rubs. There was some baking during the egg episode. Other than the theme episodes and Laura’s dishes, it was all about protien+fancy veggies+jus.
Lesson for season 7: Good food is fresh ingredients cooked well. Let’s see some variety.
Reality TV – Sample this: During the risotto challenge, Tash was leading the brood. She had finished her stock and had put in the rice with almost 20 minutes to spare. Everyone got worried that she had put in the rice ‘before time’. Even Tash got worked up. She tried to slow-cook her risotto till the last second, adding water often, hoping the flavours and aromas of the stock will not burn off and the rice won’t overcook and run dry. So, every contestant HAS to race against time because it makes for an exciting episode? That got me wondering. Never, in all six seasons, has any contestant finished plating a dish before the final bell. Now, come to think of it, isn’t that a tad fishy?
Tear jerking melodrama – Which brings me to the last point – What was with the waterworks?! There was so much of sobbing-weeping-crying-sniffling. Contestants broke into tears at the drop of an apron. They talked about how much this opportunity meant to them over and over again, there were intercuts of them playing with their children and their spouses, a single mother’s trials and tribulations were discussed, a gay couple’s favourite dish, an Aussie girl making her Indian mom-in-law proud, fathers missing daughters, sons missing mothers, grandchildren missing grandparents, grandma’s recipes, nona’s mentoring…So. Much. Duh-rama. And the show’s script was consciously constructed to include these sob fests. Even if the contestants have discussed their sorrows in detail, the judges would make it a point to ask leading questions so that the contestant could narrate his/her story all over again, with tears and group hugs. George will ask the first question – “A little emotional there, Tracy?” Tracy says yes. Gary – “And why’s that?” Who the fafda cares? And these two tear-squeezers gang up, you know. They make you cry and then take you aside and offer pep talks – which the camera films. And the pep talks are impeccably scripted too. They even broke down the stoic Emelia. That girl powered through every single challenge, cooking beautifully, not allowing the stress or homesickness affect her. But no, the tear-squeezers weren’t satisfied. They finally hit bingo and made her weep uncontrollably in Finals week. And no, they weren’t happy doing it just once. Even after Emelia tells us E V E R Y T H I N G about her emotional relationship with her granny during the cook, they make her go through that AGAIN during tasting. AND in the episode after that. For Chrissakes!
Lesson for season 7: Masterchef is not a soap opera. Cut the bullshit about family sob stories and focus on the cooking. It’s a reality TV competition. People with dreams land up. They try to win. Not all of them can. Hopes are shattered. Been there, seen that.
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