We are in the eye of the storm. Masterchef Australia Season 2 finished over the weekend, Masterchef USA starts tonight. Time for the world to take a little breather.
Masterchef Australia Season 1 was the first of the new breed of Masterchef International. The UK version was popular enough to move from BBC2 to BBC1. The finale in Oz last Sunday evening? attracted anywhere from 20 to 25% of the population. The biggest non-sporting event in Australian TV history, it even forced the main election debate to be re-scheduled. Time to look at why it’s so successful, and wonder why we don’t have it here (yet).
The show runs over a 3-month period, roughly. 84 episodes, 6 nights a week. After initial application (8000 for this season), there are auditions. The first season opened with a few programmes dedicated to these, X-Factor style. Entrants get a portable cook-station, time and space to prep some “food from the heart”, then a couple of minutes to wheel in and present to the judges. You can put up a totally prepared meal, or finish in front of them if you want. If it looks edible they’ll taste it and chat to you. Winners get the first Masterchef Apron and advance to the next stage in the Masterchef Kitchens in Sydney. Just like X-Factor, you get to see losers as well as winners. The guy who travelled for days out of the bush to audition and said his favourite meat was roadkill. The suburban mums with the Sunday roast.
The Apron-Holders move to the Masterchef Kitchens in Sydney for the real competition. And I do mean move. Not content with having stolen the X-Factor format, we now add some Big Brother. They’ve tried a couple of different ways of whittling them down, but from the first few programmes we end up with the Top 24. These get the second Masterchef Apron, the one with your name on. And you give up your life for 3 months. Moving into the Masterchef House, a massive modern building overlooking the water, with a huge kitchen and dining area. Limited internet, phone and mail, little or no contact with family and friends. They never seem to go out. They cook together, eat together, read cookery books, swap recipes and techniques. The criteria for applying for Season 3 says that you must commit to being available: excluding auditions, between approximately November 2010 & July 2011 for approximately 28 weeks with a couple of productions breaks including Christmas & New Year.
6 days out of 7, black cars come and whisk them off to cook, taste, watch, learn and occasionally shop. If you believe that it all happens in RealTime (TM), the schedule is as follows:
Sunday night is the Mystery Box challenge. Limited ingredients, here, make something, chop chop. The winner gets an advantage, picking the main ingredient everyone has to use for the themed Invention Test which follows on immediately. (For example, an Indian themed dish, and the choice is goat, chicken, or pulses.)
Monday, and the worst three performers from yesterday face an elimination challenge. Black aprons are worn today, and someone goes home. It could be a taste test (identify the x-number of ingredients in this stew), a cooking challenge (follow this recipe as exactly as possible, taste and recreate this dish without a recipe), a skills test (put together a plateau de fruits de mer). They get more imaginative as the competition goes on.
Tuesday, the best performer gets to abandon the Apron and don full chef’s whites. They go head to head with a top restaurant chef, to recreate their signature dish, or something difficult from their menu. If the competitor wins a blind judging, they get an immunity pin which saves them from one elimination.
Wednesday, and the remaining competitors are divided into Blue and Red teams, with yet another Apron to wear. Off they toddle to do battle. The challenges are similar to the UK ones – bake a tea for the WI-equivalent, cater a child’s birthday party, cook in the field for the army. The winning team gets a spiffy lunch and a private workshop in a fab restaurant. The losing team put on the Black Aprons of Doom and go forward to Thursday.
Thursday is another elimination challenge, made all the more vicious as some of the best competitors could have been pushed into it by one bad performer. Someone goes home.
Friday is the relaxation at the end of the week. Two of the three judges are professional chefs, and they put on a Masterclass in the kitchen. What would we have done with the Mystery Box? How would we have tackled that challenge? One of you tried to make this, here’s the classic way to do it. Sometimes a couple of competitors go off for a private masterclass with another chef, based on interests or weaknesses identified during the week.
Saturday is Day Off, and get ready to start again.
There is one programme down the line where they allow eliminated competitors to come back and fight each other – the top three get to re-enter the competition and try for a place in the Top 10.
The final week aims to get down to 2 competitors for a Grand Finale Head-to-Head.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Season 1 is currently being shown on the Good Food cable channel in the UK. Season 2 episodes can be viewed online through Channel 10, but only if you’re in Australia or can convince them that your computer is. Otherwise your options are limited to being illicit.
