The joke in our family is that our cat, Kitty, wants to try out for the T.V. show Master Chef Australia! She is completely taken with the Master Chef aprons that my Australian friend Don, very generously mailed me, after I told him that I was addicted to the series.
My addiction is quite strange actually! Firstly, because I’m not an avid television fan. I was raised without T.V. and even later, never developed a compulsion for it. And secondly, of the little time I watch T.V., food or cooking programs are not on the list.
That’s not to say I don’t like good food! I also love cooking (when I’m in the mood). My vision of food is simple: 1) it is a key component of our bodies and health 2) It is also one of the elemental tools of cultural expressions. There are certain foods that I was not raised with, but that I have partaken of, learnt about through my friends from other cultures; and those dishes—ravioli, dolmas, som-tam, luo buo gao, souvlakis —like friendships, are now a part of my ‘normal’ existence.
But personally I prefer to read up recipes or get ones I like from friends and experiment with them myself, instead of watching cooking programs on T.V.
So what explains my fascination with MasterChef Australia?
A friend suggested that perhaps it is the excitement of watching people compete. But I have never been interested in competitions, not even competitive sports! And then there are lots of other cooking competitions on T.V. like Master Chef India, MasterChef USA, Top Chef etc. that I surfed through to see if they were interesting and wasn’t enthralled by any of them. In fact I found some of these shows quite off-putting!
But oddly through some of these other shows I also understood what it was about the MasterChef Australia series that I liked! It’s not about the cooking, rather it is the spirit of the show.
Overall, I think what stands out about the MasterChef Australia shows is an environment that is through and through, warm, generous and very nurturing. It is evident in how the judges deal with the contestants and in how the contestants respond to each other. The idea it seems is to acknowledge and bring out the strengths of each contestant, and egg them on not so much to outdo the others, but to reach into their own persons and individualities and strive to bring forth their very best. This is the ultimate form of competition: where the boundary is not defined by the other, but by oneself!
Whereas most other cooking competitions – pit one contestant against the other, with a cold and fiendish delight, and it’s almost like watching animals and humans battling it out for survival in a Roman arena. It creates a mean-spiritedness amongst the competitors, which is evident despite the artificial smiles and outwardly show of friendliness. More over the judges from some of the other cooking competition shows, I find are like the Roman emperors watching over the fight, often condescending, sometime patronizing (which is not very sincere) and viewing it more as an opportunity to flash their gigantic chef-egos in the faces of the struggling contestants.
Personally I think food is an expression of the spirit as much as it is of the palate. And I would much rather have the food that comes from a kitchen that is big spirited, joyful and generous!
Just this week I finished watching the Junior MasterChef Australia series where the competitors were 8 to 12 years old. I wondered about what kind of food these little kids would cook. And I was astonished!! They started off with very simple dishes and by mid-season they were cooking like pros! I could not believe that children, who we often assume not to have fully developed taste-buds yet, could cook like that. And I have to say, that the credit goes to the spirit of the show. It didn’t matter how big or small their ‘chefs’ were – if the spirit is right, it allows for growth and productivity for all people! My hats off to the producers of this show, and specially the three judges who really are the spirit of this show: Gary Mehigan, George Colombaris and Matt Preston. I will certainly be watching the coming seasons!!