The advantage to this format over the traditional UK one is that you see all the competitors, almost every day. There are little voice-overs by them, mini-interviews. During elimination challenges, they wait eagerly in the house to see who comes back and who has gone. They build relationships with each other (and Twitter followers create a few fantasy / slash ones as well). Viewers develop favourites, and ones they wish would crash and burn. It’s much more emotional.
The official website promotes this, with a Big Brother style banner of competitor portraits. They each have their own page, with a Q&A section and a fan forum. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next season – in this one some creative editing made two of the competitors look more than somewhat evil. One of them attracted a Hate Page on Facebook, with death threats. It was all very unpleasant, and the official PR commenters tried to back-pedal on it.
It makes the competition itself more engrossing. Oh no, a dessert challenge, my favourite doesn’t do desserts! Oooh look, canapes, my favourite is a brilliant presentation artist! What’s the betting that Jimmy makes a curry, Adam does something Japanese, Callum screws up the timing, Fiona makes a little cake? Claire will cry, Aaron will prance about making bizarre finger gestures, and Alvin will giggle like an insane chipmunk and say something witty.
It extends to the judges, too. In the first season, there were three judges and an MC / Hostess / GlamourPuss / Voiceover person. The two professional chef judges were George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan. Added to the mix was Melbourne-based food critic, Matt Preston. In the second season, we lost the GlamourPuss as the judges became more comfortable in their roles, and really started to let loose with their own personalities. George is small and bouncy, a sort of Greek Tigger. He looks like he belongs in the Guns of Navarone, and eats like a starving wolf. Chilli brings him out in a sweat, but he doesn’t mind if the dish tastes good. Gary is a bit more laid-back, and takes the lead role as the Host. He’s from the UK, and proud of it, bringing his Mum to one of the Masterclasses to demo a Yorkshire Pudding. If he likes your food, his whole face beams in satisfaction and his eyes twinkle. Matt? what can you say about Matt? he’s a big lad, and flamboyant with it. Crocodile high-heeled boots, always wears a silk cravat, horrific taste in pastel trousers. Knows his stuff. Again, an ex-Brit, he started off in Oz writing about Australian soaps for British trashy TV magazines. Masterchef has really kicked him into the public eye, and he’s become quite the TV personality.
They build relationships with all the contestants, have their obvious favourites and protegees, but don’t let that get in the way. They are supportive during the challenges, especially during emo crises. There is so much joy in what they do, and when someone succeeds they are the first with the hugs and the high-fives. But if you screw up they’ll make sure you know.
They are as much mentor as judge.
Then there are the Guests. The show attracts an incredibly high calibre of guest chefs and food writers, and for some bizarre reason a food stylist. Names that UK readers should recognise include Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Michel Roux Senior, Heston Blumenthal, and Martin Blunos. Some of these come as judges, some to teach, some to challenge. The most feared is Adriano Zumbo, whose patisserie creations are fiendishly difficult. The hot sugar in the croquembouche challenge in Season 1 destroyed several fingertips, and in Season 2 he gave them not just a tower of marons, but also the V8 – 8 layers of vanilla textures. Some of these are semi-official Friends of the Masterchef Kitchen. They turned up in a gang for the winner announcement in the Grand Finale, cherry-pick promising competitors as interns / apprentices, chipped in regular judgely appearances when Gary fell over in the car park and ripped his leg. Most of them have had some sort of pro relationship with at least one of the judges, but they’re also in it for themselves.
Because of the Money
There’s one good reason why we’re unlikely to get this format of Masterchef in the UK. The dosh. Masterchef Australia is on commercial TV – Channel 10, produced for them by Fremantle Media who specialise in reality TV. Masterchef USA will be on Fox, enough said.
The cost of staging it must be phenomenal. 3 professional judges, plus the guests, 2 of the judges pretty much full time for 3 months. The kitchen set, which is a permanent huge barn with a restaurant dining room, mobile kitchen workstations, coffee lounge, library, viewing balcony. Blast chillers, freezers, ovens, enough small appliances for 24 people to use whatever they want. A pantry full of food, and cash to spend on ingredients where the challenge involves shopping. The house, the cars, feeding them outside competition time and providing the ingredients for them to cook and experiment in the house. Away matches – Season 2 featured some time in Melbourne, and a trip to London and Paris. Suites at top hotels, air travel, taxis. For the London / Paris adventure, each competitor got an Amex card, which came in handy for buying truffles with.
The prize is no cheapie, either. $100,000 to start your foodie career, a guaranteed cookbook deal, and a massive PR machine. The winner from last year came back as a guest judge this year, and has popped up on TV all over the place. Even coming second – if you really deserved to get that far, you’re rewarded. Last year’s second got their own TV show almost instantly, this year’s has a paid placement in one of George’s restaurants, and received similar offers from many of the guest chefs in the show.
But if you can deliver a regular viewing figure of 10% of the population, 6 nights a week, you’re going to get sponsors coming out of your ears. And it’s not just advertising during the breaks. Coles, the supermarket chain, is a major partner. (Other partners are available, and are listed on the programme’s website.)
Imagine if Masterchef UK teamed up with Waitrose, or M&S, or Sainsburys. Supermarket provides all the ingredients, laid out in the “pantry” which looks more like a mini-store. All labelled brands – any tin that’s opened, packaging that’s ripped apart – yours. Any time the contestants shop in a supermarket, it is clearly you. You get to produce regular recipe cards, with the latest from competitors and guest chefs, tailored for your ingredients. You create a Masterchef area in the store, which features the ingredients for the recipes from the Masterclass, and anything else you can think of. You get advance warning on specialist ingredients so you don’t run out (remember Delia and the Cranberry Shortage?). As well as being plastered all over the show credits, ads, promotions, website, magazine, whatever, you also have the right to use the show logo on your own promotional material. So you can have a Masterchef area on your website, cross-referencing recipes and ingredients. Your tame chef, in this case Curtis Stone, appears regularly on the programme (admittedly in a fairly minor role).
This is SO not going to happen if Masterchef remains on the BBC. And that’s not even looking at the Telstra hubs they have to use as phones and recipe readers, the Langham hotels they stay in, the Campbells Real Stock that they all use.
And you can’t do it on the cheap, either.
When It Goes Horribly Wrong
That would be the New Zealand version. Oh dearie dearie me. Completely Made of Fail. And they’re planning a second series, which is just embarrassing. There was a Top 12, with one evicted per week – although a couple of them came back in later. The show was limited to eviction challenges and masterclasses, so it became all about the evictions and not about learning or developing. The masterclasses were basically beginner cookery shows by judge Ross Burden. (UK viewers may remember him – he was a model who entered the UK Masterchef in the early 90s, got as far as the final, and then went on to be a regular on Ready Steady Cook for several years.)
The judges were vile. With the focus on evictions rather than winners, they were keen to find fault rather than praise. Ross Burden took the Gary role, bonhomie, host, full of hail fellow well met. Unfortunately he doesn’t talk in a relaxed manner, and it sounded as if he were reading from an autocue, badly. The other pro chef was Simon Gault, who seems to be more of an Executive Chef Consultant than a hands-on foodie. According to his website, he’s “busy developing an amazing range of food products and will be kicking off with chicken, beef and vegetable stock, as well as several flavours of meat seasonings.” Yuck. Like George, he is short, plump and energetic – unfortunately he is also rude, snobbish, elitist and not at all sexy.
The food critic role went to Ray McVinnie, who is a food writer, editor and, yet again that dreaded word, stylist. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, let alone his own website, but you can get an idea at Cuisine magazine, where he is the food editor. Again, nasty nasty nasty. Whiny, face all screwed up like a bad smell, aggressively picky.
They were all about smarming over the pro guests, frightening the contestants with how important the pros were, and how tough this challenge was going to be. Twinkles of glee only really surfaced when they got rid of somebody else.
The prizes were a bit stupid too – including a car, a load of household kitchen appliances, glassware, a cuddly toy. All aimed at someone who was going to go on being a domestic cook, not launch into a foodie career.
I appreciate that NZ is not as food-centric as Oz has become, but this was awful.
Tonight we get Gordon Ramsay as the central host for the US version. It’ll premiere after his Hell’s Kitchen, which is fairly popular. Like the NZ one, it’s only going out one night a week. I haven’t seen the Norwegian version, which was on TV3 this spring, but if your Norwegian is up to it, it is available online. Promos for the French version are around, and their Twitter PR has been having weekly competitions. Rumours abound for other national versions, with claims of over 100 in the pipeline.
The Australian one is clearly the paradigm, and I’d like to see it take the plunge and develop even further. Why not a Big Brother Little Brother add-on? Not live webcams in the house or anything tacky like that, but filming them cooking, teaching each other, experimenting. Working on recipes together. Take them out on escorted restaurant trips to learn the art of criticism.Teach them how to actually write a recipe that others can follow.
My main bugbear? You have to be an Ozzie citizen or resident to apply for Season 3. Boo.